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Madagascar’s thwarted rush for rare earths

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Marie-Angèle Ravelo, spokesperson for the village of Betaimboa, opposed to rare earth mining on the Ampasindava peninsula in northwest Madagascar, in June 2023.

All that remains of the Ampasindava rare earth rush are holes. Thousands of more or less well-filled holes. And five 20-meter-wide basins lined with grey tarpaulins made of decomposed plastic. Marie-Angèle Ravelo can testify: Crouching in front of a one-meter-diameter hole covered with logs to prevent children and zebus from falling into it, the energetic spokesperson for the inhabitants of Betaimboa, recounted the frenzy that swept the region a decade ago.

At the time, no one really understood what was being sought, or when it would stop. “The men had GPS units. They came to our fields and dug holes 10 meters deep. At first, they only took samples every meter with a kapok [a 300 gram measure used for rice]. They told us they wanted to analyze them, then they took all the soil. We couldn’t object,” said the 50-something, amid the vanilla vines that run alongside the trees in a shady undergrowth.

Located to the northwest of Madagascar opposite the island of Nosy Be, the mountainous Ampasindava peninsula is largely covered in forest. With no roads, it faces the sea, which is often the shortest route for Sakalava farmers to reach the surrounding villages and sell their vanilla, pepper, coffee and cocoa harvests. At the start of this austral winter, under a still-burning sun, the indolence was underpinned by anxiety. “They’ll be back. It’s only a matter of time. Some vazaha [white men] passed through a village not long ago,” said Ravelo, who has become accustomed to living on the lookout.

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And with good reason: Her village, Betaimboa, is located within the mining concession that occupies 300 square kilometers of Ampasindava, i.e. a third of the peninsula, the rest being classified as a protected natural area. According to the most recent estimates, 628 million tonnes of ionic clays lie dormant in these subsoils, with a significant concentration of rare earths. Rare earths are a group of 17 metallic elements whose properties, particularly their magnetic properties, make them highly sought-after components in cutting-edge technologies developed for wind turbines, solar panels, and electric motors. Of these, dysprosium, neodymium and europium – found at Ampasindava – are the most in-demand and therefore the most expensive.

Only research permits have been issued

So, since 2009, the region has been living with the ups and downs of the concession. The project has changed owners several times, depending on the economic climate and the financial woes of its shareholders. Australian businessman Allan Mulligan is the latest to think that he’s got his hands on an extraordinary deal. “Nobody could have imagined that such a small company could catch such a big elephant. Ampasindava is one of the largest rare earth deposits outside China [representing 70% of global production in 2022]. And it’s ready to be developed. I’m excited, very excited about this project,” he said at a battery minerals conference in Perth, Australia, in April.

To show just how much he believes in it, Mulligan named the company created in April 2022 with three other compatriots “Harena,” which means “treasure” in Malagasy. In October 2022, it acquired Reenova Rare Earth Malagasy, a company owned by Singaporean investors, the latest in the cascade of entities that – on paper – have succeeded one another since 2009 to exploit the deposit.

A villager shows an abandoned basin, originally intended for the first stage of rare earth processing at Ampasindava, in northwest Madagascar, in June 2023.

However, so far, only research permits have been issued. Three in all over a period of 11 years, the maximum period granted by the Malagasy government before the mining company has to demonstrate its ability to operate. This is what led Reenova to apply for an operating permit in September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In reality, the company had already begun to go under.

In Ambanja, the capital of the district of the same name located 50 kilometers from the peninsula, the iron curtains of the blue and ochre house that housed Reenova’s offices and laboratory were drawn. Even the janitor no longer answered the phone. Some 40 employees still officially under contract have not been paid for almost two years. This is the case of the former communications manager, Parfait Sangoay: “I worked for them for six years. At the height of activity, there were up to 1,000 workers a day on site. I had to explain the project to the local people. This mine means a lot of money for Westerners. But now we don’t know what’s going to happen. Will it be different with Harena?” he asked, without concealing the hostility he has encountered when advertising for the miners.

A harmful impact on the environment

In the small town, news of the return of foreign investors soon spread, and Raymond Mandiny, president of the Committee of Reflection and Action for the Development and Environment of Sambirano (CRADES), was once again on the warpath. “I had never heard of rare earths before 2009. But we’ve learned and we know now that the chemicals they use to extract the minerals can kill. Fortunately, they didn’t have time to do their tests. Large basins were prepared, but they were never used,” said this leading figure in the campaign against rare earth mining in Ampasindava.

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The small, authoritatively spoken man with a shaved head knows what’s going on in every village on the peninsula. Even the Sakalave king, Tsiaraso IV, is now on their side, he said: “Several thousand farmers are directly threatened by the mine. What are we going to give them? In Madagascar, I’ve never seen mining activity benefit communities.”

Rare earth mining is notorious for its harmful impact on the environment. Mountains of rock have to be fractured to extract minute quantities of ore. In the case of Ampasindava, predictive calculations promise 8 kilograms of rare earths in 10 tonnes of clay rock. The leaching process most often used is also high-risk, as it consumes large quantities of chemical solutions such as ammonium sulfate to isolate the desired metals from the crushed rock. The main danger is groundwater contamination.

