Environmental campaigners resist mining for base metals
Campaigners say the area is home to rich biodiversity and natural landscape, and is not appropriate for the type of mining that any prospecting may unveil
Environmental campaigners have said they will vigorously resist any attempts to begin mining in east Clare, after the Department of the Environment approved a licence for a company to explore the possibility.
The department said that Environment Minister Eamon Ryan intended to grant a prospecting licence to Navan, Co Meath-based Minco Ireland for base metals, barytes, as well as gold and silver ore around Tulla in Clare.
The prospecting licence allows for the exploration of mineral deposits, but does not authorise actual mining of any minerals.
The notice from the department said that environmental impacts in terms of a prospecting licence were, “in general”, non-invasive.
“The minister has assessed the exploration programme proposed by the company, and has determined that the activities are not likely to have a significant effect on the environment,” the notice stated.
There are two underground mines operating in Ireland. Tara in Co Meath produces zinc concentrate, while Drummond in Co Monaghan produces gypsum.
Mines at Galmoy in Co Kilkenny and Lisheen in Co Tipperary, which both produced zinc and lead, were closed in the past decade.
Environmental group Futureproof Clare reacted angrily to the announcement of the prospecting licence for Co Clare by the department, saying it was done by stealth and with no consultation locally.
Campaigners say the area is home to rich biodiversity and natural landscape, and is not appropriate for the type of mining that any prospecting may unveil.
A petition from the group demanding the licence be refused has garnered 1,500 signatures.
It claimed that in Europe, mining is increasingly affecting Natura 2000 and wetlands of international importance, known as Ramsar sites, set aside for conserving nature.
The petition stated: “81% of habitats, and 63% of the species that these laws were designed to protect, still have an ‘unfavourable’ conservation status, according to the European Environment Agency.
“Goldmining is one of the most destructive industries in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, destroy the landscape, has a negative impact on small-scale farming and fishing, and eco-tourism, while also being a threat to existing employment in the area.”
According to the department’s own policy information, “there is significant potential across Ireland for industrial minerals”.
In recent years, gypsum, dolomite, silica sand, brick shale, and fireclay have all been mined, it stated.
“The development of Irish mineral deposits is an important component of the economy, providing essential minerals for industry, while generating employment and revenue for the State,” the policy states.
“By promoting mineral exploration, the Government enables the discovery and development of economic deposits. In doing this, it aims to maximise the mining sector’s contribution to the economy, while protecting against social and environmental impacts.”
Minco said in its interim six-month report ending June 2021 that the medium- to long-term demand for metals is increasing.
“The principal reason for the positive outlook is the growing recognition that metals and minerals are essential for addressing climate change and adapting to a green economy,” the report stated.
Serbia, Demostat research on Rio Tinto – the political significance of environmental issues
Information about the Rio Tinto project creates confusion that will certainly be reflected in a possible referendum… This is the conclusion from the presentation of the results of Demostat’s research – “Serbia, Rio Tinto and Ecology”.
“Hello, good afternoon, should Rio Tinto be given permission to open a lithium mine in Serbia?”
Yes – 59 percent of citizens said in the Demostat survey. But – under certain conditions.
“If some institutions and some people confirm the existence of appropriate standards for a safe environment, even more than half said that they would do it if the profession and science said that opening a mine was safe”, says Srećko Mihailović, a leading researcher at Demostat.
And even then, or when the president or some environmental activist would say that, 29 percent of citizens think that Rio Tinto mining should not be given a permit.
“And these are the important findings that indicate that in a possible referendum, citizens would vote ‘yes’, if the authorities they trust confirm that the opening of the mine and the production of the desired products is safe for the environment”, says Mihailović.
Environmental issues in Serbia are finally gaining political significance, points out Darko Nadić, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences. This, among other things, has been witnessed in recent years by numerous protests, such as the last one in Loznica, against Rio Tinto. Nadić, however, points out that environmental movements do not have special results in Serbia.
“Composed from the hill, from the bottom, and above all ad hoc, from problem to problem, and if they cannot solve a problem, the environmental movement mostly disappears and mostly has a political connotation”, says Nadić.
Therefore, as one of the key issues for the relationship between ecology and politics in Serbia at this time, the program director of Demostat, Zoran Panović, considers…
“How to extract environmental topics from our only division in Serbia, and that is” for “and” against “Vučić”.
Source: N1 info
Due to mining boom in Mongolia a river diversion is being planned
Before 2000 there were no mines in South Gobi apart from the state-run Tavan Tolgoi coal mine. But over the past two decades, foreign investment has flooded in, with companies now operating 12 large mines, including Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi, one of the world’s biggest copper and gold mines. Driven by the mining industry’s growing demands, the government estimates that the region’s groundwater will run dry within a few years. Much of Mongolia’s water is in the north, and the government now plans to pipe this water to the arid south where the majority of the mining takes place, a ‘solution’ that has led to many more problems wherever it has been tried.
