- The company operating an Ethiopian gold mine and the refinery that sourced its gold took no action over concerns about pollution from the mine for years.
- The mine was reopened even though the government had ordered it closed following protests. Studies found that residents were being exposed to toxic metals.
- The government should halt mine operations. The companies involved should provide compensation and health care to affected residents and clean up the pollution.
(Nairobi) – A company operating a gold mine in Ethiopia, Midroc Investment Group, and the Swiss refinery Argor-Heraeus that sourced its gold took no action over media reports about pollution from the mine for years, Human Rights Watch said today. An assessment carried out at the Ethiopian government’s request found that local residents had experienced serious health effects. Midroc resumed operations, apparently with a license from the government, but without any apparent steps to reduce pollution even though the government had said it was suspending its license until pollution issues were resolved.
The Ethiopian government suspended the Lega Dembi industrial gold mine’s license in May 2018 following protests over pollution and its health impacts. Scientific studies initiated in 2018 found that residents were exposed to toxic metals, violating their rights to health and to a clean, healthy, and safe environment. The government said it would not permit the company to resume the mine’s operations until the issues were “resolved” and the toxic waste “no longer poses a threat.” However, Human Rights Watch research found that the mine recommenced operations around March 2021 without any apparent steps taken to reduce pollution.
“The Ethiopian government, by allowing the Lega Dembi mine to reopen without pollution reduction steps in place, is violating the right to health of children and adults living nearby,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate child rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should suspend operations until measures have been taken to ensure that harmful chemicals in the water and soil do not exceed international standards, and that people harmed by the pollution obtain compensation and care.”
Residents living near the mine, located close to the town of Shakiso in Guji Zone, in the Oromia region, have for years complained of ill-health and disabilities, particularly in newborn children.
The Ethiopian government should immediately halt operations at the Lega Dembi mine until effective pollution reduction measures have been put in place. Midroc Investment Group and Argor-Heraeus, the Swiss gold refinery it supplied until 2018, should provide compensation and health care to affected residents and clean up the devastating pollution in the area.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 people living in the vicinity of the mine site, former Midroc employees, and former local and regional government officials and environmental and health experts. Human Rights Watch also reviewed numerous environmental and health studies and other documents relating to the mine.
Environmental testing by Addis Ababa University in 2018 found high levels of arsenic in water samples taken downstream from the mine area, and high levels of nickel, chromium, and arsenic in soil samples outside the mine.
An assessment initiated in 2018 by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, done at the Ethiopian government’s request and shared with Human Rights Watch, found that local residents had experienced serious health effects. The study concluded that “communities living around Lega Dembi mining area were at risk of exposure to pollutants like toxic metals released from the mining plant and other mining activities.” The results of the assessment process have never been made public.
Midroc Investment Group, one of Ethiopia’s largest private business entities, took over the mine from the Ethiopian government in 1997. Based on information provided by Argor-Heraeus, Midroc appears to have taken little action to address complaints over environmental harm and ill-health, Human Rights Watch said. Midroc did not respond to a Human Rights Watch request for information.
Argor-Heraeus, one of the largest gold refineries globally, says it sourced gold from Lega Dembi from 2013 until March 2018. However, in Midroc’s 2007 annual report, Argor-Heraeus was the only company named as Midroc’s business partner. According to information shared by Argor-Heraeus with Human Rights Watch, the refinery did not identify the harm to the environment and to human rights at Lega Dembi until 2018, despite media reports and public protests about environmental pollution and ill-health at the mine in 2009-10, 2015-2016, and 2017. As a result, Argor-Heraeus did not use its leverage with Midroc to address that harm.
Argor-Heraeus responded to Human Rights Watch’s findings: “We were very shocked by the reports Human Rights Watch quoted from. We stopped the business relation with Midroc five years ago, immediately after we became aware of the significant local issues. Unfortunately, there are only very few isolated internationally accessible media reports from the region. The studies from which Human Rights Watch quotes were only produced after the situation became known.” Argor-Heraeus also responded to questions from Human Rights Watch with two letters.
Companies have a responsibility to ensure that they do not cause or contribute to rights abuses, in line with standards established by the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD). More specifically, companies should take steps to identify, prevent, and mitigate their human rights and environmental impacts: a process called “due diligence.” Where companies have caused or contributed to human rights impacts – including by failing to use leverage over a supplier to mitigate its impact to the greatest extent possible – they should help remedy abuses.
