Rio Tinto’s Madagascar Mine Promised Prosperity. It Tainted a Community.

Bloated and distorted carcasses shimmered on the surface of Lake Ambavarano in southeastern Madagascar. Forty-year-old fisherman Olivier Randimbisoa lost count as they floated by.

“I know what it’s like to see a dead fish that’s been speared,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like this.”

A series of cyclones and storms had battered the region in early 2022, and in the days afterward, the air was still and calm. As Randimbisoa paddled around in his dugout canoe, he recognized the different species and called them by their local names: fiambazaha, saroa, vily, and malemiloha. Overnight, the fish he made his living from, the fish his wife and children ate, the fish that supported the entire lakeside community, were nearly gone.

“It was scary, because we have been eating fish from this lake for so long. We have fed our families, and now it’s polluted,” said Randimbisoa. “We have told our families not to go to the lake.”

Randimbisoa has a theory about what killed the fish. “It’s dirty water from the factory of QMM,” he said.

Lake Ambavarano, where Randimbisoa works, is connected to two other lakes — Besaroy and Lanirano — through a series of narrow waterways. The lakes are adjacent to QIT Madagascar Minerals, or QMM: a mine in Madagascar that’s 80 percent owned by the Anglo-Australian mining and metals behemoth Rio Tinto, and 20 percent by the government of Madagascar. The mine extracts ilmenite, a major source of titanium dioxide, which is mainly used as a white pigment in products like paints, plastics, and paper. QMM also produces monazite, a mineral that contains highly sought-after rare-earth elements used to produce the magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

After the fish deaths, the government of Madagascar’s environmental regulator and Rio Tinto conducted water sampling work. Citing such testing, Rio Tinto says there is no proof that its mining killed the fish. Water sample analysis revealed “no conclusive link between our mine activities and the observed dead fish by community members,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email to The Intercept. Those results have not been made available to the public, despite requests by civil society groups and The Intercept.

Now, more than 15 years after QMM became operational, Rio Tinto is facing a likely lawsuit in an English court brought by U.K.-based law firm Leigh Day on behalf of residents of villages near the QMM mine. In a letter of claim, a document that is an early step in a lawsuit in the U.K., the villagers accuse Rio Tinto of contaminating the waterways and lakes that they use for domestic purposes with elevated and harmful levels of uranium and lead, which pose a serious risk to human health. Leigh Day commissioned blood lead level testing in the area around the mine as part of its research into the claim. According to the letter of claim, which was sent on Tuesday, the testing shows that 58 people living around the mine have elevated levels of lead, and that the majority of cases exceed the threshold at which the World Health Organization recommends clinical and environmental interventions, 5 micrograms per deciliter. The claim alleges that the most likely cause of the elevated levels is a result of QMM’s mine processes.

“They and other local families are being forced to consume water which is contaminated with harmful heavy metals.”

“Whilst Rio Tinto extracts large profits from its mining operations in Madagascar, our clients’ case is that they and other local families are being forced to consume water which is contaminated with harmful heavy metals. In bringing this case, our clients are seeking accountability and justice for the damage that has been caused to their local environment and their health,” Paul Dowling, Leigh Day’s lead partner on the case, told The Intercept.

Leigh Day’s blood lead level testing results are a significant development that may for the first time quantify the detrimental health impacts their clients allege are posed by QMM. Surface water pollution and lead poisoning are both global problems, and the case will be watched closely not just by Rio Tinto shareholders, but by global environmental justice advocates in other nations where villagers also accuse industrial giants of polluting their waterways.

“We have received the letter from Leigh Day,” said the Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined further comment on the allegations. The spokesperson pointed to a published report that states that the company’s recent water analysis had not detected metals, including uranium and lead, that had previously been identified as potential concerns.

Madagascar’s environmental regulator, the National Office for the Environment, or ONE, says it has periodically monitored QMM’s activities over the last decade and has tested the water following past complaints about contamination. “In the face of these accusations, ONE requested several expert analyses … the results of which indicated no contamination of surface waters nor mining sites,” Hery Rajaomanana, ONE’s director of environmental integration and sustainable development, told The Intercept in March.

General view of the QMM mine in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
General view of the QIT Madagascar Minerals mine in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Rio Tinto, which has over 52,000 employees and saw net earnings of $12.4 billion in 2022, has a troubled track record in Madagascar. Local residents, civil society groups, and media outlets have accused the company of damaging the endangered forest, threatening rare endemic species, forcing villagers off their land without proper compensation, destroying fishers’ livelihoods, and failing to honor its promises to employ local people. Communities have been protesting the mine almost since its inception. Last year, skirmishes broke out in June and lasted more than a week as residents blocked road access to the mine. The government called in the police and army to assert control.

“QMM operates in a highly sensitive area from a water and broader environmental perspective,” wrote the Rio Tinto spokesperson who declined to attach a name to the statements from the company. “We are committed to working to address any specific issues that community members raise, and to engaging in constructive dialogue on how we can mitigate impacts of our operations while generating tangible and sustainable benefits for our host communities.”