Meanwhile, the water shortage is critical enough to lead to violence. L. Battsengel, a herder in Khanbogd, a small town near the huge Oyu Tolgoi mine, told The Third Pole that many wells have dried up in areas where mines operate, and fights over water are common among herders. At a well near a mine, a herder opened fire last year, killing one and wounding another. In another incident on September 29 last year, one herder stabbed another to death in a fight over water.
“Mines take the water and pasture, the main means of life for the herder,” Battsengel said. “We know there is a plan to transfer water through pipes from the northern region. But that may not be feasible because Orkhon and Kherlen rivers are not that big and may not have enough water for diversion.”
Mishigsuren, another resident of Khanbogd, has given up herding. “Being a herder is no longer a simple and pleasant way of life, especially for women,” she said. “I was born to a herder family and lived much of my life as a herder. I quit due to increasing difficulties I was experiencing. Due to the large quantities of water used by mining companies much of surface water – such as small streams – in the surrounding area have all dried up and water in the well fields [a complex of water wells] used by herders has either dried up or decreased drastically. Mining companies use deep aquifers which means mines suck out underground water from area covering tens of kilometres surrounding the mine.”
Batulzii, a herder from Noyon, said, “In our county, there are two coal mines. Though we live about 7-8 kilometres from the mines, we people as well as animals are all covered with dust and breathe polluted air and drink polluted water. We started getting genetically mutated livestock like baby goats and camels born with extremely large heads, three hind legs and so on. That’s from drinking poisoned water. The well field where we used to water 500 camels dried up. It can’t even water 20 camels now. I had to reduce the number of livestock from 1,000 to 500 so that I can have sufficient water from the well fields around.”
Many herders in South Gobi have been forced to give up their traditional livelihood for similar reasons, though there are no official estimates of the numbers.
Effects of uranium mining
The poisoning of groundwater is most serious around uranium mines.
Norsuren, a herder at Ulaanbadrakh in Dornogobi, told The Third Pole that water is poisoned in over 10 well fields around a uranium mine, some as far as 30 kilometres away. He said the polluted water has caused women to give birth to premature or genetically defective babies. “Although it’s not really publicly disclosed, this may affect [adults] as well. We filed a lawsuit, to no avail. The court said that water was poisoned by effects of uranium mining, but the state doesn’t seem to want to do much about it.”
Local media reported four birth defects in a single herder family in the area. Norsuren said, “This is one case now disclosed. But there are many such cases in Ulaanbadrakh. Engineers and other employees of the mining company don’t drink water from the well fields around the mine. If water is fresh and not poisonous as they claim, why don’t they drink it?”
Water demand outstripping supply
World Bank studies show that water demand in the Gobi is growing quickly and will increase further, driven mainly by mining. Currently, mining accounts for 71% of the 155 million cubic metre annual water demand in the Gobi. This growing demand will soon outstrip the available resources. The World Bank estimates Gobi has about 200-500 million cubic metres of available groundwater. Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development has a more precise and smaller estimate of 172 million cubic metres. Going by the ministry estimate, the demand will outstrip groundwater availability within the next few years. Even with an optimistic estimate of groundwater availability, the Gobi is likely to run out of water by 2030 unless preventive steps are taken urgently.
Transporting water a pipe dream?
Ya. Boldbaatar, head of the water resource department in Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development, said, “We don’t have many choices in solving the Gobi water resource shortage issues. The government considers water transfer projects from the northern region feasible and Orkhon-Gobi and Kherlen-Gobi river projects are under review now. Once financing issues are resolved, these projects will need to be implemented. Meanwhile, we are also pushing mining companies towards water reuse technologies that enable companies to reuse 70-80% of the water that has been used once.”
Both of the water diversion plans will need pipelines about 700 kilometres long. Each project has an estimated price tag of USD 550-600 million.
Chandmani, a highly respected water expert, was sceptical of the plans. He said the annual demand from the mines in the Gobi (100-150 million cubic metres) is higher than the water available in the two rivers. The Orkhon-Gobi project is expected to transport 2.5 cubic metres of water per second. “It will dry up the river,” the expert said. “Kherlen is smaller than Orkhon, so don’t even mention diverting water from Kherlen. Also, Orkhon and Kherlen are both transboundary rivers flowing out to Russia and China respectively. This means implementation of water transfer plans may become international issues.”
The rivers are important for regional economies in Russia and China. The Orkhon river converges with the Selenge river, a major tributary of Russia’s famous lake Baikal. Kherlen is the main tributary flowing into Dalai lake across the border in China. The World Bank pulled out of financing the Orkhon-Gobi water project due to public opposition in Mongolia and Russia, and because there had been no consultation with Russia’s authorities. The Kherlen-Gobi project, which is still under government review, has met with public opposition in Mongolia and is not likely to gain support from China either. With such grave doubts about the success of these water-diversion plans, the herders need a plan that is feasible and sustainable, for themselves and for the animals they have been herding for centuries.
Emerita exploration project faces rejection from Spanish cities
La Romanera has been explored since the 1960s and, through the years, over 20,000 metres of drilling have been carried out on the property. Its historical resource has been estimated at 34Mt at moderate grades including 11.2Mt at high grades.
