- In December, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced plans to sink $6.2 billion into a long-delayed iron ore mine in Guinea’s Simandou mountain range.
- Simandou contains the largest undeveloped high-grade iron deposits on earth, certain to be in high demand due to their suitability for low-emissions steel production.
- In the nearby Nimba mountains, another major iron deposit is moving closer to production, as a World Bank-backed project run by a subsidiary of HPX moves forward with feasibility studies.
- Both the Simandou and Nimba mountain ranges are home to critically endangered western chimpanzees, and conservationists say that mining operations there could pose a major threat to them.
In December, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced that it was set to spend $6.2 billion on mining the rich, high-grade iron ore deposits of eastern Guinea’s Simandou Mountains, with production beginning in 2025. The eye-watering figure spoke to the project’s importance: after 25 years of stop-and-start progress, if it reaches Rio Tinto’s shipping target of 60 million metric tons per year, Simandou will be one of the largest iron mines on Earth.
Rio Tinto Simfer, the miner’s joint venture with China’s Chalco Iron Ore Holdings and Guinea’s ruling military junta, is poised to reap a major windfall from the deposits, which have a rare purity grade of over 65%. That will make the ore suitable for so-called green hydrogen-based steelmaking, and ensures it will be in high demand from companies looking to move away from coal-based blast furnaces in order to reach their net-zero emissions targets.
Down the road in the nearby Nimba mountain range, another long-delayed iron mining project is slowly kicking into gear, as the Société des Mines de Fer de Guinée (SMFG), a subsidiary of U.S.-based High Power Exploration (HPX), moves forward with feasibility studies. If they reach full production, the mines at the Simandou and Nimba ranges will turn Guinea into one of the world’s top exporters of high-quality iron ore.
But conservationists say that along with the impacts on communities living near the mines, critically endangered western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in Guinea may become a casualty of the renewed iron rush. At least 136 chimpanzees live in the Guinean side of the Nimba range, which includes a portion of Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Simandou is home to more than 700 more of the great apes, and in 2021 a Singapore-based Chinese consortium that holds rights to the mining blocks adjacent to Rio Tinto’s faced an outcry after it blasted a railway tunnel underneath their habitat.
Around two-thirds of West Africa’s remaining chimpanzees live in Guinea. Now, with iron ore on the cusp of becoming the country’s leading export, and already facing pressures from the development of other mining and infrastructure projects elsewhere, trouble may lay ahead for a substantial number of them.
“Even if exploitation of [the Nimba] mine is beneficial on the one hand for Guinea, it will also have a very considerable impact on the natural and social environment, especially since there are endangered species in this area such as West African chimpanzees and Mount Nimba toads, which are on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” Abdoulaye Gonkou Bah, executive director of the Guinean environmental group Act Against Global Warming (ACOREC), told Mongabay.
Their place or mine?
After settling a dispute over the timeline and terms for getting the mine up and running, in early 2022 the Guinean junta gave Rio Tinto the green light to resume work at Simandou, where it holds two of the range’s four mining blocks. As part of the project, the company and Winning Consortium Simandou (WCS), which holds rights to the two other blocks, are building a 670-kilometer (416-mile) railway along with a modern port facility that will be used to export the ore.
Christophe Boesch, founder and president of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), said he’s worried about the impact of this infrastructure on ecologically sensitive areas along the proposed rail line as well as inside the Simandou range, including Pic de Fon Classified Forest, a nominally protected area home to threatened amphibians, birds and mammals.
“It is clear that there was an excessively rapid start of the work even before the validation of the environmental and social impact study [ESIA] by the Guinean government and we were presented with a fait accompli: the route of a railway [to Simandou] before there were concrete actions to mitigate the impacts,” he said.
He pointed, for example, to the importance of careful planning for animal crossings. For the Simandou rail line, these would need to be adapted to the needs of different animal species, including western chimpanzees, and be located where wildlife will make use of them.
In December 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that the multibillion-dollar project warrants “the closest possible scrutiny” because of the risks that it poses to the rights and environment of communities that surround the mine, as well as animal species located in the vicinity.
Jim Wormington, senior researcher and advocate at HRW’s economic justice and rights division, raised concerns around how land for the mine’s operations was obtained.