“The mine owner Midroc does not appear to have seriously addressed the human rights and environmental harms at Lega Dembi, despite years of public protests by residents,” said Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is a source of great concern that the gold refinery Argor-Heraeus sourced gold from the mine for years without publicly identifying the human rights risks.”
When Argor-Heraeus used the Lega Dembi mine as a source of gold, two industry bodies certified it as sourcing “responsibly” on the basis of audits confirming compliance with the two industry bodies’ codes of conduct. The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), which has over 1,600 company members in the jewelry supply chain, certified Argor-Heraeus in 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020. The RJC standard in place at this time requires members to conduct human rights due diligence in their supply chain and “provide for or cooperate in legitimate processes to enable the remediation” of adverse human rights impacts where members have contributed to such impacts.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the trade association of major gold refineries, bullion dealers, and banks, certified Argor-Heraeus annually since at least 2013 under its “Responsible Gold Guidance.” The guidance requires members to conduct human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, and mitigate human rights abuses in their supply chain and stop sourcing from a supplier implicated in serious human rights abuses.
Argor-Heraeus said in response: “Our due diligence processes are among the most rigorous in the world today. Nevertheless, we have taken this case as an opportunity to review our internal processes again.”
Midroc, with support from Argor-Heraeus, should provide comprehensive, inclusive, and transparent environmental remediation, Human Rights Watch said.
“Two industry certification schemes endorsed Argor-Heraeus’ sourcing practices despite its failure to identify and address a supplier’s environmental and human rights harms,” Kippenberg said. “The Lega Dembi gold mine exemplifies that certification by voluntary programs are no guarantee of sourcing from rights-respecting suppliers and may actually risk ‘greenwashing’ a catastrophic situation.”
For more information and additional details, please see below.
Human Rights Watch has conducted research into the human rights situation at the Lega Dembi mine in Ethiopia since 2012. Between 2012 and 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 people living in the vicinity of the mine site, former Midroc employees, and former local and regional government officials. In 2021 and 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 former local government officials and environmental and health experts.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed numerous environmental and health studies; photos provided by the studies and local sources; and open-source information, including videos, photos, local media articles, government cadastre data, and satellite imagery.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the Oromia Mineral Development Authority, and Midroc Investment Group seeking clarification on steps taken to address the harm causd by the mine and its reopening. None have replied. Human Rights Watch also wrote to the Canadian embassy in Ethiopia about its possible involvement in the government-initiated environmental and health assessment; the embassy did not respond.
Human Rights Watch also sent letters about abuses in Lega Dembi to Argor-Heraeus, the London Bullion Market Association, and the Responsible Jewellery Council, all of whom met with Human Rights Watch and sent written responses.
Environmental Harm, Right to Health, and Abuses Against Protesters
People living near Lega Dembi mine have suffered violations of their rights to health and to a healthy environment, as well as violations of their rights to protest peacefully and be protected from arbitrary detention and from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Residents living near the mine described health and veterinary concerns to Human Rights Watch, the media, and a research project by a United States university prior to the 2018 closure of the mine. They told Human Rights Watch that they believe their problems are connected to the water in the ponds used to process the mine’s tailings and other waste. The residents said that tailings ponds regularly overflowed during periods of heavy rain, allowing polluted water to flow into downstream creeks that are used for household needs.
Some community members said they became sick after they consumed water from nearby creeks. Residents also said there had been miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital disabilities (disabilities at birth) affecting those who live adjacent to, or downstream from, the tailings ponds. Human Rights Watch has obtained photographs of 12 children with physical disabilities. Residents said some animals died after consuming this water, and animals that regularly graze there seemed to have more frequent congenital disabilities.
The residents’ accounts are supported by the “Compliance Audit in Chemical Management on Midroc Gold Mine PLC’s Legadembi and Sakaro Mining Operations” (the compliance audit) initiated in 2018 by Addis Ababa University, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Mines and Midroc, and a separate study conducted as part of the government-initiated assessment of the mine, the “Legadembi Mining and Community Health Study: Technical Report” (the community health study) initiated by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in 2018. Human Rights Watch has copies of both studies – which were not published – on file. The Ethiopian government said the Canadian embassy “collaborated” on the government-led assessment, although it is not clear what role, if any, the embassy played in the preparation of this health study.
The community health study found that children living in the area around the mine site had a significantly higher rate of congenital disabilities than those living in some other areas of Ethiopia.