The Spanish cities of Paymogo and Puebla de Guzmán issued a directive stating that mining exploration activities are forbidden in an area known as La Romanera, which is a large sulphide deposit that Canada’s Emerita Resources is looking to develop. According to news agency EuropaPress, the cities’ technical departments said in their respective decisions that mining at La Romanera is not compatible with municipal planning regulations. The ruling states that a big portion of the terrain within the permit area is classified as “non-developable land under special protection” connected to the Paymogo agricultural landscape. The decision points out that the Province of Huelva’s Special Plan for Environmental Protection forbids extractive operations by mining companies and building any kind of infrastructure in the area where La Romanera is located. This means that obtaining an exploration permit for the area may be unlikely.
EuropaPress reports that a similar situation took place in 2017, when the Superior Justice Tribunal of Andalucía rejected an appeal by Trafigura Mining’s subsidiary, Minas de Aguas Teñidas, against the prohibition of extracting sand, conducting mining operations and building infrastructure in an exploration permit area known as Los Silos, which also extended through the Paymogo agricultural landscape.
Located in the southwestern province of Huelva, which is within the autonomous community of Andalucía, the Paymogo landscape is considered to be a unique environment of great social, economic and patrimonial importance. Within this area lie La Romanera and La Infanta deposits, which are part of the larger Iberian Belt West polymetallic project that Emerita plans to drill in Q1-2021. The project is underlain by rocks of the Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB), which is a prolific VMS terrane with numerous current and past producers of base metals sulphides. Exploration at La infanta, on the other hand, started in 1975 but was halted shortly after, with the exploration licenses being returned to the state as ‘strategic resources’ in the later 1990s. During the short period when exploration was conducted, some 5,000 metres were drilled on the property with historical resources of 2Mt at very high grades.
Mining and indigenous communities across the world
While in recent decades’ great progress has been made in terms of securing minority rights across the globe, many companies worldwide continue to overlook the needs of indigenous communities. In particular, the geological and environmental negative externalities produced as a result of intensive mining are “a major cause of displacement for minorities and indigenous people across the world, with many unable to secure compensation and protections due to discrimination”, according to Jasmin Qureshi from Minority Rights Group International.
In 1990, the United Nations Global Consultation on the Right to Development stated that “the most destructive and prevalent abuses of indigenous rights are the direct consequences of development strategies that fail to respect their fundamental right of self-determination”. Ever since technology began increasing the demand for what can often be scarce raw materials, mining companies have been pushed to adopt more land- and capital-intensive approaches to extraction, in many case at the expense of indigenous communities residing in resource- and mineral-rich areas.
Multiple recent events corroborate Jasmin Qureshi’s statement. In Morocco, ever since Africa’s biggest silver mine was set up in the country’s Imider region, the Amazigh community residing in the area has witnessed significant difficulty in accessing water. Available water has been either diverted to mining activities or, when it does eventually reach the Amazigh community, presents high levels of pollution. Consequentially, agricultural activity been seriously affected, with far lower crop yields making the lives of the Amazigh incredibly hard.
For eight years, from 2011-19, Amazigh activists occupied the Aleppan Mountain above the silver mine, cutting off a pipeline delivering water to it. The protests quickly became tied into a global socio-economic and environmental consciousness about indigenous rights. The occupation came to an end last year when protesters decided to switch to more peaceful means of protest against the mine’s major shareholder, the Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), a private holding company owned by Morocco’s royal family, but not before achieving some positive change in terms of infrastructure investment and social services for the community. The plight of the Amazigh is similar to that of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in Western Australia, where the mining giant Rio Tinto destroyed two rock shelters – both Aboriginal sites of major historical and archeological importance – with two controlled blasts in order to have access to what it termed “higher volumes of grade-one ore”. The company completely neglected the desires of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura, who repeatedly presented Rio Tinto with the urgency of preserving the sites right up until the blasts.
In a recent submission to an Australian Senate inquiry into the destruction of the rock shelters, Rio Tinto acknowledged that “various opportunities were missed to re-evaluate the mine plan in light of this material new information” on the significance of one of the sites. It also repeated earlier public comments that the destruction of the rock shelters, dubbed Juukan 1 and Juukan 2, “should not have occurred”. Although the Moroccan and Australian cases are far from unique, there is growing evidence that mining companies – and, perhaps more importantly, their investors – do appear to be realising that only by working with and not against indigenous communities can they achieve both profit and peaceful coexistence.
According to a report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), whose own independent accountability mechanism was in 2015 forced to investigate the bank’s compliance with its environmental and social standards at a mine it financed in the Gobi-Altai region of Mongolia, “the importance of involving local communities in mining projects is today recognised as best practice for maximising the benefits for affected communities”. Forward-looking investors have embraced this principle on the basis that mining initiatives should be viewed as opportunities for indigenous peoples rather than human-rights violations.
As the EBRD report points out, “Offsetting adverse impacts has in the past tended to take the form of philanthropic investment for local projects and initiatives such as the construction of a new hospital or support to the local school football team. However, a more strategic approach to community investment has emerged over the past decade, particularly among the major global mining companies. This focuses on careful engagement, from the earliest stages of the mine project cycle, with local community stakeholders to help identify common long- term strategic socio-economic development aims for the local communities as well as gaps in the existing market”.
