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Rio Tinto Simandou: Exporting Iron Mountains (Part 1 of 2)

The Simandou Mountain Range in south-eastern Guinea has one of the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposit. This biodiversity hotspot is forecast to produce 95 million tonnes of iron ore for export annually, potentially doubling the GDP of the Republic of Guinea. Wow! Ninety-five million tonnes of high-grade iron ore has a volume of over 18 million...

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The Simandou Mountain Range in south-eastern Guinea has one of the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposit. This biodiversity hotspot is forecast to produce 95 million tonnes of iron ore for export annually, potentially doubling the GDP of the Republic of Guinea. Wow! Ninety-five million tonnes of high-grade iron ore has a volume of over 18 million cubic meters. This is equivalent to almost 7 times the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt) and 18 Empire State Buildings (New York, USA). Billions of tons of rock and soil will be removed or washed away from the ridge top of the Simandou Mountains forever altering their form and function. Africa’s largest ever mining development will make Rio Tinto the largest iron ore producer in the world by exporting an estimated 2.25 billion tonnes of iron ore from the top ridge of an important West African mountain range…

West African chimpanzees. (Steve Boyes)
(Steve Boyes)

Imagine living near an ancient forest inhabited by Endangered West African chimpanzees… The last viable population of this great ape in the Konyan highlands will disappear unless a concerted effort is made to protect them. Other endangered and endemic species like the Nimba otter shrew, Diana monkey, red colobus monkey, and a small frog with a restricted distributional range, Hylarana fonensis, also risk losing one of their last-remaining “forest refugia in the Upper Guinea forests set along the remote Simandou Mountains. Several near-endemic species like the Timneh grey parrot and pygmy hippopotamus are already gone due to habitat loss, poaching, and wildlife trade over many decades. There is no disputing the clear conservation and heritage value of the Simandou Mountains. Are local communities being compensated for the threat posed by mining to their ancestral home and heritage? An open pit iron ore mine above these relict Upper Guinea forests, as well as the accompanying influx of over 100,000 mineworkers, farmers, consultants, foresters, engineers, service providers, loggers, government officials, wildlife traders, law enforcement officers and entrepreneurs, needs to be approached with extreme caution.

Mount Nimba is a warning… The Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site is threatened by nearby (high-impact) open pit mining operations. Like Mount Nimba, the Simandou Mountains are recognised as unique to the region and keystone to regional biodiversity conservation. In the absence of mining these amaizing mountains should be considered a conservation priority with formal protection, new protected areas, and dossiers submitted for UNESCO World Heritage Listing.

Both Simandou and Nimba are “mountains of iron” that must face massive “greenfield” iron ore mining developments spurred on by global demand and the debt-burden of the world’s most undeveloped and poverty-stricken region.

In 2006, the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report ranked Guinea at 160 out of 177 countries when assessing life expectancy (53.9 years), adult literacy (41 percent), student enrolment, and standard of living. Three of Guinea’s neighbors were ranked at the bottom with Mali coming in at 175, Sierra Leone at 176, and Niger coming last at 177. Guinea lies in a forgotten, broken corner of the world that needs to be treated with the utmost care. Undertaking the world’s largest privately-funded mining development in this part of West Africa should not be taken lightly and a re-assessment of the decision to mine the Simandou Mountains right now is necessary.

 (Google Earth screenshot 2013)
Location of the old Lamco iron ore mining site that was exploited in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and gives an idea of the scale of open pit iron ore mines. BHP Billiton is pulling out of the Mt Nimba Iron Ore Project in SE Guinea. Tata Steel have agreed not to mine the Mt Nimba World Heritage Site. (Google Earth screenshot 2013)
Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

How to excavate and export a “mountain of iron”?

In 2012, Rio Tinto estimated that they need 20 construction camps each accommodating up to 3,500 workers, 1,000km of access roads, 130km of national road upgrades, and two airport upgrades (Beyla and Faranah) just to support the building and set up of the Simandou mine. Almost 8,000 hectares of land will be required for temporary occupation during the construction phase, and another 2,800 hectares for permanent acquisition. Rio Tinto estimated that they would need to bring in a whopping 400 million litres of diesel every year just to support mining operations, as well as invest in a hydro-electric dam somewhere nearby to generate the necessary power.

