Armenia’s environmental crimes committed in Azerbaijani lands are said to cause $285 billion in damages

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev vowed to start legal proceedings at international courts to demand compensation for the damage and ecological terror committed by Armenians in the once occupied Azerbaijani territories.

The announcement was made at a video meeting with the newly appointed special representative of the Azerbaijani president in the Zangilan district.

The president outlined deforestation, illegal exploitation of gold reserves, and contamination of rivers as one of the ultimate examples of the environmental terror conducted by Armenians.

“Fifty to sixty thousand hectares of forest have been completely destroyed. We observed this via satellite. A process of deliberate deforestation was underway, especially in Kalbajar, Lachin, Zangilan and Gubadli districts. This, in fact, is savagery and looting,” President Aliyev was quoted as saying by his official website.

According to him, the world’s second-largest sycamore forest in Zangilan suffered seriously from deliberate deforestation and arson, which were also observed in the Kalbajar and Lachin districts even after the war in 2020. Moreover, the Okhchu River and the Vejnali gold deposit in Zangilan were also subjected to large-scale ecological terror and illegal exploitation.

“The illegal exploitation of the Vejnali gold deposit by foreigners, including foreigners of Armenian origin, will cost them dearly. We know the names of those people. We will expose them to the world and they will compensate us. They will definitely pay compensation for the damage,” President Aliyev said.

“We have now started all the legal procedures … Not a single crime will go unanswered. First, we are calculating all the damage, the process of passportization of all our cities and villages is underway. Video and photos of each building or the ruins of that building are being taken. This is proof, and we intend to appeal to international courts. Preparations are underway.”

According to the preliminary estimates, the amount of material damage caused by Armenians to Azerbaijan’s infrastructure, resources, and citizens totals $818 billion. The environmental crimes caused $285 billion in damages.

The Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly voiced the unprecedented systematic deforestation activities in the Karabakh region, calling for an international investigation into the issue.

Meanwhile, five gold deposits and other natural resources of Azerbaijan in the once occupied territories have been intensively looted by the local Armenian companies and those invited from overseas. Companies such as Vallex Group, First Dynasty Mines, Base Metals, Lydian International, GeoProMining, Vedanta Group, and the Armenian-descent businessmen and entrepreneurs had been involved in illegal mining operations in the Azerbaijani lands. The Franck Muller luxury watch manufacturer company owned by a Swiss tycoon of Armenian origin, Vartan Sirmakes, used gold from the Soyudlu and the Vejnali deposits of Azerbaijan in the production of Frank Muller watches. Sirmakes has reportedly exploited gold worth $302 million.

The contamination of the Okhchu river, one of the eleven rivers of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region, which is home to more than 30 percent of the country’s overall drinking water reserves, has also been a great concern for the Azerbaijani authorities over the years.

Baku blamed the Armenian authorities for not preventing the pollution of the river, the water of which is not used in Armenia and flows into Azerbaijan’s agriculturally important Araz River. The Okhchu river is said to be used as a “collector” by Armenia’s producers for sending away the industrial wastes from the country’s territory and causing agricultural, environmental, and humanitarian disasters in Azerbaijan. The analysis of the samples taken from the Okhchu river revealed many life-threatening elements in the water, including copper, molybdenum, manganese, iron, zinc, and chromium. According to the examination results, the amount of nickel in the river was seven times, iron four times, and copper-molybdenum two times higher than normal, Caspian News writes.

Zijin Mining project is one of the many highly polluting Chinese investments

China’s Zijin Mining is polluting a village in southeastern Europe’s Serbia without permits, local consent or transparency, an environmental activist group claims.

Bor, in northeastern Serbia, is one of the Balkan country’s most polluted cities, according to Just Finance, a Dutch group that advocates for public budgets spent on development and infrastructure finance to contribute to sustainability.

The group said China’s Zijin Mining, which runs the city’s large-scale copper mining and smelting complex, is one of the many highly polluting Chinese investments undertaken “without the necessary environmental and social due diligence”.

“Since 2018, when the new owner of Bor smelter complex, the Chinese-owned Serbia Zijin Copper started its operations, the lives of the citizens in at least five villages in this area of Serbia have been upended,” the group said.

In an open letter this March the villagers of Ostrelj said Serbia Zijin Copper and Serbia Zijin Mining are expanding their activities, which threatens their health, private property, and livelihood.

In 2016, Zijin agreed to pump nearly $1.5 billion into the Serbian copper and gold project and paid $350 million for 63% of state-run Serbian miner RTB Bor Group.

The villagers are calling on the authorities to stop unauthorised construction and find a solution for residents living between old and new mines and hills of tailings. “When winds blow, the Ostrelj village is coated in toxic dust,” Just Finance said.

The villagers claim that the authorities have not developed a master plan that takes into account environmental impact.

Just Finance said an environmental impact assessment for one facility was put out for public consultation after it had already been built, Asia Financial writes.

Rio Tinto faced a rude shock

On the face of it, there seems to be little in the way of connection between the treatment of Novak Djokovic by Australian authorities and the cooling of the Serbian government towards Rio Tinto. The Anglo-Australian mining giant was confident that it would, at least eventually, win out in gaining the permissions to commence work on its US$2.4 billion lithium-borates mine in the Jadar Valley.

In 2021, Rio Tinto stated that the project would “scale up [the company’s] exposure to battery materials, and demonstrate the company’s commitment to investing capital in a disciplined manner to further strengthen its portfolio for the global energy transition.”

The road had been a bit bumpy, including a growing environmental movement determined to scuttle the project. But the ruling coalition, led by the Serbian Progressive Party, had resisted going wobbly on the issue.

Then came the maligning of the world number one tennis player in Australia. Djokovic had been tormented by a brief spell of confinement in quarters normally reserved for refugees kept in indefinite detention, and eventually defeated in the Full Court of the Federal Court. During the course of events, he saw his visa cancelled twice, first by a member of the Australian Border Force, the next time by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke. Along the way, lynch mobs were thrilled that “Novaxx” Djokovic, that great threat to Australia’s vaccinated innocence, was finally on a flight home.