One mining giant that took on this commitment is Cameco, operating in the Saskatchewan region in Canada. For more than 25 years now, Cameco has been operating in cooperation with local indigenous communities, with the company committed to providing native people with “sustainable benefits through employment, education and training” through “robust community engagement and strategic community investments with a long term positive outcome”. This funding, which amounts to 14 million Canadian dollars in donations to northern aboriginal groups over the past decade, and active engagement through information sessions and ad-hoc projects, is seen by Cameco “both as a practical necessity and the right thing to do”.
This conscious approach to mining in indigenous-inhabited lands surely has long-term impacts on the indigenous social fabric. In the Strategic Assessment of Development of the Arctic report, requested by the European Commission, experts highlight how environmental, social and economic outcomes are “inherently intertwined”. This entails that, in order for mining companies to effectively tackle the issue of preserving the rights of indigenous people, all three have to be addressed jointly. This interrelation is particularly relevant when it comes to mining sites in the Arctic region, where indigenous communities base their lifestyle on a delicate equilibrium of coexistence with an already endangered ecosystem.
The degree of complexity raised by this interrelation poses a significant challenge to companies operating in the north-eastern part of Russia. Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the world’s largest producer of palladium and high-grade nickel, has experienced first-hand how complex it is to tackle corporate social responsibility commitments from different angles at once.
Albeit committed to providing support to the local fauna, Nornickel can’t hide from a history of ecological damage to the Artic ecosystem. Nonetheless, the mining giant’s recent statements and actions leave scope for reassessing its role as a company aiming to set a whole new standard. In addition to supporting Arctic researches and nature reserves, it has recently started a more closely-monitored cooperation with indigenous populations residing in the Taymir Peninsula.
So far, Nornickel has signed agreements with three organisations representing indigenous people. These agreements include a five-year programme of financial and strategic support totalling two billion roubles (around 22 million euros) which will be devoted to the preservation of indigenous traditional activities, as well as to improving infrastructure, housing, and education. One of the signatories of the agreement was Grigory Ledkov, president of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, who is extremely confident that these agreements will usher in a new phase of cooperation between Nornickel and indigenous communities.
“This can serve as an example for other companies, as it emphasises the importance of preserving the habitat of indigenous people and protecting our values and traditions,” he says.
These agreements could also provide a push for more effective implementation of several federal laws covering indigenous rights, already present in Russian Legislation.
Professor Bill Bowring, who teaches human rights and international law at Birkbeck College at the University of London, says it could “protect the traditional living habitat and traditional way of life of indigenous small peoples, to preserve and promote their cultural identity and to ensure biological diversity in the territories of traditional environmental management”.
The Murmansk region in northwest Russia is the land where the Sami people have lived for thousands of years. Niikko Sommer, an expert in Sami culture at the University of Texas, says: “a timeless theme for the Sami has been their exploitation. They have been consistently taken advantage of by outsiders for their land and resources.”
In 2020, 19 Sami communities (out of 37) received funds from Nornickel, which also tried to amplify the voice of the community by financing the publication of an almanac including the oeuvre of 26 Sami authors in 2019. A more conscious approach to collaboration could therefore significantly improve lifestyles in terms of environmental, social and economic conditions after centuries of such exploitation. According to Sommer, “modern legislation and environmental policies may give a glimmer of hope to the Sámi and environmentalists worldwide.” With its recent commitments, Nornickel could thus pave the way for a more proactive approach to the actualisation of such norms, as well as ensuring that indigenous people rights in the Taymir peninsula and the Murmansk region are respected.
Grigory Ledkov affirms that: “”We live in Russia and we see the whole situation,” suggesting perhaps that well-meaning but not always well-informed outsiders sometimes miss the bigger picture.
A similar attitude towards what were viewed as “interfering outsiders” was also for many years present among the people of the Romanian town of Roșia Montana. There, the Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC, majority-owned by a Canadian company, Gabriel Resources) was close to building Europe’s largest gold mine, before protests across the country eventually forced the Romanian government to halt the construction of the mine, which some locals had hoped would create thousands of jobs in one of Romania’s most deprived areas.
Many of those who protested, complained locals, enjoyed comfortable lives in Romania’s cities. A film was even made to put the case for the project: Mine Your Own Business. With the mine now in eternal limbo and unlikely to ever be constructed, RMGC is asking the Romanian state for 4.4 billion US dollars in compensation, while locals – both those who were in favour of the project and those who were against – are still uncertain of their future. It is an example of how everyone can lose out when no common ground can be reached. It is cases such as Roșia Montana that make Nornickel’s agreements with the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle of paramount importance, as they may serve as a test case for future best practice.
Across the world, not least in Morocco, Western Australia, and Romania, others will be monitoring the outcome closely.
Protests against Rio Tinto’s future lithium mine in Serbia
Protest was organized in front of the Rio Tinto’s premises in Serbian city Loznica. The citizens of Loznica demanded an urgent suspension of all activities related to the construction of the jadarite/lithium mine and the abandonment of the lithium exploitation project near their city.