Key Takeaways

  • Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining company, is facing legal claims involving a mine it has operated in Anôsy, Madagascar, since 2008.
  • The British law firm Leigh Day is accusing Rio Tinto of contaminating the waterways and lakes around the mine with elevated and harmful levels of uranium and lead, which pose serious health risks.
  • On Tuesday, the firm sent a letter of claim, an early step in a lawsuit in the U.K., on behalf of villagers who live near the mine and who rely on those waterways for domestic purposes.
  • Leigh Day commissioned blood lead level testing in the area around the mine. According to the letter of claim, the testing shows that 58 residents have elevated levels of lead, and that the majority of cases exceed the threshold at which the WHO recommends clinical and environmental intervention.
  • While a relatively small sample, the testing results are a significant development that may for the first time quantify the detrimental health impacts the villagers allege are posed by the mine.
  • Rio Tinto declined to comment on Leigh Day’s allegations. In a recent report, it said that its own water analysis had not detected metals, including uranium and lead, that had previously been identified as potential concerns.
  • The Malagasy government, which is a partial owner in the mine, has previously said that its water analysis has shown no evidence of water contamination.
  • Surface water pollution and lead poisoning are global problems, and the case will be watched closely by environmental justice advocates in other nations where villagers also accuse industrial giants of polluting their waterways.

The 150-year-old metals and mining giant has been embroiled in scandal for years. In 2020, Rio Tinto blew up two ancient Aboriginal Australian sites to expand its iron ore mining in the region. In 2022, a review conducted by Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner found that bullying, sexism, and racism were rampant across the company. In March 2023, Rio Tinto agreed to pay a $15 million penalty to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after accusations surfaced that in 2011 it paid $10.5 million to a friend of the Guinean president to retain iron ore mining rights. Despite this, its Guinea project, the world’s largest and highest-grade new iron ore mine, is scheduled to move ahead this year. The company also plans to build on sacred Indigenous land in Arizona, has been accused of financial impropriety in Mozambique and Mongolia, and is currently facing pressure from investors over water quality concerns at several of its mining sites, including in Madagascar and Mongolia.

In early 2023, two longtime Rio Tinto insiders — Maurice Duffy, a top-level executive coach, and Richard Bowley, a project management mining executive — wrote a series of confidential reports commissioned by the Mongolian government’s anti-corruption regulator. The Intercept obtained two of the draft reports, which outlined allegations about Rio Tinto’s culture of bullying, bribery, and corruption in countries around the world from 2015 until 2023.

The Rio Tinto spokesperson said that the confidential reports have “not been published, and despite requests, we have not had the opportunity to review,” and did not provide an on-the-record response to most of the allegations. The Mongolian regulator did not respond to questions about the draft reports.

According to one of the draft reports, Duffy, a consultant, said he stopped working with Rio Tinto in 2018 because of concerns about the company’s conduct. He said that after his departure, Rio Tinto instructed him to destroy thousands of records documenting ethical issues, among them proof of irregular payments made in Madagascar.

“I reported irregular payments to Rio Tinto. The allegations of irregular payments in Madagascar are based upon information given to me by Rio Tinto employees,” Duffy told The Intercept. “I can only confirm that they were stated as inappropriate and irregular.”

According to the draft report, the company stated in writing to Duffy that it had “regulatory approval” for the destruction to occur, but despite many requests, Duffy has been unable to get details on which regulators gave permission to destroy the documents. Duffy sent photographs of documents being shredded and incinerated to Rio Tinto, as they had requested, the draft report states.

Rio Tinto’s spokesperson wrote, “We take our disclosure obligations extremely seriously and strongly refute any suggestion that this is not the case.”

One of the confidential draft reports offered an unnamed company executive’s perspective on legal challenges: “Our legal strategy is straightforward. FUCK them. Frustrate; Undermine; Cost; Kick into long grass.”

That report also outlined a key part of Rio Tinto’s strategy: using the chaotic nature of election campaigns to the company’s advantage. “Rio key strategy is based on the premise that Politicians always go short term,” the draft report reads. “It’s the nature of the beast, elections years are a good time to strike, and they can rely on their friends to filter the facts and articulate a different narrative.”

2023 was an election year in Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, which rates 145 out of 180 on the global Corruption Perceptions Index. Incumbent President Andry Rajoelina faced a crowded field of opposition candidates, and he won in an election marred by accusations of fraud, low voter turnout, and violence.

Last August, Rajoelina’s top aide was arrested in London, accused of soliciting a bribe from the British mining company Gemfields to secure licenses to operate in Madagascar. Rajoelina fired the aide, who was convicted in a London court in February. Amid that chaos, Rio Tinto was renegotiating its 1998 fiscal agreement with the government. The parties finalized new terms in August 2023. As part of the agreement, Rio Tinto committed money to infrastructure and local community projects. The company hopes to expand into Petriky and Sainte Luce, two additional sites located along Madagascar’s eastern coastline.

Sifaka Lemurs stand on a tree inside the Nahampoana Reserve Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
Sifaka lemurs stand on a tree inside the Nahampoana Reserve near Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Paradise Lost

QMM started exploring for heavy mineral sands around Anôsy, Madagascar, along the southeastern coast in 1986. The region is home to about 800,000 people, with more than 90 percent of rural residents living on less than $1.90 per day.

The area where the minerals were discovered is a unique ecosystem, a littoral forest occurring in the sandy substrates close to the Indian Ocean. Madagascar once had a continuous 1,600-kilometer band of littoral forest along its eastern coastline. Today, it’s estimated that only a fraction of that forest remains intact, like patches of hair on a thinning beard. New species are being discovered there all the time, but many of them are already endangered due to habitat destruction. Yet the region, with its famous lemurs and a concentrated diversity of plant species, remains one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the world.

