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Madagascar shuts down ‘illegal’ gold mine but activists remain in legal limbo

Local people pan for gold in 2017 near the gold dredger belonging to Gianna Mac Lai Sime in the Isaka River in southeastern Madagascar. The Malagasy government recently shut down the dredge over serious environmental violations and widespread public opposition. Image courtesy of CRAAD-OI.

  • Earlier this month, Madagascar’s government suspended a controversial gold-mining operation in Vohilava commune in the country’s southeast.
  • The project, a dredging operation in the Isaka River that allegedly uses mercury to separate gold from ore, has caused notable damage to the river, local economy, and public health, prompting near-unanimous local opposition.
  • A demonstration in September against the mine prompted a visit by officials that led to the mine’s suspension.
  • However, prosecutors are investigating six people for involvement in the demonstration, including one who was previously jailed as a result of his opposition to the mining project.

Earlier this month, Madagascar’s government suspended a controversial gold-mining operation in Vohilava commune in the country’s southeast. Many local people welcomed the news, which comes after years of tension over the project’s environmental and economic impact and a recent demonstration against it.

In early September, local people who oppose the project destroyed company equipment, throwing the engine of a dredger into the river and dumping a 250-liter (66-gallon) barrel of diesel fuel. After the incident, prosecutors targeted six local people, including Raleva Rajoany, a 63-year-old farmer and activist who was previously jailed as a result of his opposition to the project. This time, prosecutors have not jailed or formally charged Rajoany or the five others, but the investigation remains open.

And yet, in recent weeks, as the criminal case has unfolded, the legal basis for the mining project has unraveled. A delegation of officials from several government ministries visited the mining site in late September and found that the company was not following environmental regulations. This led the National Office for the Environment (ONE) to suspend the company’s environmental permit on Oct. 9. Two days later, President Andry Rajoelina gave a speech that seemed to confirm the shuttering of the mine; he indicated that the operation had been “illegal.”

“I was very, very delighted when I heard the news announced by the president,” Rajoany told Mongabay.

Even so, with the criminal case still open, he said his loved ones remain concerned for his well-being. “My family is afraid of what is going on,” he said. “My children said to me to keep silent. [But] this is a battle for my homeland and my children. Whatever the situation, I’m ready to face any challenges.”

Raleva just before he was taken away by the authorities on September 27 after publicly questioning a gold mining project near his village, Vohilava. His full name is Rajoany, but everyone calls him Raleva. Photo by Anonymous.
Raleva Rajoany just before his 2017 arrest. Image by Anonymous.

Disproportionate impact

By international standards, the gold-mining operation, which belongs to a Malagasy woman of Chinese descent named Gianna Mac Lai Sime, is small. It began dredging the Isaka River in Vohilava in 2016. On site, it has usually had only one ramshackle dredge and a few workers, most of them Chinese. Yet despite its modest size, the operation has caused notable environmental damage, according to local people and government regulators.

“The land is destroyed, the environment is polluted, the people are sick,” Marie Claire Razafindravelo, Vohilava’s mayor and one of the six people now under prosecutorial scrutiny, told Kolo TV, a Malagasy station that accompanied the government delegation to Vohilava last month and produced a special about the mining project’s impact. Vohilava is a rural commune with more than a dozen villages and a population of more than 20,000.

The operation failed to uphold a number of environmental standards, according to Jean Roger Rakotoarijaona, the ONE’s director of environmental integration, who was part of the delegation. He sent a statement to Mongabay that outlines the regulatory violations.

The operation did not constrain its work to the nine plots in the interior of the river that it was authorized to excavate. Instead, it mined up to the riverbanks and beyond, in some cases as far as 70 meters (about 230 feet) past the original bank, destroying areas of banana and sweet potato cultivation, the ONE statement says.

The mining damaged the Isaka River’s banks and riverbed, changing its course, as well as its water quality. The operation dumped mining tailings directly into the river, leaving large piles of rubble, gravel and sand, Rakotoarijaona told Mongabay; it also failed to repair damage, as required by law.

“We can all see the pollution of the water,” Rakotoarijaona told Kolo TV, gesturing at the Isaka River behind him.

Locally, opposition to the mining project is nearly unanimous. In the five affected villages along the river, everyone opposes it, Rajoany said. The delegation noted the lack of support. “[E]veryone who spoke called for a total halt to the project,” Rakotoarijaona wrote in the ONE statement.

In addition to environmental damage, villagers object to what they perceive as the economic injustice of the operation. MLSG’s mechanized dredging has scooped up precious resources that would otherwise be theirs. They have long panned the Isaka River for gold — a crucial way to augment incomes for those leading an otherwise hardscrabble farming life.

“Apart from farming, gold has remained one important source of income for me. I exploited gold between 1985 and 2018. Money from gold allowed me to finance the schooling of children, buy clothes for my family, invest in agriculture, and feed my family,” Rajoany said.

Mongabay could not reach representatives of Sime’s operation for comment. Timothée Andriamihitsakisa, a powerful local official known as the chef de district, who supports the operation, declined to comment for the record when Mongabay reached him by phone.