(Steve Boyes)

An estimated 15 small villages, 270 dwellings, and up to 3,000 local community members will be displaced by the railway development to get iron ore to port. This railway will be 650km long, have 34 bridges, and 21km of tunnels. Another 580 settlements were identified to be at risk of sound and air pollution impacting on quality of life.The iron ore going to port will fill an amazing 10 trains a day each comprising a staggering 230 wagons. Gargantuan 250,000 tonne (deadweight) supertankers designed to carry ore will be used to export Simandou iron to foreign processing plants and steel mills. In addition, the mining development, railway and road network is expected to bring an additional 110,000 people into the Konyan highlands.

The description “large-scale” just doesn’t quite capture it…

Heritage rights and the decision to destroy the Simandou Mountains

Local communities are going to get far more than they bargained for and their long-standing traditions and cultural heritage is under threat. Historians are only now beginning to record the verbal history and traditional beliefs of these remote villages in the foothills of the Simandou Mountains. There is a lot more at stake than Guinea’s world-class natural heritage with academics and historians warning that they will lose important verbal records of the great West African kingdoms and their first interactions with European explorers, merchants and armed forces going back over 600 years.

The Republic of Guinea and local communities with heritage rights to the land are sacrificing a lot for Rio Tinto’s Simandou Project and need to be compensated generously. Their lives are just about to be turned upside down, their hillsides torn up, and mountain stolen. They were never going to be the primary benefactors of what will be Africa’s largest mining development. These villages and communities should, by all rights, become one of the wealthiest landowners in the world. South Africa’s richest tribe, the Royal Bafokeng tribe in the North-West Province, earn billions of dollars from royalties from the world’s largest platinum mines. the Royal Bafokeng have funnelled earnings from its platinum mining company into a sovereign wealth fund to benefit local community by building schools, clinics, roads, bridges, sporting stadiums, etc. The lesson learnt time-and-time-again around the world is that 50% local ownership and an organisational focus on community upliftment and shared benefit are the only route to long-term sustainability and profitability. This particularly true for Africa right now. For example, the South African Rand has collapsed predominantly due to mine strikes, while the Bafokeng platinum mines have remained peaceful and enjoyed uninterrupted production.

“Must provision…” African paradise flycatchers are relatively common residents in SubSaharan Africa , preferring open forests and savanna. (Chris Krog)

There is no doubt. Removing over 2.25 billion tonnes of iron ore from massive open pit mines on the ridge top of an important West African mountain range will destroy and degrade natural habitat (specifically forests, rivers and wetlands), alter hydrology and micro-climate, pollute surface- and groundwater, overwhelm local communities, and threaten local wildlife and forest products (e.g. timber, building materials and medicinal plants). Massive rock crushers fed by conventional ground-based conveyor systems and waste water will spread the innate environmental impacts of open pit mining operations.

The influx of an estimated 110,000 immigrants will put further pressure on the remaining indigenous habitat, and threaten the valuable cultural heritage and intact verbal history maintained by these remote traditional villages. Through all the upheaval across West Africa over the last few centuries these villages have protected their traditions and elders can recite their verbal history, which is only now being documented. Do local communities and village leaders want to pull the trigger on the Simandou Mountain Range? It appears President Alpha Condé and his advisors are rushing into the Simandou Project as quick fix for Guinea’s international debt and weak economy. What brings a developing nation to the point at which they need to sell a mountain range and export the ridge top to China?

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Last year, an esteemed colleague that has worked in south-eastern Guinea for decades asked me to investigate the threat posed by the Simandou Iron Ore Project to 50-100 West African chimpanzees, four Endangered monkey species, local wildlife, and the traditional villages scattered across the Konyan highlands. We were then provided reports, commentary, minutes and GIS overlays detailing how mining operations would overlap with and threaten home ranges (including established nesting areas) of the resident chimpanzee population (see maps provided by Rio Tinto below). Biodiversity consultants and experts that worked on the Simandou Project and similar mining developments in south-eastern Guinea were contacted for their insights into the project. All reported that chimpanzee populations were in decline and intervention was necessary. The Endangered red colobus and Diana monkey are just hanging on with few sightings and are expected to disappear in the near future (see maps below).