It is also one of the most beautiful places in the world. Towering, forested mountains cast shadows on sparkling freshwater lakes that flow through tranquil sandy beaches into the abundant waters of the Indian Ocean. Tiny dugout canoes manned by the region’s fishers dot the waterways. Women wearing mud masks to protect their skin from the sun bake fresh bread that rivals the baguettes in Parisian boulangeries. On clear evenings, the sunsets splash a palette of warm colors into the sky.

Fifty-two-year-old Tahiry Ratsiambahotra is the founder of LuSud, an activist organization that has become a thorn in the sides of the government and Rio Tinto. He grew up in Fort Dauphin but says he relocated to France after the government targeted him for his activism. (The Malagasy government did not respond to questions about LuSud.)

“I love this country,” he said. “I married an Anôsy wife. My children are Anôsy. I have a deep feeling that Fort Dauphin is my life.”

Ratsiambahotra remembers what Fort Dauphin looked like before Rio Tinto came into town. It used to be one of Madagascar’s top ecotourism destinations, attracting avid nature lovers and placid beachgoers alike. Locals talk about the city in terms of “before” and “after” the mine was built. “Before,” Fort Dauphin was a sleepy paradise, dotted with romantically named beach resorts, but it has turned into something grittier. The paint on the exteriors of the hotels is peeling. The forests are being cut down. Trucks spewing black exhaust dominate the roads. “After,” locals say, there are only the haves and the have-nots: the people with cushy jobs who benefit from the mine, and everyone else.

A truck belonging to QMM carries minerals to the Port d'Ehoala in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 8, 2023.
A truck belonging to QMM carries minerals to the Port d’Ehoala in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 8, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

In the 1990s, after learning about Rio Tinto’s exploration of the area, Ratsiambahotra educated himself about the possible risks associated with a large-scale mineral sands project, including the potential for radioactive materials to be released into the surrounding environment, and grew alarmed.

“When I saw that the people in this country don’t have the capacity to understand what kind of impact this project can involve, I felt that as a learned person, I have a responsibility to investigate first and to acquire all the information needed to deeply understand the project, and then share it with the people,” he said.

So, in 1998, Ratsiambahotra started LuSud. In his capacity as founder, Ratsiambahotra says he met with local and national government officials to talk them out of moving ahead with the project.

“When I saw in the Establishment Agreement that the benefit to the Madagascar people was very, very tiny, I was shocked. They tried to exploit the Madagascar people,” he said, referring to the deal between the company and the government. “I asked to meet the Parliament at the time to convince them that this was not a project for us.”

Ratsiambahotra says he also collected 5,000 signatures from local villagers who were against the mine. To build QMM, Rio Tinto would have to buy land and property and displace a number of families. A World Bank assessment estimated that around 1,900 people would be temporarily or permanently displaced.

“They knew if QMM took the land, they were lost. So, they tried to protect the land,” Ratsiambahotra said. “But they were afraid of the government, because they were powerful. So, this is a question. They could fight against QMM, but how to fight against their own government?”

We were “eggs fighting against stones.”

We were “eggs fighting against stones,” said 40-year-old Georges Marolahy Razafidrafara, a resident of Mandramondramotra, the village located closest to the mine.

In the end, the eggs lost the fight. QMM became one of the first large-scale investors in Madagascar in 1998, when the company signed an agreement with the government that allowed for concessionary breaks on taxes, duties, and royalties.

“People didn’t yet understand the ecological impact of the mine,” Ratsiambahotra said. “So, Parliament adopted the agreement.”

Mbola Jeannot, 57, poses for a portrait inside his home in Ambinanibe in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, , on July 12, 2023. He used to own land where the QMM port is now located.
Mbola Jeannot, 57, poses for a portrait inside his home in Ambinanibe in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 12, 2023. He used to own land where the QMM port is now located.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

“People Were Eating So Well”

Mbola Jeannot is the patriarch of a large family living in a two-bedroom hut in a fishing village on the ocean shore. One day, representatives from QMM came to see him about land needed for the mine’s operations.

“They didn’t bargain,” said Jeannot. “They said, ‘Where is your land? Here? Everyone stand in your portion of land. This is yours? OK, here is your money.’”

Jeannot says he received a check and that he added his thumbprint to the bottom of the document of sales signed by the CEO of QMM, indicating that he read and understood the agreement.

Jeannot couldn’t afford to say no to the money. He felt that “we would have lost our land” either way, he said.

Since then, hundreds of Malagasy people around the region have tried to resist evictions and relocation and to get paid fairly for their lost lands. In 2010, Leigh Day considered taking action against Rio Tinto on behalf of villagers seeking compensation. The process fell apart, however, after many claimants accepted compensation from QMM. Rio Tinto and Leigh Day declined to comment.

The extractive industry watchdog Publish What You Pay conducted a community survey of 368 villagers living around the mine in March 2022. (The global watchdog’s in-country research was done by a coalition of 11 local civil society groups, led at the time by Transparency International’s Madagascar chapter.) The report found that over 90 percent of survey respondents said they had suffered as a result of losing access to natural resources, including their land. A third of respondents said they lost their lands directly to QMM. 60 percent of those surveyed said that they had received compensation from the mining company, 65 percent of whom reported difficulties in collecting this compensation.