Citizens are protesting because they do not know what the ore flotation will look like, how and where the tailings from the mine will be deposited and what impact it will have on the environment, and they express fear that it will be harmful to the environment and health. The protest was organized by the informal citizens’ association for the protection of Gornji Jadra and the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Miroslav Mijatović from PAKT told Sputnik that this is only the first protest that there will be more of them, because the health of their children is more important than any “artificial economic progress”.
He states that Rio Tinto came to Serbia with a “long tradition of violating human rights and violating the environment.” He estimates that the opening of the mine will close life in Gornji Jadar, that low-skilled jobs will be created, and fertile land will be lost.
According to him, the potential danger of an environmental accident is much greater than the local one, and the consequences can be felt within a radius of 150 kilometers, which means that not only Loznica is endangered, but also Šabac and Belgrade.
He states that in the past few years, the Faculty of Mining and Geology has earned 100 million and 500 thousand dinars from Rio Tinto, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering 12 million, the Faculty of Civil Engineering 10, and the Institute of Public Health Belgrade 13.1 million dinars, institutions are auditing all the studies done so far, because the people cannot trust the institutions paid for by Rio Tinto.
The most important request of the protest organizers is the holding of a referendum of the citizens on whether they are for or against the mine.
“Citizens must be asked whether or not they want a mine and under what conditions,” said Mijatović.
Rio Tinto invested half a billion
The mining company, Rio Tinto, whose headquarters are in London, has been present in Serbia since 2007.
In July 2017, Rio Tinto signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Serbia on the project for the development of lithium and pine deposits “Jadar”, and in the middle of last year it announced that it would start exploiting lithium in four years. According to the plan, a feasibility study for the project should be completed by the end of this year.
Rio Tinto has so far invested almost half a million dollars in research. According to “Bloomberg”, the estimated reserves of lithium in Serbia are the largest in Europe, and preliminary research suggests that it could be 200 million tons. The American Geological Institute speculates that it is as much as a million tons of lithium.
Mining companies and their relations to the local communities
The question is is it possible for the wealthy mining corporation to ever truly be a good neighbour – good neighbor agreements, or GNAs, aim to hold big firms accountable for their environmental conduct – but how does it work in practice?
Twenty years ago, a group of cattle ranchers, sheep herders and community members in rural Montana came together and struck a rare agreement with a mining company: be liable for community-set environmental standards in exchange for unobstructed use of the land. But today, Sibanye-Stillwater, the owners of two mines in Stillwater county and Sweet Grass county, seeks to expand. The contract negotiated 20 years ago doesn’t account for that. A delicate relationship – and the state’s natural beauty – hangs in the balance. Can they continue to tame a corporation?
The creators of the original document and new community advocates say they expect the mining company to hold up their end of the bargain and continue to negotiate future plans in good faith with the people who live and work there. Good neighbor agreements (GNAs) are legally binding contracts that are generally effective at holding corporations accountable for their environmental conduct – and while there are very few in place in the US, experts say they could be replicated in cities and towns across the country.
The story is instructive about the documents’ strengths and weaknesses: in 1999, three grassroots organizations – the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), the Cottonwood Resource Council, and the Stillwater Protective Association (SPA) – sued to halt the construction of a mine. Going to court was expensive and timely, and ultimately ineffectual. Council members wanted a creative way of remaining on the inside of mine operations without being beholden to the mine’s operators, so they asked for a good neighbor agreement. Negotiation with the mine’s owner took over a year, but the result is considered the “Cadillac” of GNAs, because the contract applies directly to the mines themselves, regardless of who owns them. Still, the GNA isn’t a magic bullet. It “doesn’t provide for us [a way to] to stomp our foot and say ‘no more,’” said Betsy Baxter, a former rancher who lives on the edge of the East Boulder river, which runs near the East Boulder mine. “This is a commercial enterprise [we’re dealing with]. We have to do our best to mitigate and navigate the issues that come up with expansion.”
The situation that NPRC and the other councils face illuminates a central tension between environmentalists and extractive industries: Sibanye-Stillwater and other mining companies make money off a finite resource by degrading the environment, and moving into new land is how they remain relevant, even if those are areas the community seeks to preserve.
Smoothing over that tension is what the GNA has been historically good at. The contract has created a taskforce and an oversight committee which address other water and soil concerns. Sibanye-Stillwater is also obligated to fund an environmental audit, fish-monitoring program and groundwater study – as well as pay for a mining and water quality engineer handpicked by the councils. Abiding by the GNA means following “water, soil, air and traffic provisions that are above and beyond what current state and federal laws require,” said Charles Sangmeister, an SPA member who also sits on the taskforce.
Like many volunteers, Sangmeister spends hundreds of hours every year facilitating mine activity, either physically at the water’s edge, measuring pollution levels or at the meeting room table, talking about expansion plans.
These are some of the things GNAs are good at: creating a model for accountability that is rooted in public advocacy and a community’s unique environmental needs. For example, Sibanye-Stillwater is also responsible for busing workers to their mines – a provision the original council members introduced in order to reduce traffic and air pollution from cars.
