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RioT into Simandou: World’s Richest Poor Country!? (Part 2 of 2)

Guinea already has the world’s largest proven bauxite reserves with more than 12 billion tonnes and remains the top exporter of bauxite ore. This small West African country also has significant reserves of gold, diamonds, uranium and offshore oil. Add one of the world’s largest untapped iron ore reserve and Guinea should be set for...

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Guinea already has the world’s largest proven bauxite reserves with more than 12 billion tonnes and remains the top exporter of bauxite ore. This small West African country also has significant reserves of gold, diamonds, uranium and offshore oil. Add one of the world’s largest untapped iron ore reserve and Guinea should be set for the next hundred years. Also known as “the water tower of West Africa” there are 22 major rivers that originate in their remote highlands. The Republic of Guinea should be a wealthy nation with food and water security, but remains one of the poorest, debt-ridden countries in the world. Over 70% of Guinea’s people live in slums or informal settlements. Less than 50% have access to clean water. Less than 20% of Guineans have access to proper sanitation. There are no roads to speak of and basic infrastructure is broken or missing.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Guinea has one of the highest ratios of the average income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10% in West Africa with the rich earning over 21 times more than the poor. Countries like nearby Benin have a ratio of 9.4 due to their agricultural economy based on cotton exports spreading wealth more effectively and corruption being less of a problem. The sale of vast oil and mineral resources by young, inexperienced governments can exacerbate economic inequality with the rich benefitting far more than the poor. South Africa has an economy based on gold, platinum and chromium exports and a rich/poor earnings ratio of over 30. Central African Republic that has an economy based on diamond exports and an inequality ratio of over 60! Guinea’s government, Rio Tinto, Vale, Chinalco and local stakeholders must guarantee mechanisms that facilitate the effective sharing of profits from the export of Simandou iron ore. At least 50% local ownership of large “greenfield” mining developments should be a prerequisite and upfront biodiversity, social and environmental offsets should mandatory.

Senegal parrot in trade in West Africa. Note their poor condition and cramped housing. (Michael Sazhin/

At the moment the Guinean government will be a 35% shareholder in the Simandou Project. Only 15% of this will be for free, the remaining 20% will result in billions of dollars more foreign debt. This model can only work if local governments are 50% shareholders in these mines and investment is secured for processing plants at ports. Foreign mining and resource companies need to take on more risk if they are going to invest in “greenfield” mining developments in Africa. For example, Debswana, a joint venture between the Botswana government and De Beers, a South African diamond company, is keystone to the success of Botswana’s economy and produces more than 70% of Botswana’s export earnings, 30% of their GDP, and over 50% of all government revenue. Debswana is also the largest employer in Botswana. African leaders need to own their own futures and local people must benefit most from the extraction and export of their natural resources. Guinea’s government looks at the taxes, levies, charges and 35% share of profits as the most immediate way out of choking debt and political instability.

Clearing Africa’s debt burden is a great starting point, but this needs to be without forcing these countries to give away rights to natural resources. What Africa really needs is a paradigm shift from exploitation, export and profit to sustainable development and partnership. If a local government is not suitable as a 50% partner in a “greenfield” mining development and the infrastructure inadequate, then that country is not ready for investment, and focus on decades of capacity-building and infrastructural development. Unfortunately, the dreams and aspirations of African leaders today can only be sustainably realised by the next generation. Africans need to support democracy, educate and uplift local community, spread wealth as widely as possible, and develop a manufacturing sector that can employ the hundreds of millions of unemployed youths on the continent. Africa has the mineral and natural resources necessary to fuel, build, feed and develop the world into the next century. This should, by all rights, be the “African century” that sees great, modern cities built on this grand continent that has seen centuries of wanton exploitation and destruction by foreign powers.

West African chimpanzee sanctuary near Freetown (Sierra Leone)
(Steve Boyes)