This David-and-Goliath dynamic is typical of the company. Rio Tinto wields tremendous influence in Madagascar, which has a gross domestic product of at least $14 billion, less than half the GDP of the state of Vermont. Like other businesses, QMM pays fees to Madagascar’s environmental regulator for monitoring services. According to civil society reports, QMM’s fees come to $30,000-$40,000 per year. “How can we ever expect the ONE to be independent in its assessment when it’s fueled by companies?” said Ketakandriana Rafitoson, the national coordinator of Publish What You Pay Madagascar. (Rajaomanana, of the National Office for the Environment, told The Intercept that “ONE remains totally independent and objective in the realization of its monitoring duties.”)

“How can we ever expect the ONE to be independent in its assessment when it’s fueled by companies?”

Before building QMM, the company conducted a series of assessments to determine the potential social, environmental, and economic impacts of the mine on the surrounding area. Baseline water testing from 2001 revealed that the surface water from lakes and rivers surrounding the mine was free from high levels of cadmium, lead, and uranium.

To support its mining operations, QMM planned to construct a weir, or barrier, where Lake Ambavarano meets the mouth of the estuary that connects to the Indian Ocean to control water flows and water level heights. But the company was warned that the weir had the potential to permanently change the occasionally brackish lagoon system into freshwater, which would affect fish and fisherfolk in the region. With support from the World Bank, it also built a port in Fort Dauphin to export raw materials to Rio Tinto’s processing plant in Canada.

Despite myriad concerns by LuSud, the World Bank, and other bodies involved in early impact assessments of the mine, QMM received a legal license to begin operations in 2005. The license covered three mine sites to be mined sequentially under a 100-year lease from the Malagasy government. QMM’s mine and processing facility was built by Fluor, an American multinational engineering and construction giant. Mine managers estimated that at peak capacity, QMM would be able to produce nearly 2 million tons of unrefined ilmenite ore. Ilmenite ore imports to the U.S. were priced at $290 per ton in 2022.

A man walks across the weir built by QMM in Lake Ambavarano in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. The inundations of salt water from the sea have stopped because of the physical barrier, which essentially has converted Ambavarano into a freshwater lake. Nearly all the species of fish that thrived in the brackish water conditions are now lost.
A man walks across the weir built by QMM in Lake Ambavarano in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. The inundations of salt water from the sea have stopped because of the physical barrier, which essentially has converted Ambavarano into a freshwater lake. Nearly all the species of fish that thrived in the brackish water conditions are now lost.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

The mine became operational in 2008. The barrier ended up entirely blocking inundations of salt water into Lake Ambavarano. Soon, nearly all the species of fish that thrived in the brackish conditions were gone. The March 2022 Publish What You Pay community survey found that at least 27 fish species appear to have completely disappeared from the lakes since the start of the Rio Tinto mining operation.

Olivier Randimbisoa is one of the lake fishermen affected by the weir. Working as a tour guide, ferrying visitors across the lakes on a white motorboat in his uniform of flip-flops and board shorts, Randimbisoa is always looking for business opportunities to help feed his wife of 16 years and his four children. He also serves as a lake police officer of sorts, checking on people’s nets to ensure they don’t catch pregnant fish or young fish that should be left to grow larger before being caught.

“Before the weir, people were eating so well. They were happy. They were fishing,” he said, carefully captaining the boat through the winding waterways that connect the lakes.

Randimbisoa has been fishing since he was 10 years old. Before the barrier was built, he could choose whether he wanted to catch crab, shrimp, ocean fish, or lake fish. Now, he catches the few species that are still around. Before, he could use any type of net to fish. Now he can only use a net with small eyes attached to a long rope because larger fish are scarce. Before, he could make 100,000 ariary (around $22.40) each day from fishing. Now, he says he’s barely making a fraction of that.

Carefully steering his boat in the shallows, Randimbisoa comes alongside two young men standing in chest-high water near the lake shore. Their arms pump methodically as they haul in a long fishing net. It takes nearly 20 minutes, and as they work Randimbisoa asks them questions. The men say they have been fishing since 7 a.m. In those three hours, they’ve gotten only one small cup of tiny silver fish. They say they can sell that for around 1,500 ariary (about $0.34) at the market. It’s not enough.

Fisherman Olivier Randimbisoa, 40, poses for a portrait in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023.
Fisherman Olivier Randimbisoa, 40, poses for a portrait in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

When QMM started operating, Randimbisoa says, the company assured him that it would assess how much he earned and compensate him if his work was affected by the mine. For a while, the company made regular payments to community members, but these payments stopped abruptly without explanation, Randimbisoa said. Rio Tinto did not respond to The Intercept’s question about the payments.

In 2019, QMM’s external Independent International Advisory Panel met with the fishers to assess their situations. It is doubtful that any other community in the area has suffered greater direct damage to its livelihood from the mine’s operations,” the panel concluded. “Accordingly, we recommend urgent steps to remedy their situation.”

The lake fisherfolk are not the only ones affected by the mine. The region is also home for ocean fishermen. This is far more dangerous work. The men go out late at night on flimsy wooden boats that they row past rough breaking waves into deeper waters. The fish are bigger, but so is the risk.

Jeannot is an ocean fisherman. He’s handsome, with stocky barrel legs, a muscular build, and a warm smile that reveals a row of perfectly white teeth. Decades working at sea have kept him strong and healthy. Only the gray curling hairs on his head betray his age of 57 years.

Jeannot has been catching ocean fish and lobster since he was 14 years old. Like most people in the village, he never finished school. When he grew older, he passed his trade down to his sons. His eldest son Jossé Randrianambinina drowned at sea during a fishing expedition in 2015. His body was never recovered, and Jeannot has only one laminated photograph of him taken in 2011.