The compliance audit found high levels of harmful metals and other chemicals in water and soil samples. For example, arsenic levels in water downstream from the mine were almost 10 times above drinking water standards prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO): 98µg/l (micrograms per liter) compared to the WHO standard of 10µg/l. Cyanide, a key chemical for gold processing at the Lega Dembi mine, was found in “considerable amount” both in water and soil samples outside of the tailings dam in the license area.
The compliance audit also revealed that arsenic, chromium, and nickel in the soil sampled outside the mine in 2015 and 2018 exceeded the WHO limit. The community health study found harmful health effects in line with existing research on the effects of these substances: Skin diseases, miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital disabilities were significantly higher near the mine than in other parts of the country.
When Midroc took over the lease of Lega Dembi in 1997, it introduced a cyanide-leaching system to extract gold. Prior to 1997, a state-owned mining company had used mercury, another toxic chemical, for gold processing. The community health study found that community members stored and used mercury, apparently for gold processing. While the compliance audit conducted by Addis Ababa University assessed mercury levels but did not report concerns about mercury pollution, an unpublished 2019 study by an independent academic researcher found extremely high levels of mercury in water and soil samples. For example, the mean mercury content in water was about 37 times above the WHO standard for drinking water.
Long-time residents told Human Rights Watch that Midroc rarely consulted with the community about the mine’s impacts. They said that tailings ponds previously had neither signs warning residents of the potential dangers, nor any fencing or other barriers to prevent people or cattle from accessing the ponds. Residents also said they were not aware of steps taken by Midroc to communicate the environmental and health risks to surrounding communities.
The Ethiopian authorities responded with excessive force to repeated protests by the local community in 2009, 2015, 2016, and 2018. In 2009, security forces arrested dozens of people. Two people who had been detained said that authorities severely beat them with sticks and electric cables. In 2015-16, protesters in and around Shakiso raised the potential health impacts of the mine – along with many other issues – during large-scale protests throughout the Oromia region, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters. Local residents said that security forces accused protesters who raised concerns about the mine of being “against the government,” “anti-development,” or “members of the Oromo Liberation Front,” a then-banned armed opposition group. Many were arrested and detained.
In April 2018, the Ethiopian government, under newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, renewed a permit to allow Midroc to continue operating the mine for 10 years. A week of local protests followed in which government security forces killed at least two people and injured several others, international and national media reported. The government responded to the protests by suspending the decision to renew Midroc’s license.
Reopening of Lega Dembi Mine
Local sources, open source information, and satellite imagery collected by Human Rights Watch confirm that the mine is currently operating. It reopened around March 2021, though Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the exact date. Local sources, satellite imagery, and open source data do not indicate that the company took any remediation measures, such as rebuilding the tailings ponds.
At a community meeting in March 2021, local government officials told community members that the mine would reopen. They announced that compensation would be paid to people whose health had been affected but did not provide information about the criteria for compensation. Officials also mentioned remediation but did not provide details. Several community members said the authorities paid compensation of up to 20,000 birr (US$300) to some, but not all, affected people. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the number of people compensated or the criteria for compensation.
An Ethiopian-government report released in July 2021 stated that Oromia regional authorities and Midroc signed a memorandum of understanding with an action plan for the “resolution of social, health, and environmental impacts.” The steps included voluntary relocation of affected community members, payment of compensation, support to the local administration, and the creation of a “mechanism” to require transparency and accountability from the mining company. The report does not mention the environmental remediation measures. The memorandum of understanding has not been made public, and Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain a copy.
Satellite imagery shows significant changes at Lega Dembi mine beginning in March 2021. Around March 10, water started to fill a tailings pond, and in the second half of the month, new earthworks were visible in various parts of the complex. Activity is also visible in the main open pit, with its depth significantly increasing between March 2021 and March 2022. New buildings were built within the mining complex between May and August 2021. The road leading to Lega Dembi from Shakiso, about five kilometers north of the mine, was paved between August and September 2021.
In March 2022, someone posted a video to YouTube of training for security personnel held by Midroc and the Oromia Police College in a compound located along the newly paved road. The video, entitled “Midroc Gold Lagadambi Security Officers,” includes an image of a certificate of completion that indicates the training took place in November 2021.
The government’s mining registry, an electronic portal with information on the mining sector, marks the Lega Dembi area under an active large-scale mining license, which belongs to Midroc and expires in 2028. A local government official also told the BBC in January 2022 that the mine had reopened.