Part of a threatened biodiversity hotspot that supports a population of 50-100 Endangered West African chimpanzees, four Endangered Old World monkey species, hundreds of endemic mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, over 1,800 endemic plant species, as well as remote villages that still practice traditional customs and have an undocumented verbal history that goes back hundreds of years. The Republic of Guinea risks losing an important part of their world-class natural heritage and one of the last-remaining records of the great West African kingdoms that once existed. The remaining 5% of West Africa’s Upper Guinea forests support 9,000 plant species with over 20% endemism, 320 mammal species that represent over 25% of all African mammals, 785 bird species, over a quarter of the 210 reptile species are endemic, and almost 40% of the 221 amphibian species are only found in these forests. ( The Upper Guinea forests along the Simandou Mountain Range are among our last glimpses of the grand forests that once covered the hills and mountainsides of the lowlands of West Africa.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The Guinée Forestière region covers south-eastern Guinea and includes seven areas with remaining primary forest cover, including Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, Déré Classified Forest, Diécké Classified Forest, Ziama Biosphere Reserve, Mount Béro Classified Forest, Mount Tetini Classified Forest, and Pic de Fon Classified Forest. “Classified forests” receive some protection as government property, but that protection does not necessarily include biodiversity conservation. These seven reserves account for almost 30% of Guinea’s remaining forest canopy, yet alarmingly cover just over 1% of the country. Pic de Fon is one of four comparable “classified forests” in south-eastern Guinea and includes some of the world’s last-remaining intact Upper Guinea forest occupied by West African chimpanzees. Open pit iron ore mining developments like Lamco Mine on Mount Nimba in Liberia have demonstrated that all you are left with is a gaping hole where a mountain used to be. It is hard to imagine that lowland forests and forest endemics that depend on them could ever persist nearby massive developments like this (see photograph of what remains).

The remains of the Lamco iron ore mining site closed in the 1980s is now a deep lake where a mountain top used to be. These ecosystems were completely reset and can be considered a warning from the past. What do you think? (SAdAfRiYaN's......)
The remains of the Lamco iron ore mining site closed in the 1980s is now a deep lake where a mountain top used to be. These ecosystems were completely reset and can be considered a warning from the past. What do you think? (SAdAfRiYaN’s……)
Yekepa Iron Hill at the old Lamco mine site is now a tourist attraction and evidence of the devastating impacts of large-scle open pit iron ore mining. (Shah Foysol)
Yekepa Iron Hill at the old Lamco mine site is now a tourist attraction and evidence of the devastating impacts of large-scle open pit iron ore mining. The decision to do this should not be taken lightly. (Shah Foysol)
Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou (Photographer: Piotr Naskrecki)

Riot Tinto and Conservation International have been busy with biodiversity surveys and comprehensive ecological studies of West African chimpanzees in the Pic de Fon, Oueleba, and “western spur” of the Simandou Mountains since 2002. This research has revealed valuable Upper Guinea forests that are worth saving. Over 95% of West Africa’s tropical and submontane Upper Guinea forests are gone. Wildlife exists at low densities and is typically, secretive, long-lived and nocturnal. Over 20% of mammal species are endemic. Most species are largely unstudied and very sensitive to disturbances to daytime roost sites. It is a sad fact that there are more published scientific papers on the red-winged blackbird than all African birds combined. These “forest refugia” are nature’s last insurance policy for forest endemics and endangered species that depend on these last intact Upper Guinea forests. They should be considered a conservation priority and protected, not mined. Guinea may lose their once-grand Upper Guinea forests before we fully understand their hidden treasures and appreciate their importance to local communities and wildlife.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The Konyan highlands truly are “the water tower of West Africa”. Indigenous habitat and villages in the valleys below depend on streams and wetlands drawn from Simandou’s mountain catchments. There is no doubt. Open mining pits on the top ridge will damage mountain catchments and alter hydrology, increasing turbidity in downstream waterways, lowering groundwater levels, drying up springs, and polluting local rivers. Significantly lowering the height of the ridge top of the mountain range will alter the micro-climate, drying the mountains and foothills, thus rendering them less suitable to the production of local crops. Rice fields, rubber plantations, oil palms and vegetable crops will slowly take over the wetter areas. More livestock, like goats and cattle, in open areas will drive erosion and desertification, while fuelling conflict with the remaining large predators like West African forest leopard. Booming human populations would further exacerbate the decline of these already degraded forests.

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

Emeritus Professor of History at State University of New York—Oswego, David Conrad, explains the cultural and historical importance of the villages associated with the Simandou Mountains:

“Despite the imposition of French colonial administration from the late 19th Century to 1958, culturally destructive Islamic reform movements, the misguided policies of post-independence government dictatorship, and negative impact from recent civil wars in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone, villages in the forested region surrounding Simandou mountain have managed to maintain their cultural integrity to a surprising degree. For the most part, this remote part of southeastern Guinea has not been transformed by the fast pace of modern life in the capital city of Conakry. The traditional lifestyles, belief systems, and ritual practices extending back some thousand years continue to characterize daily life in villages of the Loma, Kissi, Maninka and other local populations. Since the demise of the tyrannical president Sekou Touré (1958-1984), researchers have endeavored to begin exploring the fascinating history and vibrant cultures of this area, but decades of work remain to be done. With the Simandou Project underway, Guinea risks losing a huge part of its cultural heritage, the extent of which has not yet even been fully assessed.”