Every respondent reiterated that Guinea needs to conduct long-term inventories of biological and natural resources. There are treasures hidden in those remote forests that we have not begun to imagine. Alarm bells were ringing…

Chimpanzee simandou2012 copy 3
Distribution of chimpanzee survey in the Pic de Fon Classified Forest. (Rio Tinto Simandou)
Colobus simandou copy 2
Known records and potential distribution (based on known habitat associations and altitudinal range) of King colobus in Pic de Fon Classified Forest. (Rio Tinto Simandou)
Diana simandou copy 2
Known records and potential distribution (based on known habitat associations and altitudinal range) of Diana Monkey in Pic de Fon Classified forest. (Rio Tinto Simandou)
Michele Nel
Swallow-tailed bee-eaters sitting together in the morning sun. Warming up can be essential in winter… (Michele Nel)

As part of the “Social and Environmental Impact Assessment” (SEIA) process in 2008 Rio Tinto compared the Pic de Fon Forêt Classée (“Classified Forest”) with three similar classified forests in south-eastern Guinea. The purpose was to “place its (Pic de Fon) importance in a regional context” and judge the relative “value” of the Upper Guinea forests and wildlife populations on top of and adjacent to the Simandou ore body. Rio Tinto are looking for suitable biodiversity offsets by looking for the same Endangered and endemic species in other classified forests and protected areas. These comparisons and this process of justification are an inditement of our modern society. Over 95% of the Upper Guinea forests are already gone and our leaders have decided to build Africa’s largest mine in one of the last-remaining protected patches…? Is the loss of Pic de Fon insignificant if there are three other similar forests remaining in south-eastern Guinea? What was the decision-making system that justified Simandou as a mining prospect?

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Rio Tinto and Guinea’s government made the decision to mine Pic de Fon years ago. First you need to demonstrate that the iron ore is of the highest grade and worth exploiting. Then you measure the size of the ore body and start calculating its value. This big number gets you the first investment and funds troubleshooting all restrictions that arise. Next invest millions of dollars in biodiversity experts, social scientists, environmental consultants, and time-consuming stakeholder meetings to report the expenditure of millions on the SEIA process.

Rio Tinto are a world leader in environmental management and do their best to involve the best people with the best intentions in the development of comprehensive environmental, social and biodiversity management plans that support offsets that guarantee “Net Positive Impact”. Rio Tinto has done everything expected of them up until this point and must now be brave enough to take a risk and invest upfront in the necessary offsets and conservation actions. Big “greenfield” mining developments need big, risk-taking investors lured in by huge potential profits and booming emerging markets for raw materials like iron ore.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

The well-being of West African chimpanzees or the forests they depend upon is of no concern to an investor in Tokyo or New York. Managing risk posed by Endangered West African chimpanzees or an endemic frog to the future of their investment is, however, of great interest and could derail the investment. So, we find ourselves in a situation where mining and resource companies are doing “everything expected of them” by funding comprehensive biodiversity, social and environmental surveys, but are then restricting access to this information until they are sure that it poses no threat to mining operations (e.g. halt extraction from part of the ore body) or further investment in the project. SEIA reports have become a risk management tool used by mining companies as part of the due diligence process before investment. There is very little transparency with the entire SEIA process funded by mining companies or the World Bank, both of which have special interests. We need an independent “clearing house” at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that is involved throughout the SEIA process and focusses on large “greenfield” mining developments in developing countries.

The concept of “Net Positive Impact” after mine closure is only the starting point for the global mining industry as best practices, transparency, and sustainable development become a necessity on a planet that cannot sustain more profit-generating pollution, land degradation, exploitation, short-cuts, quick fixes, and environmental mismanagement. There are other even more profitable ways to generate wealth.

Humankind’s greatest regret next century will be the choices we made at the beginning of this century.

In 100 years time, the achievements of a society, country, commonwealth, empire or union will be measured by the extent and condition of its protected areas, remaining wilderness, and natural, living landscapes.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

From all appearances decisions were being made by Rio Tinto executives in 2009 that threatened biodiversity conservation objectives, ignoring provisions of their new 2012 global report entitled “Rio Tinto and Biodiversity: Working towards Net Positive Impact”. The argument of the executives was that the disturbance caused by mining operations and immigration could be so significant that local biodiversity conservation efforts did not stand a chance anyway, putting forward that “permanent sterilisation” be considered as a preferential option.