Data from the UN Comtrade database shows the export of 14.97 tons of gold from Ethiopia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2021, up from 1.28 tons in 2020. In contrast, Ethiopia did not export any gold to Switzerland in 2021. The data suggests that after the reopening of the mine, gold from Lega Dembi may have been exported to gold refineries in the UAE, one of the world’s leading gold refining and trading centers.
Role of Argor-Heraeus
Argor-Heraeus provided information to Human Rights Watch on its sourcing from Lega Dembi mine in two letters, dated April 6, 2021, and December 29, 2022. Argor-Heraeus confirmed that it received gold from Lega Dembi until March 2018 and suspended its business relationship with Midroc in May 2018; it says it has not sourced gold from there since.
While the refinery states that it started sourcing gold from Lega Dembi in 2013, publicly available sources indicate that it sourced from Lega Dembi as early as 2007. Midroc’s 2007 annual report stated that gold from Lega Dembi was shipped to Argor-Heraeus. In 2011, a Japanese economics institute profiled Midroc and identified Argor-Heraeus as the recipient of Lega Dembi gold.
Argor-Heraeus says it took Midroc on as a supplier and “monitored” the supplier “in compliance with applicable legislation and standards.” In 2018, several years after starting to source from Lega Dembi, the refinery became aware of environmental and human rights concerns at Lega Dembi mine through “internationally accessible public sources” and started a process of “clarification,” the refinery said.
Human Rights Watch asked Argor-Heraeus in writing what information triggered the “clarification process,” what the process entailed and what it concluded, and whether the results were made public. Argor-Heraeus has shared little information in response and has not made the results public. It also did not share any information about whether it took steps to independently verify the reports of abuse, for example with local nongovernmental organisations, media, or community leaders. The only step the refinery has described in some detail is its outreach to Midroc, which it says it contacted to verify whether the information about environmental and human rights violations was accurate. According to Argor-Heraeus, Midroc “denied all allegations regarding environmental damages.”
Argor-Heraeus said that it did not receive any information or grievance about Midroc through its grievance or whistleblower mechanisms while it had a business relationship with Midroc, and did not mention any efforts to reach out to independent sources. Argor-Heraeus also stated that “our subsequent investigations within the context of the suspension of the mining license and our inquiries to MIDROC for clarification and disclosure of the entire facts did not lead to any satisfying result.”
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business enterprises should identify adverse human rights impacts by carrying out meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders. But the “clarification process” appears to have been focused on checking information with Midroc, not on seeking independent information from community members, civil society, or the media.
The suspension of the business relationship with Midroc on May 14, 2018, occurred only after the Ethiopian government had suspended the mining license on May 8: in other words, at a moment when Argor-Heraeus could not source from Lega Dembi anymore. Argor-Heraeus said that the “clarification process” was “still underway” when the Ethiopian government suspended Midroc’s mining license.
If Argor-Heraeus had appropriate due diligence mechanisms in place, it should have been able to identify environmental and health harms at Lega Dembi prior to 2018 and should have been able to use its leverage as a key customer to push Midroc to address and remedy rights abuses. The absence of an appropriate due diligence mechanism may have significantly contributed to further human rights abuses at the Lega Dembi mine.
Under the UN Guiding Principles, business enterprises that identify that they have caused or contributed to adverse human rights impacts should provide for or cooperate in their remediation through legitimate processes. Argor-Heraeus has not taken adequate steps to press Midroc since 2018 to address past harm at Lega Dembi and has not committed to providing compensation, pollution reduction measures, or other remedies to community members. Businesses should ensure that effective, accessible, and legitimate grievance mechanisms are available, but Argor-Heraeus’ grievance policy does not make clear how the mechanism has been made legitimate and accessible, in particular to communities around Lega Dembi.
Argor-Heraeus’ Certification by the London Bullion Market Association
Two industry bodies certified Argor-Heraeus despite its failure to identify human rights risks. Voluntary certification schemes can encourage improvements in the minerals sector, but they also often have serious weaknesses. Therefore, governments should not rely on certifications as a company’s proof of compliance with international human rights standards.
The London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), the trade association of major gold refineries, certified Argor-Heraeus annually as compliant with its Responsible Gold Guidance since at least 2013. Each assessment process included an audit by an independent third-party assurance provider. When asked about the findings of Argor-Heraeus’ audits, the LBMA said that it was not at liberty to disclose the contents. Human Rights Watch only has a summary of Argor-Heraeus’ 2018 audit, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers SA, on file. The audit summary does not mention the Lega Dembi mine.