Jeannot now fishes with his younger son, 38-year-old Randria Mazakazézé, or Zézé for short. Jeannot and Zézé often leave home at 6 p.m. and fish all night in two different areas along the coastline. One of their best spots used to be a small fishing harbor in a natural bay that provides some protection against the strong winds.

But then QMM selected this harbor to build its port. It did so without consultation from the ocean fishers, Jeannot said. When construction on the port began, the fishers were warned that it could take up to 33 months to build. QMM compensated them during the construction period, and the fishers were told they could go back to work once it was completed.

But they were not told that construction of the port would permanently affect the quantity and species of fish in the harbor. Or that they would be permitted to fish there only during specific times when container ships were not using the port.

“In my opinion, our livelihoods have been destroyed,” Jeannot said. “The environment surrounding the port has been destroyed.”

Over the past 18 months, QMM has undertaken a grievance and compensation program with the government of Madagascar and community representatives to address such concerns. “By March 2023, over 5,000 eligible fisherfolk and natural resource users received compensation from QMM, based on the cumulative impact of QMM’s operations for each specific group deemed eligible since operations began,” the Rio Tinto spokesperson said. “Land claimants were deemed not eligible under this process and were managed by a separate process between the land claimants and the authorities.”

Fishermen push a fishing boat in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 14, 2023.
Men and women push a fishing boat in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 14, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Heavy Sands

The QMM mine extracts ilmenite from mineral-rich sands by creating shallow, unlined, water-filled basins between 5 to 15 meters deep. By churning up the sands and passing them through a floating dredge, the mining process filters out the heavier sands, which contain ilmenite. The ilmenite is then extracted using electrostatic processing and shipped to Rio Tinto’s plant in Canada. Despite its small size, Madagascar was the fourth largest exporter of ilmenite in the world in 2022.

The mineral sands also contain radioactive elements, including uranium and thorium. The process of churning the sand allows these radioactive elements to dissolve in the mining water, which is then discharged as wastewater.

The Malagasy regulator requires an 80-meter buffer zone between a mining operation and any ecologically sensitive area to avoid contamination. In 2015, the government regulator approved QMM’s request to reduce this buffer zone from 80 to 50 meters. But in 2017, Yvonne Orengo, director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a charity also known as ALT-UK that works on environmental issues in Madagascar, accused Rio Tinto of breaching the buffer zone based on a series of satellite images she captured using Google Earth.

Rio Tinto initially denied the breach in correspondence with ALT-UK that was reviewed by The Intercept. The company agreed to conduct an independent study and identified a private company called Ozius to carry it out. To ensure an independent review, Orengo enlisted the help of Steven Emerman, a groundwater and mining expert, to conduct his own study. Using Ozius’s data as well as Google Earth images, Emerman calculated that, in addition to breaching the buffer zone, the company had encroached onto the lakebed by 117 meters, bringing the total breach to 167 meters, he said.

In early 2019, QMM announced that it would revise its plans and revert back to the 80-meter buffer zone. It later acknowledged that it had breached the original buffer zone, but only admitted to a 90-meter encroachment.

In mining, materials that are left over after the extraction process — like the mining basin water and scrap sands — are referred to as tailings. Tailings occur in mines around the world, can be highly toxic or radioactive, and should be contained and treated. But in reality, cost-cutting has led to sloppy standards, which in turn has caused a number of global disasters, like a 2019 tailings dam collapse in Brazil that killed 270 people.

The QMM mine relies on a “natural” system, usually referred to as passive water treatment, to treat its mining basin water. It releases the contaminated water into a series of “settling paddocks” to reduce the levels of floating particles, one indicator of water quality. When the water in the paddocks gets too high, the mine offloads the water into naturally occurring wetlands that connect to a nearby river. The idea is that the process of moving through the settling paddocks and wetlands would rid the mining basin water of its more harmful elements and allow safe water to flow into the surrounding environment.

“Passive water treatment systems are sometimes referred to as ‘chemical time bombs.’”

One issue with passive water treatment systems is that they can remove contaminants, like lead and uranium, from process water and store them in the wetland sediment. A later change in wetland water chemistry, such as an increase in acidity, could remobilize those heavy metals back into dissolved form in the water column. “This is why passive water treatment systems are sometimes referred to as ‘chemical time bombs,’” explained Emerman.

Rio Tinto refers to its tailings dam as a berm, or an artificial embankment, and its tailings as process water — and thus denies having any tailings at QMM at all. In response to a question about tailings dam safety posed at the 2022 annual general meeting, Rio Tinto’s former board chair Simon Thompson asserted, “There is no tailings dam at QMM. The berm you refer to is an embankment made of sand which separates the mine from the external environment. … There are no tailings at QMM.”

There have been reports of berm failures at QMM since mining began, resulting in large releases of harmful mine waste. The first two were made in 2010 and 2018, with dead fish appearing in the lakes after the 2018 overflow.

In August 2020, QMM stopped regularly discharging its process water into the surrounding wetlands. The following year, Rio Tinto released a report that concluded that its “natural” filtration system was not working as expected, and excess levels of aluminum and cadmium were being released into the water around the mine.

Two additional berm failures occurred in early 2022, after a series of cyclones and other severe weather events battered the region. Shortly afterward, QMM carried out a controlled water release, authorized by the Malagasy regulator, to mitigate against another accidental berm breach and an uncontrolled incident that “could have significantly impacted the environment surrounding our operation,” Rio Tinto wrote on its website. Dead fish had started appearing in the lakes again, which is what Randimbisoa, the fisherman, had witnessed. In response, the authorities banned fishing, which led to widespread protests from communities living around the mine.

