The Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM) mining operation, a public-private partnership between mining giant Rio Tinto (80% ownership) and the Government of Madagascar (20% ownership, was the first large-scale mining project in Madagascar and the largest foreign investment in the history of the country. The first extraction phase is located in Mandena, Anosy, one of the poorest regions of the fifth poorest country in the world.
The mine extracts ilmenite, which yields titanium dioxide, an ultra-white pigment used for paints, papers, cosmetics, food, and other products. It also extracts and exports Monazite and Zircon. Extraction began in Mandena in 2009 with a projected project lifespan of 40 years and the removal of 6000 hectares of littoral forest in one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of the island.
Since before it began extraction in 2009, Rio Tinto’s QMM mine has brought multiple social and environmental challenges to local people, including displacement, loss of land and forest access, diminished livelihoods, noise and dust, degraded water quality, food insecurity, loss of income, compromised local governance, corruption, inadequate compensation, and health issues.
Independent studies have revealed that the mining operation has contaminated waterways and lakes, with uranium and lead levels found to be 50 and 40 times higher than the World Health Organization safe drinking water guidelines. Approximately 15,000 people use the lakes and waterways around the mine to fish, gather food products and drinking water, and the contamination presents a potentially serious health risk to local populations. Local villagers complain about impacts to their health and to livelihoods from what they see to be negative impacts of QMM’s activity on local water quality.
Four reported tailings dam failures have occurred at Rio Tinto’s QMM mine: 2010, 2018, Feb 2022, and March 2022. The incidents in 2018 and 2022 received significant attention due to local people reporting the appearance of dead fish. One additional incident was reported by the local community in April of 2022 but was denied by QMM. The cause of the 2022 tailings dam failures and tailings dam safety criteria have not been transparently reported despite repeated requests from civil society. Additionally, the mine had previously breached the environmental protective zone, called a buffer zone, established by the government to protect water from any harmful impacts of mining activity, such as contamination.
Rio Tinto refuses to accept responsibility for the fish deaths and the water pollution — it even refuses to acknowledge that it operates a tailings dam at the QMM site. It has repeatedly asserted that it has “no mine tailings dam” (AGM 2022) because it claims its waste is impounded by a “berm” or in an “excavated storage facility.” These semantics allow Rio Tinto to avoid compliance with international best practices and dodge accountability for its tailings’ serious environmental and social impacts.
The QMM tailings dam failures and fish deaths have led to conflict. When a resolution was finally brokered between the company and impacted villagers in May 2022, 8,778 villagers submitted claims against QMM. However, serious concerns have been raised about human rights violations around the ensuing compensation process and the complaint mechanism itself, including reports that villagers were coerced into signing agreements and had “gagging orders” placed upon them – instructed not to share signed documents with anyone, which is a breach of international grievance procedure standards.
National and international organizations like Andrew Lees Trust (ALT) and Publish What You Pay Madagascar (PWYP MG) have been working to support locally impacted villagers and advocate internationally for justice and remedy for the harms caused by the mine.
Villagers and civil society organizations advocate for transparency and action from Rio Tinto and the QMM mine. PWYP MG and ALT UK call on Rio Tinto to undertake independent audits, including the compensation and grievance process, and fully independent technical audits of the tailings dam structure and mine water management systems.
The following slides provide a timeline for specific events related to QMM’s mine tailings management and related water quality issues and highlight some of the resulting social and environmental impacts on local communities.