The Serbian government attempted to intervene. President Aleksander Vučić made a plea to the Morrison government to resist cancelling Djokovic’s visa; the Australian Open was the Serbian tennis player’s favourite tournament, one he had won numerous times.

A diplomatic incident, more murmur than bark, was sparked. “In line with all standards of international public law, Serbia will fight for Novak Djokovic,” promised the Serbian premier. But for an Australian government that has flouted international law and fetishized border control, the call mattered little.

In Serbia, Rio Tinto then faced a rude shock. The Vučić government, having praised the potential of the Jadar project for some years, abruptly abandoned it. “All decisions (connected to the lithium project) and all licenses have been annulled,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated flatly on January 20. “As far as project Jadar is concerned, this is an end.”

Branabić insisted, somewhat disingenuously, that this decision merely acknowledged the will of voters. “We are listening to our people and it is our job to protect their interests even when we think differently.”

This is a bit rich coming from a government hostile to industry accountability and investment transparency. The same government also decided to begin infrastructure works on the jadarite mine before the granting of an exploitation permit. Such behaviour has left advocates such as Savo Manojlović of the NGO Kreni-Promeni wondering why Rio Tinto was singled out over, for instance, Eurolithium, which was permitted to dig in the environs of Valjevo in western Serbia.

Zorana Mihajlović, Serbia’s mining and energy minister, preferred to blame the environmental movement, though the alibi seemed a bit forced. “The government showed it wanted the dialogue … (and) attempts to use ecology for political purposes demonstrate they (green groups) care nothing about the lives of the people, nor the industrial development.”

Rio Tinto had been facing an impressive grass roots militia, mobilised to remind Serbians about the devastating implications of proposed lithium mining operations. The Ne damo Jadar (We won’t let anyone take Jadar) group has unerringly focused attention on the secret agreements reached between the mining company and Belgrade. Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the group, is convinced that the mine would “not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives.”

Taking issue with the the unflattering environmental record of the Anglo-Australian company, numerous protests were organised and petitions launched, including one that has received 292,571 signatures. Last month, activists organised gatherings and marches across the country, including road blockades.

Djokovic has not been immune to the growing green movement, if only to lend a few words of support. In a December Instagram story post featuring a picture of anti-mining protests, he declared that, “Clean air, water and food are the keys to health. Without it, every word about health is redundant.”

Rio Tinto’s response to the critics was that of the seductive guest keen to impress: we have gifts for the governors, the rulers and the parliamentarians. Give us permission to dig, and we will make you the envy of Europe, green and environmentally sound ambassadors of the electric battery and car revolution.

The European Battery Alliance, a group of electric vehicle supply chain companies, is adamant that the Jadar project “constituted an important share of potential European domestic supply.” The mine would have “contributed to support the growth of a nascent industrial battery-related ecosystem in Serbia, contributing to a substantial amount to Serbia’s annual GDP.” Assiduously selective, the group preferred to ignore the thorny environmental implications of the venture.

The options facing the mining giant vary, none of which would appeal to the board. In a statement, the company claimed that it was “reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia.” It might bullyingly seek to sue Belgrade, a move that is unlikely to do improve an already worn reputation. “For a major mining company to sue a state is very unusual,” suggests Peter Leon of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. “A claim under the bilateral treaty is always a last resort, but not a first resort.”

Another option for punters within the company will be a political gamble: hoping that April’s parliamentary elections will usher in a bevy of pro-mining representatives. By then, public antagonism against matters Australian will have dimmed. The Serbian ecological movement, however, is unlikely to ease their campaign. The age of mining impunity in the face of popular protest has come to an end.


Centerra Gold Inc. is claiming a Kyrgyz open-pit mine it once ran has flooded and poses safety and environmental risks

Centerra Gold Inc. is claiming a Kyrgyz open-pit mine it once ran has flooded and poses safety and environmental risks, although the government-appointed administrator says the water has always been there.

There may be at least 40 meters (131 feet) of water at the bottom of the Kumtor central pit, the Canadian mining company said Tuesday in a statement, citing photos on Kumtor Gold Co.’s website and a company video posted mid August on Facebook.

Kumtor’s administrator said in response that the amount of water has always been present and it’s used for the mine’s needs, according to a statement Wednesday. It added that the information presented by Centerra “doesn’t correspond with reality” and is an effort to “undermine the reputation” of the administrator.

Centerra’s concerns stem from the fact that it owned and operated the mine through subsidiary Kumtor Gold under a 2009 agreement with the government, before the Kyrgyz Republic seized the facility in May on environmental grounds and tax issues. It’s now the subject of international arbitration initiated by Centerra. Kumtor Gold filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York on May 31.

Centerra has also called for discussions on the issue, but the Kyrgyz government said in June that it will be extremely hard to build a dialog. The Toronto-based company now alleges that current management is not providing the resources necessary to safely operate the mine, thus endangering Kumtor workers and threatening the sustainability of the entire operation.

“Water in an open-pit mine decreases stability and increases the risk of a wall failure”, Centerra Chief Operating Officer Dan Desjardins said in an emailed statement. “For Kumtor, pumping water out of the mine and treating it properly to remove contaminants has always been critically important to the safe operation of the mine given its proximity to glaciers”.

A buildup of water could penetrate pit slopes and cause potential contamination of nearby waterways, said Gavin Wendt, a senior resource analyst at MineLife Pty. There’s also a risk of subsidence, which would be extremely time-consuming and costly to resolve, as well as being potentially fatal for any workers operating within the mine itself.

“The primary issue of water residing in an operating mine is the danger presented by instability to the pit itself”, Wendt said. “Typically, water and mines don’t mix”.