“When the river was polluted, we were not able to fish and all the fishermen were starving,” said Ramartial, a 58-year-old partially blind fisherman who lives on the shore of Lake Lanirano. Ramartial has seven children to feed. The local government “stopped us from fishing for months, and there was no compensation for that,” he said.

In addition to the water analysis QMM and the Malagasy environmental regulator conducted after the 2022 dead fish incident, Rio Tinto also commissioned a South African environmental research center to investigate the causes of the fish deaths. Those results have not been published yet.

In April 2022, ALT-UK also commissioned Stella Swanson, a Canada-based aquatic ecologist and radioactivity specialist, to analyze the potential causes of the fish deaths. She concluded that “the combination of acidic water and elevated aluminum in the water released from the QMM site is the most probable connection between the water releases and the fish kills observed after those releases.”

Rio Tinto maintained that its mining operations were not responsible for the fish deaths. Yet a similar combination of metals and low pH, or acidity, in water has caused fish deaths near multiple other mining sites. In the United States, for example, former lead and zinc mines at the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma caused environmental devastation and poisoned fish and people living around the mining sites, said Earl Hatley, the co-founder of LEAD Agency Inc., a grassroots environmental justice organization in the state.

With fishing no longer a viable option for single-income families, people have been forced to find other ways to make money.

“Life has gone badly since QMM took the port,” said Flogone Razatihanta, Zézé’s chatty 38-year-old wife. Razatihanta is a charismatic woman with sparkling eyes. A mother of four, she used to work as a fisherman’s wife, helping him sell his catch at the market. Like other fishers, they could make around 100,000 ariary on a good day, she says. Now, she says, that number is closer to 30,000 (about $6.72).

To help the family, Razatihanta joined a women’s weaving cooperative established by a nonprofit with financial support from QMM. Anôsy women are masterful weavers, making everything from baskets to rugs from a local reed called mahampy.

At the studio, which is located on a nearby college campus, dozens of women gather around a few long tables. A leather maker has come from Antananarivo to do some training workshops for them. Razatihanta sits cross-legged on the floor of the adjoining showroom, surrounded by colorful woven baskets. The problem is that she has no market to sell them. The project has provided the skills and training but has failed to connect the women to market opportunities. Zézé and Razatihanta say they are unable to send all their children to school at the same time, because they don’t have enough money.

Another challenge is procuring the high-quality mahampy needed to make the items. Ever since the mine was constructed, the mahampy forests along the water have been degraded, locals say. They don’t produce enough, forcing the women to buy from sellers outside the region.

“We have mahampy but it’s not enough,” said Razatihanta. “We have no access to it anymore.”

Razafimandimby Maurella, 24, collects water from Lake Larinano in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. People living near the lake use the water for everything, from washing clothes to drinking.
Maurella Razafimandimby, 24, collects water from Lake Larinano in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. People living near the lake use the water for everything, from washing clothes to drinking.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Blood and Water

Clean water has long been an issue around the QMM mine, and in recent years, it has become the main issue. Around 15,000 people draw their drinking water from the lakes and waterways around the mine.

Rio Tinto has made numerous promises around water provision for locals. “We believe that access to safe and clean water is a fundamental human right and continue to make this a community development priority,” the Rio Tinto spokesperson told The Intercept.

In July 2022, the company commissioned a global water treatment company to design and construct a pilot-scale unit to treat water using controlled addition of limestone, “so that it complies with the national decree for pH and aluminum concentration,” the spokesperson said. The plant has treated approximately 1,750,000 m³ of water during its first year of operation and will be expanded to a full-scale plant in 2024.

Today, residents complain of a water hierarchy in the area. Water treated in the QMM facility is intended only for the mine workforce and certain communities living close to the mine, QMM explained in its most recent water report.

Water treated in the QMM facility is intended only for the mine workforce and certain communities living close to the mine.

In that report, released at the end of 2023, QMM’s managing director David-Alexandre Tremblay wrote, “we have heard concerns that our operations at Mandena are potentially causing harm to the quality and availability of water,” and emphasized that QMM is trying to address concerns about the transparency and equity of water management.

One strategy is to develop a community-led water monitoring program. “We believe the more we involve the communities in water management, and understand how they use the land and environment, the better our water strategy will be,” said Rio Tinto’s spokesperson.

After Orengo, the director of ALT-UK, discovered the buffer zone breach discovery in 2017, ALT-UK asked Swanson, the ecologist from Canada, to conduct a radioactivity study to determine the presence of radioactive material in the surrounding waterways. The study found that uranium was detectable — in concentrations up to 50 times the WHO drinking water quality guidelines for chemical toxicity — in samples from all QMM’s river water monitoring stations.

“The QMM mine definitely releases more uranium into water on the site, thus creating an enhanced source of uranium to the Mandromondromotra River and Lac Ambavarano,” Swanson wrote in a 2019 memo.

In a response, QMM denied having any impact on the high levels of uranium in the water and claimed that the elevated levels were a naturally occurring result of local geological conditions. “This is not a QMM related impact and is an aspect of the water used by local communities before the commencement of construction or operations at QMM,” the company argued.