But for all its upsides, the GNA is still a contract, and like any other, the community had to give something up in order to win such staunch environmental provisions. In this case, the councils gave up the right to sue the company extracting platinum and palladium ore from the two mines covered under the contract.
Members now say that their best leverage with dealing with Sibanye-Stillwater is the relationship they’ve facilitated over the last two decades, one they hope is based on mutual respect.
Most of the members of the council do not have backgrounds in engineering, geology, or environmental science, yet nevertheless attended hours-long planning meetings and studied blueprints in order to best represent the community’s needs to Sibanye-Stillwater leadership.
“I think the company respects that we have made it our business to be as knowledgeable about mining as we possibly can be,” said Teresa Erickson, the former staff director of the council.
For example, community members have strived to learn about the risks of tailing impoundments, permanent structures built into the physical landscape that hold waste from mining – and which Erickson says Sibanye-Stillwater wants to double in size. A representative from Sibanye-Stillwater confirmed that the company plans to double the size of its tailing facilities, but added that it also plans to double production, and that any new facility will take decades to fill up.
This type of community organizing is a virtuous circle: the more the council members have actively participated in the mines’ operations, the more experience and knowledge they’ve gained, making them better advocates for their community. Over the years, volunteers have helped avoid possible water pollution catastrophes; because of their oversight, “there hasn’t been a bad spill, there hasn’t been a fish kill, there haven’t been issues,” said Baxter.
And yet there are no guarantees that the council can meaningfully influence Sibanye-Stillwater’s plans for expansion. “It’s been tough. This has not been a happy little love story,” said Erickson. Baxter acknowledges that there’s some irony to their organizing – Sibanye-Stillwater mines platinum and palladium, minerals used for catalytic converters to manage car smog. But that doesn’t mean she and other Montanans simply have to accept the mining companies’ terms of business. “We have to sort of sit in that space and say, ‘OK, but we are going to hold you accountable and demand the highest level of responsiveness that we can,’” Baxter said.
Heather McDowell, who heads legal, environmental, and government affairs for Sibanye-Stillwater, said: “We believe the GNA feedback and the collaborative approach to addressing issues allows us to really get things right from an environmental and community standpoint.”
Members of the taskforce and oversight committees like Sangmeister and Baxter – like most civilians in the US – don’t have the power to unilaterally stop corporations, but for now, the lines of communication with this particular neighbor remain open. The work ahead of them is the same as it was 20 years ago: stay at the table, arm themselves with information, and keep the conversation going.
Rally for environmental threat of Amulsar Gold Mine in Armenia
Amulsar is a mountain in southern Armenia which is the source of two major rivers. It is also the source of a network of dams and tunnels designed to feed Lake Sevan, the largest freshwater source in Armenia. A British mining firm, Lydian International Limited, discovered gold in Amulsar in 2006 and has been trying construct a mine there since 2016. Though it has yet to open, the Amulsar gold mine’s presence has coincided with the emergence of severe environmental crises in the surrounding region. Efforts to open a gold mine in Amulsar have met with stubborn resistance from the local population. Residents of Vayotz Dzor province — where the mine is to be opened — have been blockading the area around the mine since May 2018, preventing construction vehicles from accessing the site. Furthermore, they accuse Lydian of skirting environmental regulations, using improper business practices, and conducting corporate extortion.
Opponents of the mine believe that Lydian’s project has and will cause profound and irreversible environmental damage to their region and the country. They have made it clear that the only acceptable solution to this crisis is the total closure of the mine and the withdrawal of Lydian’s mining operations from the country.
Scores of demonstrators from the Armenian Environmental Front (AEF) and the Save Amulsar movement assembled in front of the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet. The rally was composed of Yerevan locals and a group of activists and concerned citizens from the southern resort town of Jermuk, who had travelled to Yerevan in a 200-car motorcade organized by Save Amulsar. The goal of the rally was simple: to raise awareness of the environmental threat to Amulsar, and to protest government inaction.
Over the course of the rally, demonstrators were shadowed by a veritable army of Special Unit police officers who surrounded the peaceful demonstrators and blockaded the entrances to government buildings. Speeches were routinely interrupted by loudspeaker announcements from police patrol cars, reminding demonstrators to maintain social distancing and to don masks in accordance with the law. Rally goers in turn tried to drown out the PA announcements with the chanting of slogans and the sound of drums. Demonstrators from Jermuk were photographed by police officers, and a few individuals were ticketed for not wearing masks. All of this combined to produce a frosty government reception for the environmental activists.
Cause for Concern
Lydian’s entry into Armenia predates the Velvet Revolution. Despite immediate local resistance, Lydian pushed on, safe in the knowledge that any resistance to its operations would immediately be suppressed by local authorities. Blockades were attempted prior to the revolution but were quickly dismantled by police forces. But by 2018, the situation had changed drastically.