Desjardins, who managed the mine for five years as the president of Kumtor Gold until January 2020, has urged the management to retain independent mining experts to assess the condition of the mine and to publish the findings.


Zijin’s request for separate environment assessments rejected in Serbia

The two organizations Association of Young Researchers Bor and the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) have been raising the alarm in the public and with the Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection, arguing that the Zijin attempted a case of salami slicing – artificial fragmentation of a project to hide the impact on the environment.

Based on objections from the Association of Young Researchers Bor and RERI, the Ministry of Environmental Protection of Serbia rejected the request by company Serbia Zijin Copper to decide on the need for an environmental impact assessment for a part of its project and ordered it to conduct a study for the entire complex.

Zijin wrote to the ministry in December with a claim that a study for the preparatory construction works within the expansion of its copper smelter in Bor isn’t necessary. They include excavation and the enlargement and reconstruction of existing structures.

Ministry changes course


Legal expert from RERI Hristina Vojvodić pointed out that the Chinese company already tried to break up the projects for increasing its output into smaller pieces and that the latest decision is “unique and made from a completely opposite standpoint” than in similar processes in Serbia lately.

She told Balkan Green Energy News it is the first time that an investor is trying to exclude preparatory works and said that the organization is looking into information that some of the planned structures have already been built.

“The construction permit can only be issued after the impact assessment study is approved. The project includes a desulfurization unit and a sulfuric acid plant and storage facility, making it potentially very dangerous for the environment. If Zijin obtained the permits, it would get the right to launch construction even though it wouldn’t know if it would be allowed to implement the entire endeavor. The ministry instructed the company that it can’t divide the project and it was a necessary move to get the whole picture,” Vojvodić stated.

Preparatory construction works have no independent purpose


According to the Law on Planning and Construction, the construction of a structure consists of preliminary works, the production and supervision of technical documentation, preparatory construction works, the construction itself and simultaneous professional oversight. It means that the aforementioned works aren’t a separate project and that they have no independent purpose, RERI said.

When the construction of the smelter in Serbia’s east is viewed as a whole, the negative environmental impact and the necessity of a study become obvious, the experts and activists said.

Hristina Vojvodić stressed the responsibility of state institutions and highlighted the attempts by investors to “copy, imitate the methods” that worked for other investors. On the other hand, citizens and activists now pay more attention and the public is interested in the information on infringements, she underscored.

Typical examples of salami slicing were registered in projects for Linglong’s tire factory in Zrenjanin and coal-fired thermal power plant Kostolac B3, Vojvodić said.



Environmental costs of lithium mining

Lithium is a metal, and its physical and chemical properties make it versatile enough to be baked into lubricants, ceramics and other useful stuff, including batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, invented in the late 1970s and prized for their energy density and rechargeability, are integral to two pillars of the Green New Deal: electric vehicles and power storage.

In January, a pair of activists, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, pitched a tent in one of the loveliest valleys of the region, seeking to rally resistance to a proposed lithium mine on public land. The place where they’ve established their protest camp is called Thacker Pass. Falk and Wilbert, camped out in midwinter cold, enduring what is no doubt some small privation, are asking that we recognize the ecological and environmental cost of the so-called sustainable economy, at the center of which is the mining of lithium. We need to understand why they are taking a stand at Thacker Pass.

A Less Than Green New Deal?


Climate campaigners have decreed that the world’s cars and trucks must switch to electricity — an imperative that was boosted by General Motors’ recent announcement that it intends to sell only electrics after 2035. Climate hawks say biodiesel can’t be done at scale and hydrogen vehicles are years from commercial use, and they’re right, not when American households and businesses own 275 million cars and trucks and drive them over 3 trillion miles each year — making “ground transportation” the country’s biggest source of planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions. Key to the green idea for transportation is to make wind and solar power so plentiful that the electric grid will no longer need generators running on fossil fuels. Electric vehicle battery re-charging — and driving — will then be emission-free and climate-pure.

Of course, a renewables-based grid is subject to fluctuating output from the wind farms and solar arrays. That’s where lithium’s other GND connection comes in: powering massive rechargeable battery stacks that can feed electricity into the grid for hours at a time, continuously stabilizing electricity supply. Already, giant assemblages of lithium-ion batteries are sprouting up in California, where renewable energy has penetrated furthest, enabling utilities in the state to close some turbines burning fracked methane. The Green New Deal, the anointed framework for perpetuating industrial civilization as we know it while creating jobs and a “just transition” from the fossil-fuel economy, is clearly better than our carbon-based catastrophic course. It also depends on massive amounts of lithium. I figure that electrifying all U.S. cars and trucks in two decades, as envisioned in GND scenarios, will demand the continuous lithium output of three to five Thacker Pass mines. Powering “utility-side” grid-smoothing batteries will require still more. How much, I do not know. An extensive literature search turned up not a single statement of the quantity of lithium needed per gigawatt-hour, say, of electricity storage — an indication, perhaps, of the alienation of Green New Dealers and energy scenario-spinners alike from the physical implications of their intentions.

Lithium = Devastation


One reason for Falk and Wilbert’s stand is obvious: the lithium mine at Thacker Pass will destroy an entire sagebrush ecosystem. Mind you, what’s planned at Thacker Pass isn’t just an epic-sized mine. There will also be an enormous complex to extract lithium from the mined ore for its conversion into a non-volatile carbonate form to be made into batteries. Because lithium’s concentration in ore at Thacker Pass runs as low as two-tenths of one percent, producing one ton of the stuff for use by society entails strip mining and processing as much as 500 tons of earth. Over a single year, producing 60,000 tons of lithium at the site could mean digging up as much as 20 to 30 million tons of earth, more than the annual amount of earth dug up to produce all coal output of all but seven or eight U.S. states. Removing the lithium from the ore is done with the industrial economy’s dissolver of choice, the notoriously corrosive and toxic sulfuric acid. The developer, Canada-based, China-backed Lithium Americas Corp., plans to acidify molten sulfur on site, trucking in the stuff from oil refineries. Hauling the material will require 75 tractor-trailer loads a day, according to Falk and Wilbert — every one of them running on fossil fuels.

