(Nairobi) – Guinea’s massive Simandou iron ore mine project poses severe risks for communities’ land, water, and environment, Human Rights Watch said today. The mining companies developing Simandou have promised to respect strong human rights and environmental standards, but their track record in Guinea means that the project deserves the closest possible scrutiny.
Simandou, reportedly the world’s biggest untapped high-grade iron ore deposit, is being developed by consortia led by Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining corporation, and Winning International Group, a Singapore-based company with roots in China. Rio Tinto and Winning say that the project will generate “a sustainable source of wealth for the people of Guinea for generations to come,” with mining in 2018 providing a third of Guinea’s state budget. But the Simandou project also threatens surrounding communities’ access to land and water, and will release large quantities of carbon emissions.
“Simandou is unprecedented for Guinea not only in its size and complexity, but the threats it poses to the rights and environment of local communities,” said Jim Wormington, senior corporate accountability researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Inadequate oversight of the project could result in a human rights and environmental disaster.”
Simandou’s deposits, which contain enough iron ore to build more than 500,000 Eiffel Towers, have for years remained untapped due to corruption allegations, disputes over ownership, Guinea’s political instability, and the area’s remote and difficult terrain. In August 2022, however, the Winning and Rio Tinto consortia agreed to co-develop the railway and port infrastructure for the project, with mining slated to begin by 2025.
The Chinese government sees the development of Simandou as essential to diversifying and securing its supply of iron ore, the main input for steel manufacturing. China produces more steel than any other country and Rio Tinto’s consortium includes Baowu Steel, the world’s largest producer.
Extracting iron ore from Simandou, however, means tearing up forest and uprooting communities. The project’s planned railway, needed to transport ore for export, will run 600 kilometers across Guinea. Rio Tinto and Winning say this will create a “strategic corridor” with regional economic benefits beyond mining. But a 2021 environmental and social impact assessment commissioned by the Winning consortium states that building the railway will raze more than 100 square kilometers of land and destroy vital habitat for endangered species, such as the West African chimpanzee.
On the mountain itself, a 2022 environmental and social impact assessment commissioned by Winning for its portion of Simandou anticipates that mining pits will span almost 20 kilometers across the mountain ridge. The assessment found that, at Winning’s sites alone, mining-related deforestation could release up to 271,300 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to burning 300 million pounds of coal, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate calculated with a tool developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).
Winning’s assessment estimates that, over the 22-year anticipated life of the mine, it will produce over 19 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to burning 21 billion pounds of coal, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate calculated with the US EPA tool. Rio Tinto and Winning told Human Rights Watch that they are still assessing the overall carbon footprint of the project but are focused on reducing it where possible.
The two impact assessments commissioned by Winning for the railway and mine also suggest that construction will force people in hundreds of households to leave their homes. Even for villages that are not relocated, the assessments warn that deforestation and land loss risks jeopardizing communities’ farming, hunting, and fishing, with negative impacts on families’ food security. The assessments also state that the project could negatively affect the communities’ already fragile water sources, with Simandou’s mountains a vital source of water for local rivers.
Guinea’s government conditionally approved the environmental and social impact assessments for Simandou’s railway in July 2021 and construction on railway infrastructure has already begun. Guinea’s government has yet to review and approve Winning’s impact assessment for its mine sites. Rio Tinto is currently updating its impacts assessments for its mining operations and its portion of the rail line.
The Rio Tinto and Winning consortia, in a September 23, 2022 joint letter to Human Rights Watch, stated that they were committed to developing Simandou in accordance with international environmental and social performance standards and to implementing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Rio Tinto, however, already co-owns a mine in Guinea that extracts bauxite, the ore needed to make aluminum. In 2019, 13 neighboring villages accused the mine of “land grabbing and destruction of their environment and livelihoods,” in violation of conditions set out in a US$200 million World Bank loan. The World Bank is now overseeing a mediation process to try to resolve these communities’ complaints. Rio Tinto has said it is monitoring the mine’s approach to environmental protection and human rights and that the consortium that owns the mine, including Rio Tinto, is observing the mediation process.
The Winning consortium controls a mining company that is Guinea’s biggest exporter of bauxite. In 2018, Human Rights Watch documented the company’s destructive impacts on nearby communities’ land and environment. The company told Human Rights Watch in September 2022 that its bauxite operations are audited annually by the Guinean government and that an external firm had reviewed and updated its environmental and social impact assessment and management plan.
But the company has repeatedly refused to provide copies of the revised assessments or the updated plan, and Guinean nongovernmental organizations continue to report negative effects on communities’ land and water sources.
Guinea’s military government, which took power in a September 2021 coup, has a 15 percent stake in both Simandou’s mining operations and the railway company that will transport the ore for export. Guinea’s military leadership, criticized by civil society groups for delaying elections necessary for a return to civilian rule, banned public protests nationwide in May and has deployed the army to suppress demonstrations in defiance of the ban. Guinea’s security forces have frequently used excessive and often fatal force in suppressing demonstrations, including killing six people in 2012 following a protest at an iron ore mine in the same region as Simandou.
In their September letter to Human Rights Watch, the Rio Tinto and Winning consortia acknowledged that the Simandou project “will be constructed and operated in a unique environment that presents significant challenges.” The consortia said they are conducting a risk assessment of the project’s rights impacts, developing an independent audit regime to monitor compliance with environmental and social performance standards, and beginning discussions to align their grievance and complaints procedures.
On September 23, a statement from a coalition of 10 Guinean civil society organizations welcomed the companies’ commitment to international standards but expressed concern at “elevated risks” of social, environmental, and governance failings.
“Despite Rio Tinto and the Winning consortium’s promise to respect human rights, their history in Guinea raises major questions about their capacity to deliver,” Wormington said. “Guinean communities are yet to see whether the companies’ commitments will translate into meaningful protections for their land, environment, and rights.”