Armenia’s Velvet Revolution caused significant shifts in the status quo, ushering in Nikol Pashinyan’s premiership and promising a new era of democratization and transparency. Additionally, an uncontrolled explosion at the gold mine led to contaminated black water flowing from local taps. This was just one incident in a chain of environmental crises which emerged in the years following the commencement of construction. Since Lydian’s arrival in the region, repeated explosions at the mine have coated surrounding communities in dust. To make matter worse, the mine’s presence has severely disrupted local industries such as dairy farming, fisheries, and agricultural activities. The threat posed by the project to Armenia’s fresh water supplies continues to be a major concern, as noted by Armen Saghatelyan, director of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Mining, Saghatelyan explains, can cause the release of acidic water and toxins, which can poison freshwater sources.
Catalyzed by the results of the peaceful revolution in Yerevan, local villagers began to organize resistance to Lydian. A round-the-clock blockade was put in place on the May 18, blocking roads leading to the mine. This time local police did not intervene, and the blockade continues to the present day and construction has halted. However, the crisis is far from resolved, as Lydian has now resorted to threats of arbitration. The mining company is considering litigation against Armenia in a $-billion investor state dispute settlement (ISDS). Such corporate court cases are often handled via a process of secret tribunals whose decision cannot be appealed. Since this means that Armenia – whose allotted government budget in 2020 was $4 billion— could face up to 2 billion dollars in fines, this threat has been quite a potent weapon for Lydian.
Government Response/ Political Division
Following the 2018 Velvet Revolution, the government was generally uncooperative with Lydian. It refused to remove the blockade, and temporarily suspended Lydian’s rights to operate in Armenia, pending an environmental audit of the Amulsar mine by an international consultancy group. The consultancy group hired for this audit, Earth Link and Advanced Resources Development (ELARD), released its report to the public in a live teleconference in August of 2019. In summarizing its findings, ELARD found that the data collected by Lydian in surveys of Amulsar was insufficient for a mining project of the proposed size. Furthermore, it found that Lydian had used this incomplete data to make oversimplified and unsupported conclusions.
The report also found that the potential risks of water pollution were small and could be mitigated. In this vein, ELARD issued 16 recommendations for Lydian concerning mitigating measures. Following the release of the ELARD report, the Armenian government appeared to side with Lydian, as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced his intention later in August to restore rights of operation. Pashinyan argued that the ELARD report proved conclusively that the risks of water contamination were minimal and could be mitigated. To bolster these claims, the incumbent government pointed to the environmental audit’s 16 recommendations, and the fact that Lydian claimed to be working towards compliance with them.
Incidentally, there are past connections between the current government and Lydian. Current President Armen Sarkissian previously served as director of Lydian International Ltd. Amidst rumors that he remained a Lydian shareholder, President Sarkissian categorically denied any connections to Lydian in a conversation with protestors in 2018.
On the Ground
When speaking to rally goers, the discord between the government and activists seemed palpable. Whereas Pashinyan’s government has argued that the ELARD report gives them no recourse to bar Lydian from operating in Armenia, the activists at the rally disagreed with that assertion. To them, the report was far from a glowing recommendation of Lydian’s operations, but was rather an indictment of their substandard practices. Activists also argued that the report indicated that Lydian had failed to enact necessary mitigating practices to reduce the risk of their mine causing environmental pollution. They saw no reason to trust that Lydian would now become compliant in its mining operations it hadn’t observed prior to the environmental audit.
Several people interviewed from both Jermuk and Yerevan said they wanted nothing less than the total cessation of the companies’ mining operations in the country. As Anna Nikoghosyan of AEF stated, “the government has all the necessary facts and reports to unconditionally close Lydian’s mine.” Nikoghosyan also pointed to Lydian’s dealings in Georgia and their lack of an established reputation as further red flags. Prime Minister Pashinyan at one point supported the mine by stating that booting Lydian out of the country would reduce the incentive for foreign investment in Armenia. But the rally-goers were not swayed by this angle either. Levon Galstyan, a coordinator who has been with AEF for a decade and is a postgraduate candidate of the National Academy of Sciences, balked at this argument. Galstyan retorted, “I will support any foreign investment that brings growth to Armenia and builds its future. I will never accept however an investment that would poison our water, destroy our nature, and destroy our future in the name of profit. To me that is akin to selling one of my kidneys for a buck.” Garik, a demonstrator from Jermuk chimed in, saying “We all know this mine is a real threat to people’s health and to nature. We must defend our land and our mountains, as we have lost so much [land], we cannot lose more.”
An interesting aspect of this rally was that it revealed a wide range of different causes finding common purpose in the Save Amulsar movement. Whilst the most prominent faction of demonstrators was environmentalists, the rally also included a significant number of LGBT+ activists. This issue resonates with other activist groups due to the common themes it shares. In their minds, the movement to save Amulsar is also a movement to preserve democracy, and to ensure the dignity and health of all human beings. In other words, the rally-goers seek more than just to save a mountain: they seek to normalize a narrative in Armenian society that values the lives of people over profit, that elevates the voices of the voiceless, and calls to account those that abuse their power. As one self-proclaimed queer activist named Artak explained, “this movement affects all vulnerable people, and all those who oppose a lack of privacy, and police brutality.”