Unsurprisingly, the processing equipment is budgeted at a dozen times more than the mine itself, in Lithium Americas’ “pre-feasibility study” (pdf, p. 228 of 266), with the whole enterprise topping out at more than a billion dollars. You don’t spend that much money on apparatus to move, crush, leach and acidify earth without scarring and contaminating large swaths of it. Thus, the “Protect Thacker Pass” banner. There’s a lot to protect. On the encampment’s web site, Falk and Wilbert describe Thacker Pass as “a stunningly biodiverse, wild, expansive, and beautiful desert in the mountains.” In mid-winter, they attest that the land practically vibrates with stars and stillness.

The pair’s real aim at Thacker Pass is to question a Green New Deal that is dependent on large-scale resource extraction and industrial manufacture. Which means questioning not just society’s but the environmental movement’s acquiescence to consumerism and material growth. Where is it written, they ask, that Americans must own 275 million vehicles? Where is it written that we can’t halve that number, to Western European levels, with denser suburbs and Euro-quality transit along with broad cultural changes substituting place and proximity for pointless travel, thus slashing the “need” to replace all those cars and trucks with electric vehicles built from mined lithium? As for grid storage, rate incentives that harmonize electricity usage with its real-time availability could partially supplant batteries. Smaller homes and less air-conditioning of buildings could also trim power demand, period.

Tightening the Regulatory Screws Would Help


Would it also make a difference if the pollution discharges permitted at Thacker Pass and at other lithium mines were cut ten-fold? I believe so. This wouldn’t just reduce ecological degradation in the immediate areas. The cost to comply with those regs would boost the price of lithium carbonate. The responses to the higher price — ranging from lighter vehicles that can get by with smaller battery packs to potentially more-efficient (hence, less-resource-intensive) energy storage media — would cut demand. The U.S. has already witnessed just such a chain of events: with coal-fired power plants. To satisfy regulatory mandates to cut new plants’ soot emissions and acid gases roughly ten-fold, utilities were forced in the 1970s and 1980s to spend billions for scrubbers, precipitators and the like, driving up prices of new coal-fired plants — a progression I documented at the time. Coupled with even more meteoric cost escalation at nuclear power plants, the result was spiraling electric rates that helped spark the revolution in energy efficiency that has all but extinguished growth in electricity demand in the United States.

There, in a nutshell, is the logic behind carbon taxing: to raise prices of fossil fuels in accordance with their true costs, thus spurring reductions in their use. Lithium, no less than coal, oil and methane, should be forced to adhere to the same dynamic. If electric vehicles and carbon-free grids are rendered more expensive for awhile, so be it. Industrial civilization is still destroying ecosystems, laying waste to biodiversity, ramping up its plunder of forests, consuming more metals than ever, depleting ocean life at ever-increasing rates…and on and on… One antidote is for prices to speak the truth about underlying costs. Nevertheless, even my regulatory-based scenario has a weak link: global commerce. Make it cost more to mine lithium in the USA, and global capital will alight elsewhere. Lithium Americas already operates a mine in Argentina, and the mineral is widely distributed around the world. To evade the Whac-a-mole trap, the fight that Falk and Wilbert are mounting in Nevada has to be waged as well in Argentina, Australia and especially Chile, the world’s biggest current provider. It’s a tall order. First, though, they have to stop the mine where they’re camped, at Thacker Pass. That’s a tall order too. That lithium is a midwife to a low-carbon economy makes it less ugly than coal and less evil than oil. But all the same, it’s a force that is industrializing the entire planet, to Earth’s and our detriment and, possibly, demise.

A True Sagebrush Rebellion


Reporting in 2015 on deadbeat cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff over federal grazing fees, journalist Christopher Ketcham wrote in Harper’s that the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion — the Western resistance to federal authority over public lands and water — has always been centered in Nevada. That rebellion proffered the noxious idea that public lands should be maximally exploited for private gain. The rebellion of Falk and Wilbert, situated in the same sagebrush wilderness, seeks the opposite: “A world in which we prioritize the health of future generations. A world in which we live in harmony with the natural world, rather than relying on extraction. A world in which blowing up a mountain for lithium is just as unacceptable as blowing up a mountain for coal.”



Extractive industries’ continuous harming of the planet

The extraction of natural resources through mining and energy projects continues on a large scale, with disastrous environmental consequences. To understand how this is possible, one place to start is recognising that extraction is not just a physical engineering process. It requires social engineering as well. To be able to function smoothly, extractive corporations and their governmental allies sculpt social conditions. They “manufacture” consent and “manage” dissent towards their ventures. These industries depend on shaping the perceptions and behaviour of governments, shareholders, consumers, and people living in the areas where large-scale resource extraction occurs.

Usually, the media and academics pay attention when people resist such projects. A well known case is the struggle of the Ogoni people in southeast Nigeria to hold the oil company Shell to account for massive pollution. But it’s also important to notice the way corporations, governments and other elites try to pre-empt opposition. This means looking beyond obvious conflict and repression, to the less visible and long-term efforts to shape people’s opinions and behaviour. In a recent article in Political Geography, we analyse some of these corporate attempts at social engineering.

