By Edward Carver
The device you are using right now, as you read this story, was likely made with rare earth elements from China. Rare earths are used in computers and cell phones, among many other modern devices, and demand for them continues to rise. But in the last several decades, rare earth mining has taken a toll on China’s environment, and its government is cutting back on supply, causing investors to look elsewhere in search of these elements.
One highly sought-after rare earth deposit — valued by some consultants at over U.S. $1 billion — lies beneath native forest in northwest Madagascar, tucked between a protected area and Nosy Be, the country’s main tourist site. Due to the project’s potentially severe environmental and social impacts, many local people are calling for it to be stopped. Madagascar’s government will soon have to decide its fate.
What is the project?
Tantalum Rare Earth Malagasy (TREM), a mining company, has a 115-square-mile concession on the Ampasindava peninsula in northwest Madagascar, a large island to the east of mainland Africa. TREM has explored the area for rare earths for the past eight years, and its managing company has touted the results as “exceptionally promising.” The area is, it turns out, not just rich in biodiversity, but also in valuable rare earths such as neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium.
Who owns the project?
ISR Capital, a Singaporean company that is under investigation for financial misconduct, is in the process of taking a majority stake in TREM. Last year, after its announced acquisition of TREM, ISR’s stock went up by more than forty times. (In fact, the stock started its dramatic rise just before the announcement was made.) In November, the stock crashed, losing more than half its value on the same day that John Soh Chee Wen, the suspected mastermind of the Singapore penny-stock scandal of 2013, was arrested — authorities said he was responsible for “the largest market manipulation case in Singapore’s history.” Prosecutors later confirmed that Soh was “intimately involved in” the management of ISR Capital and announced they were investigating the company. The Singapore stock exchange suspended trading of ISR stock for over three months, and a number of ISR executives resigned. (To learn more about the mining company’s troubles and local opposition to the project, see the full story on Mongabay’s website.)
Who opposes the project?
Local farmers in Ampasindava have teamed up with tourist operators in Nosy Be to oppose the project. They traveled together to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, in June to ask government ministries to cancel the project.
Last month, I visited Ampasindava, a remote area covered in verdant bamboo and ravinala forests, to ask the locals about TREM. “We felt in danger because of the big company that bothered us and underestimated us,” Delphin Malazamanana, the president of the farmers’ group, who lives in a simple thatch-roofed hut in a village inside the concession area, told me. “So we had the idea to protect ourselves by creating this group.”
What is special about the Ampasindava peninsula?
Aside from the TREM concession, the Ampasindava peninsula is a protected area covering more than 350 square miles. The protected area would have been larger if TREM had not, during negotiations with the government and environmental groups, successfully lobbied to protect the borders of its concession.
Eighty percent of Ampasindava’s plants are endemic to Madagascar, and eight percent exist only on the peninsula. At least eight species of lemurs live on the peninsula, and most are listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
Six of the lemur species are endemic to northwest Madagascar, and at least one, the Mittermeier sportive lemur (Lepilemur mittermeieri), a mostly nocturnal primate, is found only on the peninsula. Research indicates that only about 10,000 of these lemurs remain. Conservation biologists worry that the TREM project could cause fragmentation of the sportive lemur’s habitat and threaten its survival.
The buildup to exploitation will likely bring lots of new people and construction projects to Ampasindava, putting a strain on water and forest resources. “The change in lifestyle will happen quickly,” predicts Jeannie Raharimampionana, head of conservation at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Madagascar program, which manages the protected area. “We won’t be able to manage the massive changes.”
Is it necessary to mine for rare earths in places like Madagascar?
Rare earth elements could instead be recycled from old electronic devices, research shows. But a 2012 EPA report found that, “REEs are being disposed in large quantities rather than being recovered or reused.”
Rare earths can now also be extracted from the tailings of other mines. In Brazil, a mining company called CBMM is in the final stages of developing this technique and expects it to be fully operational late this year or early next. CBMM separates rare earths from the tailings of its niobium mine. This reduces mining waste and prevents the need for further mining of rare earths. If such cutting edge techniques were adopted on a wider scale, places like Ampasindava could be protected. “Rare earths abound in the tailings from silver and phosphate mines, so there is a lot of untapped potential that would make things like the Madagascar concession completely irrelevant,” Julie Klinger, an international relations professor at Boston University who studies the rare earth industry, wrote to me in an email. “What is missing is political will,” she added.
(The U.S. Department of Energy did recently announce that it will fund research into extracting rare earths from coal byproducts.)
How does rare earth mining impact the environment?
Deposits in southern China, which are similar to the one in Ampasindava, have contaminated nearby soils and left locals with high levels of rare earth elements in their blood and hair. A new paper from the Chinese Academy of Sciences argues that “irrational exploitation of rare earth resources has caused severe damage to local resources.” Land and water can be ruined by radioactive materials or arsenic from the mines. Authorities in China have been reluctant to reveal the true impacts of rare earth mining to the international community, according to Klinger, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and did research in Bayan Obo, the self-proclaimed Hometown of Rare Earths. “Some true locals are tragically recognizable by their blistered skin and discolored teeth, indicating severe chronic exposure to arsenic leaching out of the mine,” Klinger wrote in a 2013 essay.
When will the full-fledged exploitation phase begin in Madagascar?
ISR Capital is looking to accelerate the project and take it into its exploitation phase. In regulatory filings, the company has explained that it expects to receive the necessary permits very soon. However, ISR does not currently have so much as an active exploration permit — a fact the company has apparently not revealed to investors or regulators — so Madagascar’s government could put a stop to the project right now by simply declining to issue any further permits.
What could this project mean for Madagascar?
This is a large and potentially dangerous project to undertake in a country where oversight is weak and corruption often undermines conservation efforts. Madagascar’s recent environmental record is not strong, and the president recently announced that plans to strengthen the mining code, a top priority for conservationists, will be put on hold.
Rare earth mining is new to Madagascar and decision-makers here should be trained on its particulars, a top official in the country’s environment ministry told me. Otherwise, they may easily yield to pressure to sign on the dotted line — ISR Capital has explained in a regulatory filing that TREM plans to spend $7.1 million to obtain the necessary permits from Madagascar’s government. This would leave the farmers, and the ecosystems, of Ampasindava at the mercy of a troubled and unproven company, which has not completed such a project before.
Rosé Mamory, the president of Befitina, a village in the middle of the concession, told me that he had never even been shown TREM’s permits. “It is our land,” he said. “No one here gave the land to them. It was the national government that did that.”
READ EDWARD CARVER’S FULL REPORT AT MONGABAY.COM.
Edward Carver is a writer based in Madagascar. He teaches in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Antananarivo and he has a master’s in journalism from New York University. He first came to Madagascar as a Peace Corps Volunteer.