“Communities have told us that they’re not happy with the way land has been acquired for the Simandou railway and they’re not happy with the impacts of those land acquisitions on the existing fields that they have, on the local waterways which they say have been polluted from the runoff of some constructions as rain washes and erodes land into local waterways,” he told Mongabay in a call.
In response to questions by Mongabay, Rio Tinto Simfer didn’t directly address the criticisms, saying instead that it was making “significant strides in the implementation of the biodiversity mitigation hierarchy to avoid, minimize, restore and offset [its] impacts to biodiversity, including leaving a Net Positive Impact for Critical Habitat Qualifying Species (CHQS) such as the western chimpanzee.”
“We will continue prioritizing investments to support regional economic development programmes across Guinea, creating opportunities and fostering sustainable livelihood development,” a spokesperson wrote.
A World Heritage Site at risk
Further south of Simandou, Guinea’s Nimba Mountains spill out into Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire. On the Liberian side of the range, the Swedish company LAMCO once famously built a mining town that’s now occupied by Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal, which has owned an iron concession there since 2005. Exploitation of reserves on the Guinean side has been a dream of a succession of governments and corporations, albeit marred by allegations of corruption and the infrastructure challenges posed by the need to negotiate shipping access through Liberia.
Since 2019, U.S.-based HPX, which is associated with Canadian mining magnate Robert Friedland, has owned the rights to mine in Guinea’s portion of the Nimba range. In recent years, after a series of delays, HPX has been inching toward an operational phase. Now, its indirectly owned subsidiary, SMFG, which develops and operates the mine, is seeking expressions of interest from contractors to start its operations.
SMFG told Mongabay that it wanted to extract about 450 million metric tons of iron ore from the Nimba range over 15 to 25 years — a haul that could be worth tens of billions of dollars. To get there, though, it intends to start gradually.
“Rather than proceed with developing the full mining project, SMFG intends to start with small-scale production at just one of the ore deposits — known as Chateau,” Jamison Suter, at the time interim director for environmental and social responsibility at SMFG, wrote in an email to Mongabay.
HPX’s chief executive officer, Bronwyn Barnes, confirmed that SMFG would commence the production of 2 million metric tons per year in 2024. “Starting with a smaller scale project will provide us the opportunity to demonstrate the credentials of the project and its planned export via Liberia,” she said in an email to Mongabay. “This would also introduce a staged development timeline into the project, which would assist the company to ensure any potential environment impacts are carefully managed.”
According to reports, Robert Friedland has been pitching Liberia’s president-elect, Joseph Boakai, on the merits of allowing ore from the Guinean side to be exported from Liberian ports via an existing railway line built by ArcelorMittal. (Boakai takes office on Jan. 22.)
But conservationists have been raising the alarm over the project’s environmental costs. The proposed mining site lies near Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, a 17,540-hectare (43,342-acre) UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger that straddles the border region between Guinea, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.
According to the authors of a paper published in March 2023 in Conservation Science and Practice, there are at least 136 western chimpanzees in the Guinean Nimba region, split into four communities. Iron mining at Nimba could pose a substantial threat to these chimps if it affects their movement, or if habitat loss and disturbances reduce their access to areas suitable for food and nesting.
“Such range shifts can readily expose chimpanzees to inter-community lethal aggression and enhance intra- and inter-community competition for food, thereby increasing individual stress levels and reducing immune system resistance and reproductive rates,” the paper’s authors wrote.
Oua Justin Bilivogui, director-general of the Guinean government-run Center for the Environmental Management of Mount Nimba and Simandou (CEGENS), said the Nimba project’s developers would have to satisfy conservation requirements before extracting ore from the range, including the realization of a high-level environmental impact study.
“If the exploitation is to take place, I believe that there are prerequisites to be met with UNESCO,” he noted. Whether such prerequisites have been met, however, remains unclear.
Both Suter and Barnes told Mongabay that SFMG was aware of the Nimba range’s chimpanzees and had backed, among others, the Conservation Science and Practice study. The company also plans to support CEGENS, which administers the reserve. By helping CEGENS strengthen law enforcement and reduce poaching in the Nimba area, SMFG said it hopes the chimpanzees will have a wider range of movement and thus be able to avoid the impacts of iron mining.