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Finally, the presence of rare earths generally goes hand in hand with the presence of radioactive thorium and uranium. Studies carried out by the German company Tantalus, the first to be awarded the concession, had long led to this issue being dismissed. “Concentrations of thorium and uranium are low, which reduces the risk of future environmental problems known to hamper the economic development of this kind of project,” the company said in 2011.

High levels of natural radioactivity

An article published in October 2021 in the American Journal of Innovative Research and Applied Science swept away this finding. Using 49 samples taken in 2019, Olivier Rafidimanantsoa (from the University of Antananarivo), who led the work, found levels of natural radioactivity “above global average values” for uranium, thorium and potassium. This could “generate quite significant risks for the local population in the study area. Raising awareness of the effect of natural radioactivity must be a priority, as must the implementation of a radiation protection system for the public and workers,” he said.

The mining concession encompasses some 15 villages. Antsirabe, with its brick houses and Canal+ satellites across the roofs, is one of the most prosperous. At the entrance to the peninsula and an hour’s drive from the RN6 to Ambanja, traders come here to buy organic vanilla.

In the office of Raphaël Moralahy, mayor of Antsirabe, one of the villages involved in the project to mine rare earths on the Ampasindava peninsula in northwest Madagascar, in June 2023.

“As mayor, I can’t oppose this project,” said Raphaël Moralahy, “but our village has developed thanks to agriculture, and vanilla in particular. The mining concession straddles the plantations of over one thousand farmers. The companies have never kept their promises either to rehabilitate the school or to support new activities. Now we’re afraid of the consequences that chemical contamination of the rivers could have.”

On his desk, between stamps and the flag of Madagascar, a photo of a landscape stands out, with its caption borrowed from the Chinese writer, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, Gao Xingjian: “Man plunders nature, but nature always ends up taking its revenge.”

The prospect of the mine is worrying

Nature still retains its rights at Ampasindava thanks to the protected area created in 2015. “We had pleaded for the reserve to cover the entire peninsula, but we didn’t get our way,” said Jeannie Raharimampionona of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who contributed to the project by inventorying the flora and fauna. “Ampasindava has unique ecosystems and climate. It’s a frontier zone of hybridization between the north and south of the island, where relics of near-primitive forests and species found nowhere else remain,” said the botanist. The overhang of land on the sea, bordered by mangroves, remains the refuge of several species of lemur, including the little Lepilemur mittermeieri, named in honor of US primatologist Russell Mittermeier, who wrote the reference work on the Lemurs of Madagascar published in 1994.

Of course, the prospect of the mine is worrying. “The villagers won’t be able to stay near the mine and will migrate to the protected area, which will increase the pressure on an already fragile balance,” said Joël Narivony, from the Famelona NGO, responsible for managing the site. Some 15,000 people already live within the protected area. Two hours by speedboat from Ampasindava, on the island of Nosy Be, environmental activists and scientists are also on the alert. “People depend on the sea for their food, and currents flow upstream from Ampasindava to Nosy Be. What will they do when the pollution has destroyed everything?” said Gisèle Bakary.

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“The region from here to Diego Suarez Bay is one of the world’s richest areas for marine biodiversity. Whales come here to breed and there are still a few dugongs. Do we want to sacrifice them?” said the retired biologist from the National Center for Oceanographic Research (CNRO). The archipelago’s tourism operators have also taken a stand: “Madagascar can’t promote sustainable tourism while claiming to protect the environment and at the same time pave the way for rare earth mining,” said Soatra, spokesperson for around a hundred companies in the sector.

When contacted by Le Monde, Mulligan was reassuring: “Ampasindava is part of the new generation of very low-impact extractive projects. It will leave a minimal environmental footprint during operations and zero residual impact while producing ‘green minerals’ vital to the renewable energy sector,” he said in his letter. “The ores are only a few meters from the surface, which means we can process only limited volumes of rock. There will be no in situ leaching, and the ores contain no radioactive materials. The waste will be washed and reintroduced into the extraction area, which will be covered with previously stockpiled topsoil.”

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This is hardly enough to appease those who fear that the exploitation of rare earths in Ampasindava will lead to a vast environmental and human disaster, and see the repetition of a long history of resource predation by Western companies, this time under the guise of the green economy. Taking up US geographer Julie Klinger’s thesis on the “frontiers of rare earths,” sociologist Zo Randriamaro doesn’t hesitate to speak of Ampasindava as a “new zone of sacrifice” in which the destruction of local lives and landscapes will be the price to pay to enable rich countries to adapt to climate change.

In May, after lengthy procrastination, the government announced the lifting of the moratorium introduced in 2011 on the granting of mining licenses and published a new mining code that notably provides for an increase in the royalties paid by companies from 2% to 5% on the value of exported resources. The aim is to position Madagascar in the global competition for access to critical minerals with which the island is abundantly endowed. Harena Resources may see this as an encouraging sign before having to face up to local opposition which, 15 years after the arrival of the first foreign investors, is still strong.

Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

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