A girl plays next to a water tank supplied by Rio Tinto to Emanakana village on the shores of Lake Lanirano in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. Employees come few times a week to fill up the tanks ever since people were discouraged to drink water from the lakes.
A girl plays next to a water tank supplied by Rio Tinto to Emanakana village on the shores of Lake Lanirano in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 9, 2023. Employees come few times a week to fill up the tanks ever since people were discouraged to drink water from the lakes.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

But the company has started bringing in water by boat to villages along the lakes anyway. It is also building water treatment facilities and pumps as it attempts to create permanent safe water infrastructure for the local population. These efforts are still underway, with half-completed construction projects dotting the landscape. And they are happening years after the mine became operational, and only after disruptive protests by the residents.

Following Swanson’s radioactivity study, Emerman, the mining expert who studied the breach, conducted his own analysis using data from Rio Tinto and samples collected by local residents. It revealed that the maximum downstream lead and uranium concentrations were 40 and 52 times higher, respectively, than the WHO-recommended standards for drinking water. Emerman also found that lead levels were 4.9 times higher downstream of the mine, and uranium levels were 24 times higher downstream. According to Emerman, these results, and their contrast with the 2001 baseline study, point to QMM as the source of contamination.

Because uranium is highly toxic, inhalation or ingestion can result in decreased kidney function or, in extreme cases, kidney failure. Lead poisoning is a more familiar issue. There is no safe level of lead exposure. Thirty percent of global idiopathic intellectual disability is thought to be a result of lead exposure. While it affects everyone, lead exposure has the greatest negative impact on children when consumed, because it affects neurologic development.

“They put in a lot of safety measures in countries where people are watching. Not in countries like Madagascar, where nobody’s watching.”

“That’s largely because children’s neurological development is still very immature. So, they’re developing neurons, they’re forming millions of them per day. And neural development itself is critical to your long-term cognitive ability,” said Gabriel Filippelli, a biogeochemist with expertise in lead poisoning.

Pregnant mothers exposed to lead can suffer spontaneous abortions. Nursing mothers are also at great risk, because they share the lead with fetuses in the womb, through breastmilk or formula mixed with lead-contaminated water.

Mining source contamination is an all-too-familiar problem. “We know this is a problem with mines. The mine operators know that it’s a problem with mines,” said Filippelli. “So, that’s why they put in a lot of safety measures in countries where people are watching. Not in countries like Madagascar, where nobody’s watching.”

The fisherman Olivier Randimbisoa and his 24-year-old niece Morella Razafimandimby both have young children who have been drinking lake water since they were born. Both say they have a child who is passing blood in their urine, and both blame QMM. Doctors have been unable to determine the source of the problem, and the parents are frantic.

“All we need is to be healthy,” said Razafimandimby.

A man stands next to a Rio Tinto sign at Ampasy Nahampoana health center in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
A man stands next to a Rio Tinto sign at Ampasy Nahampoana health center in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 10, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

In this part of Madagascar, which is rife with parasites and water-borne illnesses, it’s difficult to assign blame for any particular child’s illness. The area is deficient in high-quality health care facilities. A visit to a center that the government touts as a top-tier facility revealed a three-room building with a leaking roof and five rotting mattresses. Despite serving dozens of small villages living adjacent to the mine, there were only nurses to see patients, rather than medical doctors. Power was unreliable. Refrigeration was scant.

There were no blood lead levels testing publicly available for the population living around the QMM mine until now. In its new claim, Leigh Day states that blood lead level testing on 58 people living around the mine, among them children, shows elevated levels of lead. Scientific studies have found that children with blood lead levels above the WHO’s threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter are likely to suffer at least some amount of mental impairment as a result. 

An expert clinical toxicologist working with Leigh Day has recommended ongoing periodic blood lead testing for all 58 of the clients who were tested. For at-risk groups such as children, women of child-bearing age, and those with a blood lead level above the WHO reference level, the expert has recommended additional interventions including clinical monitoring, more frequent blood lead testing, nutritional supplements, and additional antenatal care, where appropriate. One client with particularly high blood lead levels has been advised to undergo chelation therapy, which helps remove pollutants from the bloodstream.

“Rio Tinto continues to make bold public commitments about safeguarding vital water sources and respecting the rights of those affected by its operations wherever in the world they may be,” said Dowling, of Leigh Day. “We trust the company will now stand behind those commitments and engage constructively with our clients’ claims at an early stage to ensure the communities no longer have to rely on polluted water and get the medical attention they need.”

Late last year, Rio Tinto released its QMM Water Report 2021-2023, which included new water sampling data as well as additional information about the company’s developing water management practices. The report showed that all parameters were below the analytical limits of detection upstream and downstream of the mine’s release point during the reporting period. However, Emerman independently assessed the report and expressed concern that Rio Tinto looked only at recent data in isolation and ignored baseline and historical data, used inconsistent detection limits, and even appeared to have two versions of what should be the same dataset. Nonetheless, Emerman concluded that the new data confirmed “the detrimental impact of the QMM mine on regional water quality,” and that it failed to alter his earlier conclusions. 

“As presented in the Water Report 2021-2023, acknowledging the challenges associated with the on-site laboratory analytical processes, we decided in 2021 to use external accredited laboratories to conduct water quality sample analyses and also initiated work to upgrade our on-site laboratory capability and processes,” the Rio Tinto spokesperson wrote in response. “The metal monitoring data presented in this Water Report is based only on external laboratory data obtained from [an] accredited laboratory. In addition to their accredited quality assurance procedures, this facility undertakes water quality analyses with limits of analytical detection that are more suitable for environmental assessment.”