“Based on tentative indications, chimpanzees appear to avoid areas with poaching. Thus, if poaching can be reduced significantly, it will ‘un-sterilize’ areas around the mountains that chimpanzees presently avoid,” Suter said.
Genevieve Campbell, lead of the ARRC Task Force — part of the IUCN’s Primate Specialist Group that addresses the impacts of extractive activities on apes — expressed skepticism about the immediate impact of antipoaching efforts. “First, manage your impact, and then maybe you can try to reduce the hunting pressure,” she said in a call with Mongabay.
The conservation organization Re:wild said it expects new roads and heavy truck traffic that would accompany mining operations to force chimpanzees to retreat from their current homes and begin ranging in the lowlands, thereby exposing themselves to hunting and snares.
Campbell said internal migration by Guineans looking for work at the mine would likely be another source of ecological pressure.
“For every mine, there’s a town that is created,” she said. As a consequence, “chimpanzees can be pushed into the territory of other chimpanzees, and … as they defend their territory, it can lead to the death of individuals.”
Campbell also told Mongabay that the ARRC Task Force, which advises companies like SMFG, refused requests from the Nimba project’s stakeholders to help them comply with international environmental standards due to the task force’s concerns about the location’s proximity to chimpanzee populations.
“We don’t want this project to go ahead. There is a lot of iron in Guinea, so there are many iron mining permits … but there is only one World Heritage Site,” she said, adding that, “in many cases, when we decline to engage, it sends some sort of red flag to lenders.”
The task force also stopped providing advice to Rio Tinto for the Simandou project in 2023.
Green light from the World Bank
But the task force’s concerns over the potential ecological impacts of the Nimba project haven’t discouraged the World Bank’s foreign investment arm, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), from insuring it. In 2021, MIGA offered guarantees of up to $130.5 million for investments into the pre-construction studies, including environmental and social impact assessments covering the mine and development of an access route to it via Liberia.
“Guinea is a low-income country where 44% of the population lives below the national poverty line,” a spokesperson for MIGA wrote to Mongabay, adding that the sustainable development of Guinea’s mining industry, largely driven by foreign investments, is “key to diversified economic growth” in the country.
Boesch of WCF told Mongabay that the World Bank needs to be stricter with the application of its investment standards. In its project documents, MIGA classified its Nimba grant as a “Category A” project, meaning it could have “potentially significant” social and environmental impacts. While claiming that its grant would be limited to financing pre-mining studies with few immediate consequences for biodiversity, the bank acknowledged that “studies to date indicate that the project area will be considered critical habitat” for chimpanzees and other threatened species.
“I think that we have every right to be very critical,” Boesch said, citing “an imperative need for the World Bank and its various branches to be much more consistent and systematic in the application of its own performance standards.”
SMFG now needs to submit a revised version of its ESIA to the Guinean government for an assessment of the new scope of the project. MIGA’s spokesperson told Mongabay that the bank would then determine whether its environmental and social performance standards would permit it to offer further support, with potential impacts on chimpanzees being considered as “a key consideration.”
“MIGA applies the environmental and social performance standards to all projects that it guarantees, regardless of development impact,” the spokesperson said. “The objective of the ESIA is to determine whether it is possible to develop the project in line with the performance standards.”
But whatever MIGA decides, Campbell said that if SMFG’s project were to go ahead, Nimba’s protected site and its chimpanzees will almost certainly pay a cost.
“Just the fact that they are ‘within’ a World Heritage Site by default means that they’re not following best practice,” she said. “They can do whatever they want … the fact is that some sites are off-limits.”
Banner image: Western Chimpanzee in Guinea. Image by Aboubacarkhoraa via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Koops, K., Humle, T., Frandsen, P., Fitzgerald, M., D’Auvergne, L., Jackson, H. A., … Hvilsom, C. (2023). Genetics as a novel tool in mining impact assessment and biomonitoring of critically endangered western chimpanzees in the Nimba Mountains, Guinea. Conservation Science and Practice, 5(4). doi:10.1111/csp2.12898
Abdoulaye Sylla contributed to this report from Guinea.