One of the biodiversity consultants quipped that it may not be “preferential” to the chimpanzees that were displaced into unsuitable habitat or destroyed, if mine tenure was cut short…

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

Rapid biodiversity assessments need to be supported by long-term studies and survey work by local scientist and conservationists. West Africa’s Upper Guinea forests require urgent conservation investment through community-based forest restoration projects, ecotourism development, protection and better management of formally-protected primary forests, and child education and awareness programs. Somewhat revived carbon markets are looking for carbon deals linked to large-scale forest management, afforestation, and reforestation projects supported by local government and employing local communities. Biodiversity offsets for mining developments like the Simandou Project need to focus on new protected areas and the restoration of thousands of hectares of Upper Guinea forest. Millions of indigenous hardwood trees must be planted in partnership with local communities. Rio Tinto’s funding, logistical support, and technical assistance needs to make indigenous forestry, ecotourism and sustainable agriculture more profitable than rice, gum, palm oil, vegetables and corn…

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

There are currently no clear social, environmental and biodiversity offsets or commitments. The massive scale of this mining development necessitates a record-breaking endowment and upfront commitments from Rio Tinto and any other mining company operating on the Simandou Mountain Range. The Guinean government must guarantee shared benefits for all Guineans by securing all offsets upfront before moving forward with any further development. Plans need to be in progress for new protected areas, teams of forest guards with vehicles, new schools and training colleges, internship and mentor programs, ecotourism development, road infrastructure and airstrips, museums and cultural institutes, clinics and surgeries, and better water catchment management and irrigation schemes to support of sustainable agricultural developments. Guinea is risking a mountain range and everything that depends on it. Mining companies must accept more risk and commit to long-term development goals in the Konyan highlands.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The fact remains that all the West African chimpanzees along the Simandou Mountains will eventually move away as conflict with local communities escalates and attacks become more frequent. Rio Tinto needs to avoid unnecessary impacts by inaugurating a self-imposed moratorium on mining large parts of the Simandou ore body, investing in visionary R&D for new technologies that minimise environmental and biodiversity impacts (e.g. suspended conveyor systems to avoid cutting down trees), and putting aside a massive upfront endowment for generous social, environmental and biodiversity offsets. The implementation biodiversity management plans for the Simandou Mountain Range must be funded upfront and mining companies must take on more risk. Operating in this part of Africa is already very risky and, if sticking your neck out and investing in all offsets is too risky, then we should not be mining the Simandou Mountains. You do not break something on purpose if you cannot that you can fix it, replace it or make it better. Guaranteed benefit for local communities will be the social, environmental and biodiversity offsets…

Without “commercial approval” for mining operations Rio Tinto have not yet signed the necessary agreements with Guinea’s government that formalise the moratorium on mining two large portions of the ore body in the western parts of Pic de Fon and Ouéléba. These exclusion zones and alterations to the mining sequence were prescribed by biodiversity consultants to minimise disturbance in the most sensitive and biologically diverse forests. No suitable biodiversity offsets have been identified after over 10 years of research and surveys, and there is no formal commitment to even fund these offsets. The Guinean government has accepted Rio Tinto’s comprehensive SEIA report, but this represents “process”, not “progress”, and does not necessarily protect the rights of local communities and stakeholders.

Anywhere else in the world the Simandou Project would have been halted several times already or moth-balled indefinitely due to activists and politicians undermining all progress and investor confidence.

Seems bizarre that full mining operations within a highly-threatened Upper Guinea forest that supports a long list of Endangered, rare and endemic species is scheduled for some time before 2018. Where are the Guinean “tree-huggers”? Were local communities really involved in the SEIA process? If so, where is their voice?

A page from a brochure distributed to local stakeholders and villages associated with the Simandou Project. (Rio Tinto Simandou)
A page from a brochure distributed to local stakeholders and villages associated with the Simandou Project. (Rio Tinto Simandou)
Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The oldest known mine in the world was discovered in the hills around Ngwenya (Swaziland). The civilisation living there at the time were mining red ochre and specularite, a reflective form of iron ore, from a deep tunnel in a hillside some 45,000 years ago. These primitive people then re-filled the tunnel with soil, covering all traces of mining activity – the origin of “Net Positive Impact”? Red ocre, haematite and specularite had value and were synonymous with the “blood of the earth”. They are still used in rituals and traditional medicines, as well as offering of respect to ancestors after thousands of years. “Witchdoctors” today say that the “wound” in the landscape created by the primitive stone age tools of these ancient African miners had to be restored for fear or retribution. Billions upon billions of dollars worth of the “blood of the earth”, Simandou’s iron ore, will be removed from those mountains. The scale of the mining pits and associated infrastructure makes it very unlikely that Rio Tinto, Vale or Chinalco will be able to afford “Mother Africa” that same respect.