The LBMA’s standard, the “Responsible Gold Guidance,” became a formal requirement for gold refiners that were LBMA members in 2012. The guidance has been revised and expanded several times, including in 2015, 2017, and 2018. In its letter to Human Rights Watch, the LBMA stated that “some of the environmental issues raised fall outside of the scope of previous versions of the Responsible Gold Guidance that were in effect at the time.” It also said that environmental concerns were added to the Responsible Gold Guidance at the end of 2018, and that “the LBMA recognizes the need for continued improvement.”
However, the 2015, 2017, and 2018 iterations of the guidance all specifically require gold refiners to “identify human risks” in their supply chain, including systematic or widespread human rights abuses associated with the extraction, transport, or trade of gold. The right to health is guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty explicitly included in the definition of “human rights” in the relevant iterations of the Responsible Gold Guidance.
According to the 2015, 2017, and 2018 iterations of the guidance, a refiner should stop sourcing from a supplier if serious human rights abuses are found, and suspended if serious human rights abuses are found to be possible. The guidance requires refiners to submit a corrective action plan to the LBMA Physical Committee when there is a medium risk, high risk, or zero tolerance noncompliance, or when the refiner fails to satisfy one or more requirements set out in the guidance.
As a result, the LBMA certified Argor-Heraeus even though the company continued to source from a supplier implicated in serious human rights abuses.
Argor-Heraeus’ Certification by the Responsible Jewellery Council
The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), a jewelry industry body, certified Argor-Heraeus in 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020 as compliant with its Code of Practices. The RJC’s Code of Practices sets out responsible sourcing requirements for all member companies, throughout the whole supply chain. The Code of Practices was adopted in 2009 and revised and expanded in 2013 and 2019.
The 2013 code requires member companies to observe the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and specifically to have in place a “human rights due diligence process that seeks to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights” in their supply chain. It also requires member companies to provide for or cooperate with processes to enable remediation should they have caused or contributed to adverse human rights impacts.
According to RJC summaries of certification information, the 2014 and 2017 audits of Argor-Heraeus did not find any critical breaches. In its letter to Human Rights Watch, the RJC said that during the audits conducted up to 2017, the code’s provision on human rights was not defined as “critical,” and therefore noncompliance did not constitute a critical breach. The RJC noted that the provision is now considered “critical,” and that it discloses data on identified critical breaches. It informed Human Rights Watch that it cannot disclose audit reports. Going forward, the RJC has committed to monitoring annual gold refiner reports regarding mines of origin, and communicating human rights concerns regarding Lega Dembi mine to approved RJC audit firms.
- The Ethiopian government, Midroc, and Argor-Heraeus should conduct a comprehensive, inclusive, and transparent process of remediation at Lega Dembi mine guided by international environmental and health experts. The Ethiopian government should suspend Midroc’s Lega Dembi mining license and ensure that no operations take place until a tailings management system has been designed in accordance with professional standards, and harmful chemicals in water and soil do not exceed international standards designed to protect human health. Midroc and Argor-Heraeus should publicly report about their role in the remediation process.
- The Ethiopian government, together with international environmental and health experts, should then put in place a robust monitoring program, subject to independent audits, that will monitor and publish contaminant levels over time, taking corrective action when contaminant levels exceed thresholds.
- The Ethiopian government should immediately publish the memorandum of understanding between Oromia regional authorities and Midroc, as well as the community health study and the compliance audit of chemical management.
- The Ethiopian government and the Oromia regional government, in partnership with Midroc and Argor-Heraeus, and in consultation with affected communities, should design and carry out a fair and transparent process to provide an effective remedy for the harm done, including full and effective reparations proportionate to the harm suffered, and ensure that people affected by human rights abuses connected to the Lega Dembi mine have access to justice, health care, and social support.
- Argor-Heraeus should investigate its human rights due diligence systems and their application in the case of the Lega Dembi mine and publish the findings.
- The LBMA and the RJC should investigate the certification audits of Argor-Heraeus to identify and report problems with the audits of the refinery’s responsible sourcing practices and publish the findings.
- The Swiss government should amend or replace existing legislation on minerals from conflict-affected areas and require robust human rights and environmental due diligence covering all countries of origin, including through a civil liability clause and the creation of an adequately funded enforcement mechanism.