The counterinsurgency toolbox


Many of the corporate strategies and tactics to address opposition come from the toolbox of counterinsurgency. There are “hard” techniques, such as direct and indirect coercion, and “soft” tools aimed at “pacifying target populations”. The “softer” forms often relate to “community relations” work, such as sponsoring local events, medical clinics and other social development programmes. Social investments foster sympathy for extractive projects and dissipate criticism. How can one fight a corporation that provides so many life-affirming opportunities? The “soft tools” of social engineering also include bureaucratic procedures and practices. One example is legislation acknowledging indigenous people’s right to consent to or reject extractive projects on their land. A growing body of research shows how this legislation eases the way for projects to expand into community territories. Another way that extraction is made acceptable is through seemingly neutral speech. A case in point is speaking of “lessons learned” in relation to involuntary resettlement for extractive projects. In Mozambique, representatives of the government and extractive multinationals use the language of “learning lessons” from previous forced displacement efforts. This is to prevent opposition to renewed resettlement plans for liquid natural gas extraction in the north of the country. Directing attention to the technical procedures of displacement and how they can be “improved” takes attention away from displacement itself. And local NGOs become concerned with the resettlement initiatives, instead of critically monitoring the new projects. Bureaucratic procedures can make it look as if the people affected by resource extraction are participating, influencing decisions and sharing in the benefits. But the procedures actually channel and control dissent. They make it seem as if individuals themselves are responsible for gaining or losing from extractive operations, instead of directing attention to structural power inequalities.

The chimera of ‘green mining’


Another set of social engineering strategies is “green mining”. Since the 1990s, large-scale extractive companies have started to profile themselves as part of a global transition to sustainability. They engage in biodiversity offsets or draw on and invest in wind and solar power. More recently, corporations have attempted to depict deep-sea mining as sustainable. They claim it has limited impact on deep-sea ecosystems, in particular when compared to the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed. But it’s debatable how much “green extractivism” reduces the ecological harm of large-scale resource extraction. Offsets are based on the idea that mining corporations can make up for damage in one place by investing in biodiversity protection elsewhere. Research shows that the net benefits of these investments are very limited. Also, it’s difficult to compare the value of what is lost and what is protected. Biodiversity offsets can be part of political pacification, as shown by the case of Rio Tinto in Madagascar. Through a vast programme of offsetting and restoration, this corporation has managed to counter criticism of its operations. Yet offsets have created conflicts and insecurities for locals. They have also allowed the corporation to extend control over land, people and resources to multiple sites. The green economy has not only become a way to legitimise large-scale resource extraction. It has also become a new source of profit as corporations invest in market-driven nature conservation, ecotourism, and the production of biofuels and low-carbon energy.

Going forward


Without further economic transformation, the demand for so called “clean energy” will lead resource extraction to soar. For example, the production of minerals such as lithium and cobalt is expected to increase from 2018 by as much as 500% by 2050. “Green growth” is a false narrative that industries push to continue business as usual. Academics and social movements should expose this narrative to avoid it becoming the cornerstone of climate policy. To address the ecological and climate crisis, policies fostering degrowth and redistribution are needed. This is the only way to acknowledge the historical responsibility of rich countries and ensure climate justice on a global scale.



Deficit of trust in Rio Tinto’s social and environment program

Rights to information, to safe drinking water and a healthy environment underpin Rio Tinto’s social licence to operate. Indeed, the company goes to great lengths to promote its social and environmental program and reassure shareholders it is a “responsible operator”. Rio Tinto’s destruction of the sacred site at Juukan Gorge in Australia brought global attention to failures in the company’s operational culture. Rio Tinto must now demonstrate its social commitments are not just hollow talk.

For southern Madagascar, and four years into a dialogue with Rio Tinto about the breach of an environmental buffer zone and contamination of local waterways by its subsidiary Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM), the lack of answers, a deficit of trust, and urgent need for action begs the question: can change come soon enough?



However, the investigation that followed the blowing up of the Juukan Gorge exposed narrative disjoints when it emerged that the claimed “misunderstanding” which led to the destruction was nothing of the kind. Rio Tinto targeted the area because of its high mineral wealth – it was an informed decision.

In Madagascar, an investigation by the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) into the QMM buffer breach reveals the same modus operandi and language: a “misunderstanding” and “mistake”, when in fact the mine’s breach was also the result of a strategic decision to access the richest mineral deposit, just like at the Gorge. Only in Madagascar, there has been no response or sanction by the government, which holds a 20 percent stake in the QMM mine. There has been no national investigation or inquiry. The breach was an illegal incursion of the environment beyond the mine’s permitted boundaries. It placed mine tailings into the local lake and exposed ongoing risks from leakage and overflow of contaminated mine wastewaters into the local environment. Data reveals that QMM’s wet mining process concentrates radionuclides in the mining basin. Elevated levels of uranium and lead have been detected in waters around the mine, 52 and almost 40 times higher than WHO safe drinking water guidelines, respectively, in some places.



Villagers in Anosy are not compensated for damage done by QMM to their lakes and waterways, especially from toxic wastewater, when most have no alternative but to draw drinking water from these sources.

ALT UK has repeatedly lobbied Rio Tinto to address QMM’s wastewater discharge, and to urgently provide safe drinking water to local communities. This work has included publishing independent studies into the QMM breach and water quality and working with partners including Publish What You Pay (PWYP Madagascar and UK) and Friends of the Earth. Far from agreeing, thereby honouring its own water commitments and communities’ pressing needs for potable water, the company insisted at its 2019 AGM that elevated levels of uranium found in waters around the QMM mine are “naturally occurring” due to high background Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in the mineral rich sands. A lack of credible supporting evidence, together with an independent review demonstrating that Rio Tinto’s monitoring of radioactivity at the QMM mine was “unacceptable” (Swanson 2019), has forced the company to address failures and commission a new study. New water data – the first from Rio Tinto’s external provider, JBS&G – was shared last July and QMM asserted that “all results … were within the relevant WHO guidelines for drinking water quality”.