Local community members from a village in the foothills of the Simandou Mountains need new opportunities to lift them from poverty. (Tim Geysbeek)

Professor Conrad continues:

“In Guinea-Conakry, West Africa, Simondou Mountain, in what is locally known as the Konyan highlands, rises near the famous historical town of of Musadu, which was the political center of Konya-Mani in pre-colonial times. The Maniyaka who live in Musadu speak the dialect of Maniyaka called Konyaka “language of the Konya.” Musadu was the capital of the Kingdom of Mani which was explored by Americo-Liberians in the nineteenth century, but was written about centuries earlier by Portuguese missionaries. The leader of the Mande-speaking Mani of the Konyan highlands in the mid-1500s was a woman of elite status from the Mali Empire named Macarico. This entire region is therefore of enormous historical and cultural significance, but archaeological investigation has never been carried out there, and environmental destruction by industrial mining activity will remove any possibility of that ever happening.”

For any developed country there would be too much at stake to consider a mining development such as the Simandou Project. Why do the same rules not apply here?

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

In 2011, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that they would forgo drilling oil and gas in eastern Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in exchange for international donations totalling $3.6 billion over 13 years. This was the equivalent of approximately 50% of the expected market value of the oil reserves. As a result the Yasuni-ITT Initiative was inaugurated to conserve Yasuni’s unique biodiversity and prevent the emission of almost a billion tons of carbon dioxide, thus offsetting the annual greenhouse-gas emissions of a country like Germany. This weak attempt at ascribing a value to “nature”, biological diversity (biodiversity), ecosystem services (e.g. water capture and carbon sink), cultural significance, spiritual importance, and option value (i.e. the potential cure for cancer could be hidden in a plant in Yasuni’s forests). We have demonstrated many times that ecosystems can recover, but never be restored. As the great wilderness thinker and conservationist, Aldo Leopold, explains:

“Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow… Creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible”

Red-billed hornbills are found throughout the subtropical savanna and woodland of sub-Saharan Africa. (Morgan Hauptfleisch)

If we are to survive another 1,000 years, another 5,000 years, as this modern civilisation on our green, living planet, then we need to start seeing the last true “wilderness areas” as one of the world’s rarest, most valuable resources. A natural resource for the soul and sanctuary for all living creatures including people. The “wilderness” will show us the secret or secrets that will get us through another millennium by showing us how we fit into the tapestry of life. Without living, breathing wilderness areas filled with life and hidden danger, free and wild without hinderance, and using freewill to survive as part of a global community of plant and animal species. We have already done so much irreversible damage in the last few centuries and now stand on the brink of total annihilation of our natural world, as we enter our anthropocene, a new geological epoch that marks the time when humankind assumes control over the biosphere – the oceans, forests, grasslands, all ecosystems…

Image courtesy of Rio Tinto Simandou

The open pit iron ore mining developments along the Simandou Mountain Range proposed by Rio Tinto, Vale and Chinalco has the potential to bring in billions of dollars for foreign currency and boost Guinea’s non-existant economy. No where else in the world would this massive, privately-funded iron ore mining development be taken so lightly. Local villages will not be the primary benefactors of revenue from iron ore exports. They will not become among the richest communities in the world with massive revenue from the “sale” of the Simandou Mountains to mining and resource companies keen to continue the exploitation of the iron mountains of West Africa. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been invested and the wealthy elite in Conakry have been the only ones at the bargaining table. Local village leaders are offered jobs in the future, new public amenities like schools and hospitals, access to electricity, and payments for the purchase of land. Local people have heritage rights to the Simandou Mountains, but Guinea’s government has the right to sell “classified” forests and the valuable mountains they depend upon. Is this acceptable in a fledgling democracy split up by religion, tribalism and inequality? Does the central government have the right to represent the interests of the people of the Konyan highlands that have heritage rights to Simandou Mountain?

Part 3 entitled: RioT into Simandou: New “Scramble For Africa”?…

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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.