An aluminum mine is a good investment

Guinea: Booming bauxite mining is life-threatening

Guinea's expanding bauxite industry threatens the livelihoods of thousands of local residents, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Bauxite mining traditionally destroys agricultural areas, damages water sources and buries houses and trees in dust.

The 146-page report "What Do We Get Out of It ?: The Human Rights Impact of Bauxite Mining in Guinea" is dedicated to two mining projects, from the two largest bauxite producers in Guinea in 2017: La Société Minière de Boké (SMB), a joint venture of, among others, the world's largest aluminum producer, the China Hongqiao Group, which has grown extremely rapidly since it was founded in 2015; and La Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), a decade-old company owned by transnational corporations Alcoa and Rio Tinto. After making Guinea the third largest exporter of bauxite, the government must take immediate action to better regulate businesses and protect the population.

"Unless properly regulated, bauxite mining threatens to destroy the lifestyles and livelihoods of dozens of communities that live in close proximity to the mining sites," said Jim Wormington, West Africa expert at Human Rights Watch. "The Guinean government has too often given the growth of the bauxite sector priority over the protection of the environment and human rights."

Guinea has numerous natural resources, including the world's largest deposit of bauxite. Nevertheless, the country is one of the poorest in the world. On the world market, the demand for Guinean bauxite has increased in recent years, as other countries, in particular Indonesia and Malaysia, have banned exports, in the latter case mainly because of the very environmentally harmful mining. Today, Guinea is the largest exporter of bauxite to China, the world's largest aluminum producer. Several new Guinean bauxite mining projects are currently preparing for export, so there is nothing to suggest that the boom could slow down.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 300 people in 30 bauxite-mining villages in the Boké region, the center of the boom, as well as dozens of government officials, mining companies, civil society groups, environmental scientists and health professionals.

Dozens of farmers report how mining companies benefit from government failure to enforce land rights. They exploit traditional agricultural land without compensating the communities who could have farmed this land for years to come. In 2011, the government passed a mining law that stipulates that standards for land-grab compensation must be established in order to better protect farmers' rights. To date, the government has not issued a corresponding regulation.

“They have expanded into our fields, into exactly the areas that we need to grow food,” reports a community leader from Boundou Waadé, a village surrounded by five CBG mines. "In the meantime they have taken a lot of our fertile land from us."

In fact, companies pay compensations that, in the short term, are sometimes perceived as unexpected gifts. However, neither the government nor the companies are training farmers on how to reinvest the money. “I used the money from the company to send my two sons to Europe [via the North African migration route],” says one father. "But I haven't heard from you since you arrived in Libya."

Although women also work in agriculture, men who are considered to be family or community leaders receive the majority of the compensation. “Our husbands only give us what they want, although what we have earned with our land has always benefited everyone,” says one woman. While some men are hired by the mining companies to make up for land loss, few jobs are open to women. Of the more than 7,600 people employed by SMB in September 2018, only 274 were women.

Countless residents say that the water level has fallen due to the bauxite mining and that the water quality of rivers, streams and wells has deteriorated. This threatens the right to drinking water for thousands of people. In some communities near SMB mines, natural water sources have been so badly damaged that residents have long been dependent on water supplies from SMB. "On some days the water in the tanker is dirty," said a community leader. "Then we have to keep the clean water we have and wait for the next delivery."

In addition, according to dozens of residents, the dust that is produced during the mining and transport of bauxite affects everyday life: red dust covers villages, houses and cultivated areas. Many suspect that this is already leading to respiratory diseases and worry about the long-term health consequences.

The government of Guinea stressed in a letter sent to Human Rights Watch in May 2018 that it only approves mining projects that meet environmental and social standards. In addition, the government is using its state power in full to ensure that Guinean mining laws are complied with and to monitor the activities of the companies.

Government institutions have had more capacity to oversee mining in recent years, but they still lack the manpower, resources and political interest in overseeing the rapidly expanding sector. "We are a poor country, so we need work for our young people and schools for our children," said Seyoud Barry Sidibé, Secretary General of the Guinean Ministry of the Environment. "On the one hand, some companies do not adhere to environmental and social standards; on the other hand, it is not easy to simply close them."

In meetings with and in letters to Human Rights Watch, mining companies emphasized their efforts to promote local development and mitigate the negative effects of their activities. In a letter from September 2018, SMB underlined that “respect for human rights is at the core of our values” and commented extensively on the findings of the report. CBG also responded to this in detail, emphasizing that the company has improved its approach to the environment and social issues since it received a loan from the World Bank in 2016.

The government's ability to oversee the mining industry and protect local residents must keep pace with the bauxite boom in Guinea. While the government is soliciting investments, it should also penalize, pause or close mining projects if the responsible companies violate the environmental, social and human rights standards enshrined in Guinean laws and international law to a large extent or permanently.

"Guinea's bauxite sector will continue to grow over the next few years," said Wormington. "If this is to be a blessing and not a curse, the government must ensure that the population, and especially the people who live near the mining areas, benefit from the massive growth of the industry instead of falling victim to it."