Rio Tinto also published the results of a new radioactivity study that it commissioned. “QMM’s contribution to radiation dose within the community has been assessed and found to be far smaller than the variation in natural background radiation levels and below national and international regulatory limits for radiation,” Rio Tinto wrote in a press release announcing the study results. The study “concludes there is no basis for heightened health concerns around local radiation levels,” the spokesperson told The Intercept, adding that the company is committed to managing radiation, water quality, and working transparently with the regulator and the communities.

“The consequence of being wrong is an increase in the risk of people getting cancer.”

Swanson, the radioactivity expert, independently assessed the study. While commending improvements in monitoring, she nonetheless concluded that “the level of confidence in the conclusions presented in the report cannot be determined quantitatively because of limitations of the study design.” Swanson expressed particular concern about a lack of data from the river during times when QMM process wastewater was being discharged.

“If I were a decision-maker, and I was asking them, ‘Are you 95 percent confident, or are you only 80 percent confident in the results of the study?’, they wouldn’t be able to say,” Swanson told The Intercept. “The consequence of being wrong is an increase in the risk of people getting cancer.”

The Rio Tinto spokesperson wrote that the company has invited Swanson to give her feedback on the report, but that the meeting has not yet happened. “We are keen to discuss Dr Swanson’s views on the report,” the spokesperson wrote. “We remain committed to managing radiation at our operations, and to transparently working with the regulator and the host communities to ensure effective monitoring.”

People walk past a sign celebrating Rio Tinto´s 150 years in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 8, 2023.
People walk past a sign celebrating Rio Tinto’s 150 years in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 8, 2023.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Work Is Work

Because jobs are scarce in the region, attitudes toward the mine’s presence are complex and often contradictory. People resent the environmental degradation, health problems, and other changes to their way of life that they attribute to the mine. Yet it remains, for many, the only hope they have of escaping poverty and providing a higher standard of living for their children.

“We’ve faced many hardships in life,” said Razatihanta, Zézé’s wife. “My dream is that my husband doesn’t have to work, so he doesn’t have to fish.” Razatihanta wants her sons to get their driving licenses, so they can get jobs as drivers at QMM. “The mine is already there, so what can we do?” she asks. “Whether we like it or not, it’s already operational, so it’s better to send our boys there to take advantage of it and earn a salary.”

Olivier Randimbisoa feels the same way. He has applied to work at QMM three times but has never gotten a job there.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re happy or not happy,” he said. “It’s the government that decided to bring this company here. But work is work. Less than half the population has work. You either work as a fisherman or you work at the mine, and fishing has changed a lot, so I don’t have much choice.”

According to Rio Tinto, QMM currently employs 2,000 people with the with the vast majority being Malagasy nationals and 73 percent coming from local communities.

But Randimbisoa believes that QMM reserves highly skilled jobs and training opportunities only for foreigners or people from the capital, Antananarivo.

“Even if you’re highly qualified, even if you have the best degree in the world, if you’re coming from Fort Dauphin, you get the worst jobs,” he said. “Most people from here are getting lower [paying] jobs, like drivers.”

Georges Marolahy Razafidrafara, who lives in a small bamboo house in Mandramondramotra, experienced this firsthand. He began working for QMM in 2001, before the mine had been built, as an environmentalist taking care of seedlings. In 2005, he was transferred to the mining site, where he helped the geologists with their work.

Razafidrafara Marolany Georges, 40, poses for a portrait at his home in Mandromodrotra in Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 13, 2023. Georges worked on and off for Rio Tinto from 2001 until 2016.
Georges Marolahy Razafidrafara, 40, poses for a portrait at his home in Mandromodrotra in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, on July 13, 2023. Georges worked on and off for Rio Tinto from 2001 until 2016.
Photo: Patrick Meinhardt for The Intercept

Razafidrafara says that in 2008, a QMM executive assured villagers in Mandramondramotra that they would be a top hiring priority for the company. Razafidrafara says he did work at the mine on three-month temporary contracts, at times making as much as 250,000 ariary (about $56) per month, but he was never given a full-time job. He says he lived in a state of constant insecurity.

One of his responsibilities was giving tours to students and people coming to visit the mine from Antananarivo. As Razafidrafara watched, some of those students got full-time jobs at the mine, while he continued making ends meet on the short-term contracts. “They were all well-treated,” he said, taking a strong drag from his cigarette.

“Rio Tinto doesn’t care about me,” he said. “They’re just here for profit.”

The dichotomy in this town is striking. Just across from Razafidrafara’s house is another home with a brand-new red motorcycle parked outside. A QMM engineer lives there. He has worked at the mine for 10 years, is a full-time employee with benefits, and has sent all his children to university. Critics of the mine say that its divide-and-conquer strategy is highly effective: Those benefiting from the mine will fight to protect it against anyone who wants to see it held to account.

Razafidrafara worries about the water quality, especially because he has a daughter who is still just a toddler. “QMM always says ‘Yeah, we take the water samples to analyze in the lab,’ but we never get the results,” he said. “They always come back and say it’s drinkable, but they truck water into the mine [for their employees].”

The way Razafidrafara sees it, the local population were promised prosperity. Instead, they got poison.

The reporting for this investigation was supported by a grant from Journalists for Transparency, an initiative of Transparency International.

The post Rio Tinto’s Madagascar Mine Promised Prosperity. It Tainted a Community. appeared first on The Intercept.