However, hydrology expert Dr Emerman, commissioned by the ALT UK to analyse these findings, points out that Rio Tinto failed to comply with standard procedure by interpreting the JBS&G study as if no previous water data had been collected. Dr Emerman’s integration of the new data with existing water data has reinforced his previous analysis, which confirms the detrimental impact of QMM’s operations on regional water quality (Emerman 2020). Rio Tinto ignoring pre-existing assessments is like wiping sums off a blackboard when they present too knotty an equation – one that sits uncomfortably with decades of assuring Malagasy people there were no radioactivity issues around the QMM mine. But disappearing data only raises more questions. Especially when Rio Tinto already acknowledges in its 2019 Annual Review that the QMM operation presents “a significant risk from a water and broader environmental perspective”. If the levels of uranium are now low, within the WHO limits as QMM claims, the inevitable question arises: what happened to Rio Tinto’s previous argument that the highly elevated levels of uranium found in waters around the mine were “naturally occurring”?



What is the explanation for the disappearance of contaminants? Why were previous water data collected by QMM, and independently by ALT UK, not included in the JBS&G analysis according to standard procedure? And why, when JBS&G mapped the collection of a water sample from a mining rehabilitation pond was that data excluded from the report? Although not a drinking water source, it could provide information about the loadings of contaminants in wastewater discharged from the QMM mining pond. ALT UK requested QMM wastewater data almost a year ago, were promised it in July 2020, and are still waiting for it. This data is important because drinking water is not the only concern. Local people depend on the lakes for fishing, domestic water and livelihoods. Any contamination of water and the surrounding environment affects their long-term health and wellbeing.

Trust deficit


Withholding information does not build trust. Nor does prolonged silence. Since 2018, the dialogue between my charity ALT UK and Rio Tinto has faltered. It noticeably chilled when our independent radioactivity review was published in 2019, and after we refused Rio Tinto’s request to remove the uranium finding from the report. The company has attempted to push responsibility for answers onto QMM and regional leadership. However, our dialogue is premised on the need for oversight by the parent company. QMM has failed to generate workable levels of trust, both for villagers who say that “QMM does what it wants” and for the ALT UK. Indeed, our experience when assisting local communities has revealed worrying levels of coercion, manipulation and disinformation in QMM’s social engagement practices.



Is the parent company faring better than its Madagascar subsidiary? It took two years of persistent inquiry for Rio Tinto to finally admit QMM’s buffer zone breach. Numerous related information requests and technical questions remain outstanding. In the same way, it is hard to comprehend how senior executives could have been unaware of Juukan Gorge’s importance. It is baffling when Rio Tinto fails to provide answers to technical questions when asked – especially those related to communities’ rights to safe drinking water. At one point in our exchange, a company officer exclaimed Rio Tinto was “not set up for this kind of engagement”. A troubling admission given the company commitments to corporate social responsibility – and the substantial inequality of resources at play in the engagement. Can Rio Tinto be trusted? Not yet. Not while we still await answers to our questions, and while promises remain unfulfilled.



These currently include: QMM wastewater data promised six months ago; the pledge for more transparency about any changes to QMM’s wastewater management; an agreement to hold an annual meeting with the CEO. Rio Tinto cannot be trusted while communities remain at risk from contaminated water. We are just one of many NGOs with questions for Rio Tinto and demanding they act responsibly towards mine affected communities. One is fighting to protect an Apache sacred site at Oak Flat, which is targeted for demolition by Rio Tinto, contrary to all its promises following the Juukan Gorge debacle. The pledge by the incoming CEO to build trust with stakeholders may best start by answering questions in ways that are meaningful, honest and committed to action, especially when evidence points to the need for urgent and responsive remedy.



Mining in Greenland environmental frontline of global warming

In Greenland, there are currently around 70 large-scale exploration and exploitation licences. As a result, environmental organisations fear that opening up the floodgates to mining and oil and gas production in this way will damage the delicate ecosystems and exacerbate climate pressures in the autonomous territory.

As rapidly increasing temperatures in the Arctic cause the ice to recede in Greenland, there is an international scramble to exploit the resources under the thawing ground. Environmentalists are concerned about the severe repercussions of this emerging plunder, reports Diego Francesco Marin.   In a declaration, 141 environmental organisations, including the EEB, urge the Greenlandic and Danish governments, as well as the European Union, to protect Greenland’s unique and fragile Arctic environment, which is threatened by mining, oil and natural gas extraction projects.

“There is a global pattern of opening up new mines in ecologically fragile areas populated by indigenous peoples, as documented in the Environmental Justice Atlas,” says Nick Meynen, a senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “We need to wake up to the inconvenient reality that we need to phase out both greenhouse gas emissions and mining. The Arctic is one of those fragile areas where an immediate mining moratorium is crucial.”

Radioactive plunder


Emboldened by never-ending global consumption and the push for renewable technologies around the world, mining companies are bulldozing into areas of the planet that were previously inaccessible due to the enormous costs and technical difficulties of drilling through thick ice. The receding ice, however, is exposing the island’s minerals for large-scale plunder. As Greenland continues to face the difficult challenges that climate change is imposing on its majority Inuit population, the authorities there are tempted to view the royalties they can extract from mining projects as a solution to the island’s economic woes. One of these massive projects is the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) mining project which, if allowed to go ahead, would be one of the world’s largest open-pit uranium mines and source of REEs, a key component of electric vehicles, smartphones and renewable technologies, and the first mining project of its kind in the Arctic region. The proposed mine lies only a few kilometres from the Kujataa UNESCO world heritage site, where some of the world’s biggest mining projects are looking to stake their claim, threatening this delicate ecosystem. But Kvanefjeld is not the only concern, another large mining project, Kringlerne, contains some of the world’s largest deposits of REEs. Both projects are in the later stages of receiving exploitation licenses, with the Kvanefjled project currently undergoing a public hearing process.

Threats to sustainability


Two years ago, record temperatures melted 600 billion tonnes of ice, which were enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2 millimetres in just two months. With its climate heating up at twice the global average, Greenland is widely recognised as ground zero for climate change. Climbing temperatures, warming waters and melting sea ice are disrupting fjords and coastal ecosystems and posing serious challenges for a nation reliant on fisheries. The icy island’s marine areas contain some of the planet’s cleanest waters. They boost the reproductive capacity of marine biodiversity and the ecosystems in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, the fishing industry constitutes up to 90% of Greenland’s exports. This second-biggest employing sector would be harmed by the ecological damage caused by oil and gas extraction in open waters, a move that is currently being pushed by officials in Greenland.

