Did one of the largest mining companies in the world make good on its promise to protect the environment as it extracted precious minerals from one of the poorest countries in the world? If you’re looking for the answer, the title of an article in the July issue of Scientific American should give it away: “Broken Promises.”
In it, Rowan Moore Gerety tells of how the London-headquartered mining giant Rio Tinto, a Fortune 500 company, came to make that promise in seeking ilmenite in Madagascar, and then to renege on it. The story, born out of Moore’s reporting for Mongabay in Madagascar, tries to answer a more essential question: Can a company really do good, in this case, environmental good, even at a cost? And the equally vexing question of whether conservationists and company representatives can ever see eye to eye — at least long enough for such an initiative to make headway?
In 2004, despite having earned “a reputation as an unscrupulous actor in a heavily polluting industry,” as Gerety writes, Rio Tinto committed not just to protect but to “improve” the environment at its mining sites in ecologically sensitive areas around the world. The company called its strategy net positive impact (NPI). The site where it was opening the ilmenite mine on the southeastern tip of Madagascar is a gravely threatened coastal forest that’s home to unique species found nowhere else on the planet. It seemed like a good place to start.
The start indeed was good. Rio Tinto sought and received the help of conservationists and researchers in Madagascar. They signed up with the hope of making it work. A biodiversity committee was set up. The mining behemoth and its local subsidiary, QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), invested in studying and assessing the site, its vulnerabilities and riches, and what was at stake. Among other measures, the company pledged to avoid disturbing high-quality forests, to restore forests it did clear, and to pay to conserve forests offsite as compensation for the damage it did cause.
A little more than a decade later, however, the initiative was dead. Facing financial headwinds and falling behind on its pledges, Rio Tinto abandoned the NPI strategy in 2016 in favor of a nebulous policy of “minimizing residual impact.” The members of the biodiversity committee all resigned. What happened in between makes for an insightful tale told masterfully by Gerety.
It also holds important lessons: for one, limited government oversight makes everything more difficult. As Jocelyn Rakotomalala, who runs a local NGO that collaborated with QMM on social and community projects, says in the story: “Mining companies could conserve more if only the state were more demanding.”
To be sure, Rio Tinto and QMM do maintain ongoing environmental programs. And the mine isn’t the only threat to the area’s forests. “Mine or no mine, charcoal making and farming will soon take over what little forest remains,” Gerety writes. “Yet there can be no doubt that the mining is taking a grave toll — not only on forests and wildlife but on people.”
Gerety reports that local residents complain the mine has curtailed wetlands that supply a reed they weave as a source of income, and that it did not compensate them for lost farmland in a timely fashion. Moreover, the mine also recently acknowledged breaching an important wetland, raising concerns that it could contaminate a lake that local people use for drinking water with radionuclide-enriched tailings.
Despite the disappointments on the ground and dashed hopes that Rio Tinto’s lofty pledges would spark a trend of environmental commitments in the mining industry, some conservationists who had advised the mine and quit said they would do it all over. One even signed back up to serve on the mine’s new biodiversity and natural resources management committee, according to Gerety. The reason? Thanks to their efforts, the mine has had less of an impact than it would otherwise likely have had.