The president’s office did not respond to a question about the meaning of the president’s speech on Oct. 11, which was imprecisely worded but which Malagasy journalists reported as announcing a suspension of the mining project in Vohilava.

It is not clear why the government waited until the last month to act. Local people and civil society groups had publicly voiced their concerns about Sime’s operation for years, including at least one official complaint to the mining ministry. Louis de Gonzague Razafimanandraibe, the president of Tafo Mihaavo, a civil society group, told Mongabay that in February 2019 he met with Fidiniavo Ravokatra, the minister of mines, to discuss the problems the operation was causing in Vohilava. The mining ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Map shows the location of Vohilava, Madagascar, Raleva's village. Map courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows the location of Vohilava, Madagascar. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Mercury rising?

The public health impact of the gold dredging operation has also caused great concern. Local people use the river water for drinking and farming, Rajoany said. Water pollution from the mine has caused an uptick in illness, including skin lesions and vomiting blood among people who pan for gold, Lalao Noromboahangy, a nurse who has worked in the local health clinic since 2007, told Kolo TV.

Rajoany and other local people say that the operation uses mercury to separate gold from other material in ore — a hazardous technique that is common in the Global South but that has not historically been used in Madagascar. Mercury from gold mining can pollute local air and water; it builds up through the food chain and can make eating fish dangerous. Mercury ingestion leads to neurological disorders, intellectual disability, kidney dysfunction and other severe health issues, according to the World Heath Organization. Communities downstream of mercury-dependent gold-mining operations are at particular risk.

After hearing local peoples’ complaints, the ONE and the National Center for Environmental Research sent a team to Vohilava early this month to test the water for mercury; their findings will be available in a few weeks, Rakotoarijaona said. Gold mining can also release toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and arsenic, so the team tested for these, as well.

Villagers elsewhere in Madagascar have also accused Chinese-run gold-dredging operations of using mercury. In August 2019, the mining ministry shut down two such operations in northern Madagascar, citing mercury use as a reason in the first case.

Some observers are worried that mercury-based techniques will spread to small-scale miners who work with rudimentary tools in Madagascar. However, there is no evidence that this has happened, according to Brian Ikaika Klein, a political ecologist at the University of Michigan who studies small-scale mining in Madagascar. He said some authorities and conservation actors in Madagascar use the “specter” of mercury to vilify small-scale miners and delegitimize their livelihoods.

For Madagascar’s government, the modest crackdown on mechanized gold mining appears to be aimed at improving not just environmental health but also transparency and economic stability. Officially, only 2.4 metric tons (about 2.6 tons) of gold was exported from the country last year, but the real figure is believed to be 20 metric tons. The central bank has formed a partnership with the mining ministry and moved to increase its gold reserves, calling for mining operations in Madagascar to sell to the bank.

A gold dredge, owned by the Mac Lai Sima Gianna company, dumping tailings into the Itsaka River near the village of Vohilava in southeast Madagascar earlier this month. Much of the region depends on the river for fresh water. Photo courtesy of Anonymous.
A gold dredger owned by Gianna Mac Lai Sime dumping tailings into the Isaka River near the village of Vohilava in southeast Madagascar in 2017. Image courtesy of CRAAD-OI.

The fate of the suspects

The attack on the dredging operation early last month was undertaken by a crowd of local people who oppose the project, according to Rajoany, who says he was not present that day. The crowd destroyed the equipment in front of six gendarmes, or police officers, who were on site, he said.

In 2017, Rajoany was prosecuted for his own small act of opposition to the Sime’s operation: demanding to see its permits during a public meeting. He had reason to make the demand: an environmental permit would not be issued until several weeks later, according to the ONE. However, Andriamihitsakisa, the chef de district, supported the project, and the authorities jailed Rajoany for more than three weeks. A court convicted him of “usurpation of title,” and gave him a suspended sentence. In 2018, an appeals court upheld the conviction. Civil society groups decried the courts’ rulings, arguing that the charge was bogus, and awarded Rajoany with a “citizen courage” award.

In the current case, investigators in the district capital of Mananjary have identified six suspects. At an arraignment hearing on Oct. 5, they listed the charges: destruction of the property of others, violence, and assault. Rajoany and Razafindravelo, the Vohilava mayor, have also been cited for “incitement to revolt.”

It remains unclear whether the government shutdown of the dredging operation will affect these criminal cases. Civil society groups have called for the cases to be closed.

Civil society groups are also watching developments in Vohilava closely. In a joint press release, two groups applauded the president’s decision to suspend the project but also called for reparations for affected communities and sanctions for the company.

For now, Sime’s equipment remains in Vohilava, according to parliamentarian Charlot Mamihaja, who represents the district of Mananjary and opposes the mining project. He does not want to see the mining activities restart. “Our next battle is to have these installations totally dismantled,” he told Mongabay.

Banner image: Local people pan for gold in 2017 near the gold dredger belonging to Gianna Mac Lai Sime in the Isaka River in southeastern Madagascar. The Malagasy government recently shut down the operation over serious environmental violations and widespread public opposition. Image courtesy of CRAAD-OI. 

Additional reporting by Rivonala Razafison.

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