Suspended conveyor systems to transport iron ore over the forest canopy to and from massive crushers was recommended by environmental consultants and conservationists, but cheaper, conventional ground-based conveyor systems were chosen. Not a good sign. The development of effective large-scale suspended conveyor systems suitable for the Simandou Project by Rio Tinto would have been a beacon to the global mining industry, demonstrating that investing in biodiversity conservation measures is integral to long-term sustainability of mining operations.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

Several biodiversity consultants working on the Simandou Project since 2002 raised concerns about the viability of biodiversity conservation alongside large-scale mining operations anywhere along the Simandou Mountains. All that were interviewed spoke fondly of the mountains and highlighted their unique value to regional biodiversity and cultural heritage. Millions of dollars have already been spent on the SEIA process and for all of this not to be just “window dressing” Rio Tinto needs to do far more than just pioneer large-scale suspended conveyors. Re-building the mountain top, re-inventing waste water management, bringing together communities, restoring large patches of West African submontane and lowland Upper Guinea forest, establishing new wildlife sanctuaries and forest reserves, as well as developing ecotourism (e.g. canopy tours, lodges and camps) and sustainable agriculture (e.g. cooperatives) is our responsibility as global consumers and, by proxy, miners.. This may not sound like the responsibility of a mining company, but, in this day-and-age, it is.

(Steve Boyes)
Magical light over the Hogsback Mountains and the high mountain stronghold of the last-remaining Cape parrots. (Steve Boyes)

Personal connection

My family and I live on Hogsback Mountain in the Amathole Mountain Range of the Eastern Cape (South Africa). The Amatholes are very similar to the Simandou Mountains in height, length, cultural importance, biodiversity value, degree of endemism, hydrology, and orientation to prevailing weather systems. Both have or, at least, had endemic parrots and frogs and are recognised as biodiversity hotspots and centres of endemism in their own right. Both have threatened high-altitude old-growth hardwood forests dependent on the micro-climate created by south- and west-facing mountain slopes, valleys and ravines to survive. Both have small traditional villages scattered in the foothills that are dependent on ecosystem services from the the mountains. These communities have little support from central government and are run by tribal leadership. Both are more than 200 miles from their nearest city and have limited road and railway infrastructure. Both are among the poorest, least populated regions of their respective countries.

Cape parrots are endemic to South Africa and with little food left in their natural habitat they are struggling to bring back population levels since a collapse in the 1980s. (Rodnick Clifton Biljon / Cape Parrot Project)

As part of the Cape Parrot Project, an initiative that stimulates positive change for Africa’s most endangered parrot, we aim to plant over 1 million indigenous trees along the Amathole Mountains over the next 5-10 years. This community-based Afromontane forest restoration project works with local villages to rebuild the forests they have heritage rights to. Forest that were cut down by early British farmers and woodcutters. We are establishing new protected areas built into a biosphere reserve that will conserve South Africa’s most important indigenous forests. These projects are funded by charitable donations and corporate sponsorships (via the Wild Bird Trust), and local government is involved at all levels. The Cape Parrot Project is a story of people and parrots rebuilding a degraded indigenous forest that they both depend upon for ecosystem services. The same work needs to be done along the Simandou Mountain Range.

Steve Boyes / Cape Parrot Project
Hala Village in the valleys below Hogsback Mountain where Cape parrots used to feed on yellowwood fruits, Celtis fruits, wild olives, and wild plums before they were chopped out by greedy colonists or burnt under communal land ownership. We have now planted thousands of indigenous fruit trees in “Cape Parrot Community Orchards” in several villages, fencing them off to protect them from livestock and paying local communities to care for them as the custodians of these forest plots. We have also launched a micro-nursery program that builds small tree nurseries for ten households in the village, which are stocked with yellowwood seedlings that must be grown up to planting size. These partnerships are all going from strength to strength. (Steve Boyes / Cape Parrot Project)

Our soils here on Hogsback Mountain are a rich, dark red and the rock faces have what appear to be thick bands of rusted iron. I would do everything in my power to halt a mining development that threatened these already degraded Afromontane forests, the unique and beautiful ridge tops of Hogsback Mountains, and the endangered plant and animal species that still depend upon them. Why is the situation any different for the local people living near the Simandou Mountains? They have heritage rights to those magnificent mountains and wild West African forests that go back hundreds of years? Why are they rumoured to be rioting on access routes to mine sites in the northern blocks that were taken away from Rio Tinto in 2008?

Part 2 entitled: RioT into Simandou: World’s Richest Poor Country!?…

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.