In the eyes of demonstrators, the post-revolution government had squandered a great deal of good will on this issue, not only by siding with Lydian, but also by remaining generally silent. As Nikoghosyan, an AEF activist, explained, “We are very disappointed with our government, our MPs, and our PM Pashinyan. They have had time to see the truth, but they aren’t holding Lydian accountable. This is quite embarrassing, and it shows that real democracy lives in Amulsar, not in Yerevan”.
Armenian gold mine continuous issue and government indecision
Renewed conflicts over a controversial gold mine in Armenia have once again highlighted the government’s indecision and so the project remains in limbo, a year after an environmental assessment was supposed to determine the future of this project.
On August 4, clashes between activists, local residents, police, and mining company officials broke out at the entrance of the mine, near the eastern Armenian city of Jermuk. Officials from the company operating the mine, Lydian Armenia (the local subsidiary of a British mining firm), attempted to remove some cabins that had been set up by activists who have been protesting there since 2018, and to replace them with new cabins for company guards. The activists complained that the guards, from a recently hired security company, had been behaving inappropriately. “They are armed, provoking people, swearing at them,” activist Themnine Yenokyan told the local service of RFE/RL. The protesters are demanding that the government cancel the project, which they say will badly damage the surrounding ecology and the water supply.
The mine contract, which was signed by the previous government, ousted by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in 2018, has been one of the most sensitive issues that the new government has had to face. It has pitted grassroots activists, of the type that were instrumental in bringing Pashinyan to power, against proponents of the project – including Western embassies and investors – who insist that it will provide the kind of jobs that he has promised.
In an effort to resolve the deadlock, Armenia’s Investigative Committee ordered an environmental impact assessment, which was released a year ago and which Pashinyan took as a green light to let the development of the mine proceed. The impact to groundwater resources would be as small as “washing a car on the beach,” he said last August.
But just two weeks later, his government reversed course following a spirited public debate, and said it would study the issue further. Since then the issue has languished, one that to many Armenians has exemplified the government’s inability to make difficult decisions. Lydian, meanwhile, has threatened to sue if the government cancels the project. At Amulsar, eventually police removed the Lydian-installed cabins, representing a victory for the protesters. The demonstrations then moved to Yerevan. On August 10, several activists picketed parliament with signs like “Amulsar is a mountain, our struggle is just.” Police soon broke up the protests.
“They started to inflict violence on me and others without any warning or demand,” one of the activists, Arman Gharibyan, posted on Facebook (in English). “I was screaming that their actions are illegal that they don’t have the right to arrest me. Nobody was listening. Later in the police unit they were not giving me even a glass of water telling that there is no water in the unit and nearby shops.”
The government has remained silent over the recent developments.
Human rights activist Nina Karapetyants told journalists covering the protest in front of parliament that, “If this was before the revolution, 40-50 percent of, members of the current National Assembly would be by our side. Today, they value their positions and bonuses much higher than the words and rights of their friends, their voters and the people.” She said the silence of the authorities suggested that they were waiting “to see whoever wins and then stand by them.”
New legislation on mines doesn’t fully protect sensitive nature areas in Portugal, environmentalists warn
In the new decree that regulates the exploitation of mineral resources on public land in Portugal, whose public consultation ended recently, only classified areas, such as those that make up the Natura Network, are guaranteed protection “whenever possible”. This is why the environmentalist association Zero criticized the new legislation on mines, considering that it does not guarantee the protection of sensitive areas by allowing exploration to go ahead even if there are negative environmental opinions.
“This is a situation that does not guarantee any safeguards,” the association said in a statement, pointing out that the Environment Minister already guaranteed that “there would be no prospecting and research of lithium in classified areas,” but the new legislation “is not clear on that point.
When any company or other entity makes a request for prospecting and research in classified areas, the last word will always fall to the Directorate General of Energy and Geology, which may authorize “even if the non-binding opinions of other entities, particularly in the area of nature conservation, are negative. Zero accuses the government of wanting to have “political control over municipalities” by putting in the decree-law that concessionaires that want to exploit minerals have to contribute to the Environmental Fund to finance projects of the municipalities where the mines are located.
In addition, “projects that especially benefit the populations closest to the mine” can be financed, which, according to the association, “leaves room for investments that may not result in a benefit for the communities that will be most affected.
“This discretion regarding the type of projects that can be financed and clear political control may not result in added value for communities that are really affected by the exploitation of geological resources”, Zero considers.
The association says there is no point in saying that infrastructure built to support mining operations, such as “energy production, water supply and effluent treatment”, will remain for the municipalities after the mines close, because by then “many will certainly be obsolete, creating false expectations”.
For Zero, a “more ambitious proposal for legislation” is needed, with more participation from society and “clear and active involvement of institutions with competencies in the area of environment and nature conservation in all processes”. For example, “the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests should be consulted in advance” in order to grant concession rights, whether for prospecting and research or for exploration, even if the projects are outside classified areas, and any unfavorable opinion should be binding, defend the environmentalists.
They also consider that the Portuguese Environment Agency and the Regional Coordination and Development Commissions must be “involved in all the processes of granting concession rights”.
Zero also wants to see “other actors in society” involved in the processes of granting concessions, without forgetting” people and existing conflicts”, defending a strategy that “is not only the detrimental aspect of geological resources”.