Toxic fallout


The threat to sustainability is not exclusive to the seas. The Australian company Greenland Minerals Ltd’s (GML) flagship project, the Kvanefjeld mine mentioned above, is supposed to create jobs, but these would come at the cost of destroying possibly more existing traditional livelihoods. The southern portion of the island is considered Greenland’s breadbasket which, coincidentally, is also where most of the mineral resources are located and where Kvanefjeld would exploit the REEs. Yet for GML to get to the lucrative metals, the company would generate radioactive byproduct as a result of the presence of uranium. This waste would be stored as tailings. This would inevitably pollute Lake Taseq in the Kuannersuit mountain which overlooks Narsaq. Other risks include leakages from the tailings and toxic radioactive dust with the potential to be carried long distances by heavy arctic winds. The mine’s proximity to an occupied town and a world heritage site put at risk lives, livelihoods and irreplaceable heritage. Despite claims by the company’s assessment that dust from the Kvanefjeld operation would not cause radiation in the area, experts warn that Greenlanders should be sceptical about these claims.

Culture and tradition


In Greenland, rising temperatures have extended the growing season and expanded the production of existing crops. Though agriculture makes up a relatively small portion of Greenland’s economy, this sector of the economy has the potential to grow significantly as the climate warms up. The same can be said for animal husbandry. The southern portion of the island is home to all of Greenland’s sheep stock, where unique farming traditions of Norse Greenlandic and modern Inuit farming cultures are practised and where sheep roam as free-grazing flocks. This is because private land ownership is not practised here. All the land is controlled by local kommunes, or “municipalities”, allowing farmers to jointly agree to the terms of land usage, since Greenlanders neither own nor pay rent for the land they live on. The farms provide wool mainly for exports and meat for local consumption. The practice is especially important for Narsaq, the nearest town to the Kvanefjeld project. Rising temperatures are putting a severe strain on the island’s population of 57,000, where the Greenlandic Inuit populations (the Kalaallit, Inughuit and Tunumiit) make up around 90%. For the island, the rapid changes in temperature are causing economic insecurity and retreating ice exacerbates the threats for the Greenlandic Inuit’s traditional livelihoods, which are heavily rooted in fishing, seal and whale hunting. In addition, a history of colonisation and an expanding economic system is creating a deep cultural rift and increasing social pressures. The loss of culture and generational purpose caused by rising temperatures and a rapidly changing landscape are already causing severe mental health impacts.

The employment illusion


Even with the appeal of increased employment from the oil, gas and mining activities, the reality is that these highly technical jobs will require expertise that Greenland does not have. The vast majority of the people employed would come from other areas of the world and who may not understand the particular challenges Greenland’s residents face. Moreover, despite arguments from industry and politicians, mining projects tend to perform poorly in job creation, amounting to less than 1% of the labour force in most cases.

“We need a time-out for oil and gas extraction in Greenland and this also applies in particular to the mining industry,” says Erik Jensen from URANI NAAMIK / NO TO URANIUM Association in Nuuk.

Studies also show that the development of remote areas and the influx of workers to mining projects can often cause major socio-economic and cultural changes. The proliferation of oil, gas and mining projects in Greenland would bring increased development that could damage the already fragile social fabric. The effects of climate change combined with rapid modernisation can compromise traditional lifestyles, creating additional challenges for the island’s indigenous inhabitants.

“For years, environmental NGOs in Greenland and Denmark have criticised the Kvanefjeld project for not living up to Greenland’s environmental standards,” adds Francesca Carlsson, legal officer at the EEB. “The Aarhus Convention sets out clear processes and standards for environmental governance and public participation. It should be implemented and its principles should be guaranteed in every step of the process. These projects pose too high of a risk for the communities to not be fully involved.”

An independent Greenland


As part of the Danish Kingdom, Greenland is still under Danish influence, though with a degree of autonomy. The territory relies on an annual block grant of 3.9 billion Danish krone (around €500 million euros) from Copenhagen, which amounts to 20% of its GDP and more than half of the public budget. Greenlandic politicians are well aware of their socioeconomic hurdles. Some argue that climate change is an opportunity for a new future and view providing raw materials, oil and gas for the growing Western and Chinese economies as a means to reach economic independence. They argue that the income obtained from the resources would allow the Greenlandic government to detach itself from Denmark.

However, the cost of reaching independence through resource exploitation is high, both for Greenland and the world. Greenland would require 24 concurrent large-scale mining projects to zero out the financial support from Denmark. Paradoxically, opening up Greenland for ‘business’ would perpetuate the very same mining and industrial activities that are largely to blame for the environmental and and socioeconomic problems the island is currently facing. Greenland’s ice sheets are not melting because of the forces of nature, they are melting as a result of irresponsible human activity.

Niels Henrik Hooge from Friends of the Earth Denmark argues that: “More oil and minerals extraction is not a real prerequisite for financial autonomy. A mineral-based economy is not economically sustainable: when the mining industry starts to recede, Greenland will find itself in the same situation as before, only with fewer resources.”

As the EU updates its Arctic Policy as part of its work programme for 2021, environmental NGOs urge the Commission to truly carry out its environmental commitments and to declare the Arctic a natural sanctuary. The NGO statement also calls on the EU, Denmark and Greenland to implement a moratorium on large-scale mining and oil and gas extraction in the autonomous region and for the island to be compensated so that the immediate decrease in income would not negatively affect its population.

“The European Parliament just called on the European Commission to set binding targets to reduce resource consumption and bring it within planetary boundaries,” says Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy officer for the circular economy at the EEB. “We urgently need a framework for reducing our exploitation of increasingly scarce natural resources.”

It remains to be seen if policymakers in Brussels, Copenhagen and Nuuk will put words into action and push for increased protection of a vulnerable and yet pristine region of the world. After all, the challenges Greenland is facing are not just those of its people. As a climate window into the future, Greenland’s protection is a global challenge.




Summing up the cost of heavy coal dependence in Russia

Up to 70% of Russia’s coal is mined in Kuzbass – an area in southwest Siberia and most of the coal produced there is shipped to Europe and Asia.

Bringing together the official pollution, health, and mortality records released in the last 15 years, as well as local testimonies, expert conclusions, and media stories, Race to the Bottom, a new comprehensive report published by the Russian environmental group Ecodefense, details the massive impact of coal mining on the environment and public health of Kemerovo Region, also called Kuzbass.

The immense rise in coal production (primarily, by surface mining) and exports seen in Kemerovo Region in the past decade and a half – a boost spurred along by the authorities’ lax approach to the coal companies’ neglect of social and environmental responsibility – came with skyrocketing pollution and waste accumulation levels. Those, in turn, have led to severe damage to the health of the local population, reduced life expectancy, and higher-than-average mortality rates. Trapped in a predominantly coal-reliant economy and unable to secure compensation or relocation money, local residents are effectively held hostage to Russia’s goal of sustaining a competitive edge in a declining coal market. And the already extensive harm can grow worse yet if Russian and Kuzbass governments press ahead with further plans to increase coal production in the region.

Between 2005 and 2019, coal production in Kuzbass increased by 1.5 times (from 164 m tons to 249 m tons), and export volumes by 2,5 times (from 55 m tons to 135 m tons). As per the targets set in the regional development strategy, coal mining volumes may grow additionally by almost 1.5 times within the next 15 years, or to 380 m tons. Overall mortality in Kuzbass was 16% higher in 2019 than on average in Russia, with 1425.7 deaths per 100,000 population in this main coal-producing region compared to the Russia-wide average of 1228.1 deaths per 100,000 population. Cancer mortality rate per 100,000 population increased noticeably in Kuzbass between 2003 and 2019, rising steadily from 208.94 in 2003 to 240.8 in 2019. Annual respiratory disease mortality in Kemerovo Region has over the past nearly 30 years remained significantly and invariably higher than the national levels, with official statistics showing since 1990 an average of 75.95 deaths per 100,000 population in Kuzbass compared to 58.98 on average over the same period in Russia. And life expectancy at birth in 1990 to 2018 has been on average 3.14 years less in Kuzbass than the average across Russia.

In 2019, according to Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, enterprises of Kemerovo Region released 1.760 m tons of atmospheric pollutants –just over the total amount of emissions of the Northwestern Federal District, whose territory exceeds that of Kuzbass by about 18 times. In the decade since 2009, according to Kuzbass’s regional Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the total volume of emissions from stationary sources in Kemerovo Region has risen by 22.3%, and over the past 15 years, the yearly amount of emissions from the coal mining enterprises has nearly doubled, growing from approximately 591,000 tons in 2005 to 1,147,048 tons as of 2019. In 2019 data, the average annual amount of pollutants emitted from stationary sources per each Kuzbass resident was 662 kg; in the past five years the emissions-per-capita rate has increased by 167 kg. By comparison, on average in Russia, the value of emissions of the most common pollutants from both stationary and mobile sources as calculated per capita was in 2018 220 kg per person.

Coal mining is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which are forcing global climate change. In Kuzbass, over 50% in the total volume of registered emissions from all stationary sources is taken up by methane, one of the most aggressive greenhouse gases. In methane emissions, Kemerovo Region is the unequivocal leader among all Russian regions, with 1,086,570 tons released in 2019.

In 2018, 3.6 bn tons of waste was generated in the region – almost half of the 7.3 bn tons generated in the entire country. Of the total industrial and municipal waste generated in Kuzbass, 99% is waste produced by coal mining. Between 2010 and 2019, the yearly volume of waste generated by coal mining grew in Kuzbass from 1.8 bn tons to 3.8 bn tons – or more than twofold. Calculated per ton of coal mined, waste generation rate grew from 10 tons in 2010 to 11.7 tons in 2017. The coal industry’s waste may contain, in varying concentrations, combustible carbonaceous materials, sulphur, and the naturally occurring radionuclides radium-226, thorium-228, and potassium-40, as well as their fission products. The specific land disturbance rate increased between 2010 and 2017 from 7.8 to 16.4 hectares per million tons of coal produced, or by 2.1 times. Existing regulations require establishing buffer areas around coal development sites – 1,000 kilometers from the edge of an open-pit mine and 500 meters from spoil tips, which are piles of waste rock excavated during mining – with zoning restrictions in place to protect the residents in nearby areas. In Kuzbass, this requirement is routinely disregarded throughout the region, especially in such cities as Kiselyovsk and Prokopyevsk, where the distance between residential houses and the closest open-pit mine may be less than 200 meters.

Ecodefense urges Kemerovo Region’s government to take immediate action toward diversification of the regional economy to reduce its dependence on coal. Other urgently needed steps include forcing the coal companies to establish proper buffer zones around their mining sites, forbidding coal mining and reloading within the limits of population centers, and banning rezoning of agricultural lands for mining purposes, among other measures.

“The consequences of coal mining are large-scale environmental pollution, severe illnesses, and increased mortality. This does not just mean terrible living conditions for people residing near the coal mines, but a detriment to the economy. Coal-mining regions are in need of a strategy to address the environmental crisis and diversify their economies,” says Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense and one of the authors of Race to the Bottom.

“The mining and reloading of coal within city limits, the billions of tons of spoil heaps that are burning and releasing dust into the air – this is a typical scene in Kuzbass. Because of climate change, many countries are planning to discontinue coal use, which will lead to a fall in demand. Kuzbass needs options in its jobs market, or we will face a social upheaval,” says Anton Lementuyev, Ecodefense’s coordinator in Kuzbass.