“This Is Our Land”
How Guinea’s Bauxite Boom Affects Human Rights
Mamadou Bah’s ancestral village is now almost entirely surrounded by bauxite mines and roads. “It hurts me to look at this,” says the farmer and community leader. Next year his village will be forced to relocate. “We’re worried for our survival.”
Ibrahima Bangoura, the head of a rural health clinic, describes how trucks from the local mining operation pass by villages, coating nearby trees and homes in red dust. He sees a steady stream of patients with coughs and colds. “Mining activities are affecting the population’s health,” he says.
Maïmouna (name withheld for safety reasons), a young mother of six from Lansanayah, a village near a bauxite mine, can no longer fetch water from a local stream that she says has been blocked by sediment flowing down from the mine. After months of complaints, the mine owners finally built her village a well, but the community says the water quality is poor. Maïmouna says that the company instead brings water in a tanker. “The water in the tanker is sometimes dirty,” she says. “We drink it because we don’t have a choice.”
The West African country of Guinea is one of the world’s poorest nations. But it is also one of the top bauxite exporters, and the biggest to China, where the bulk of global aluminum is produced. Bauxite mining provides the government with much-needed tax dollars and thousands of jobs. But for people like Bah, Bangoura, and Maïmouna, mining has profoundly affected their local environment, their relationship with their land, and their access to clean water. These are their stories.
“Everything you see here used to be [land for] the village of Hamdallaye,” says Bah, pointing toward a vast expanse of red earth where land has been cleared by a mining company. The people here were never well off, he says, but the land provided a steady and sustainable source of food. “There was enough land for everyone,” he says.
That way of life is now under threat. Hamdallaye, about 30 kilometers northeast of Boké, the capital of Guinea’s bauxite belt, is almost encircled by mines and roads belonging to La Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), one of Guinea’s largest bauxite mining companies. Almost forty percent of Hamdallaye’s ancestral land has been expropriated for CBG’s operations since 2005. “There’s nobody in this community who hasn’t lost land to CBG,” Bah says. To make matters worse, mining will in 2019 force the village itself to move to another location, but the community hopes to continue to farm the land so far spared by mining.
The ancestral lands where Hamdallaye’s residents farmed were once untouched by mining.
A decade later, CBG had expanded its mining activities into the northeast corner of Hamdallaye’s lands. Bah says that CBG never paid adequate compensation, although CBG denies this.
By 2018, CBG’s mining activities had encircled the village and destroyed much of Hamdallaye’s ancestral lands.
Bah says that when CBG started using the community’s land, it didn’t compensate villagers. “They gave us the impression they were going to pay us,” he says. “But I think it was just to trick us, to get access to the land.”
CBG denies expropriating land without compensation. Bah says CBG began paying compensation in 2015, but only for trees and crops, not for the land itself. One farmer recalled asking CBG to pay him for his land in 2016. A senior CBG official told him, “This land was given to us by the state in the 1970s,” when CBG first began mining. The community leader replied, “No, we’ve been living here for more than 100 years, and this is our land.”
Bah’s story mirrors that of hundreds of farmers who have lost land to bauxite mining in exchange for inadequate compensation or one-time payments that don’t provide long-term financial security. Because Guinean laws don’t adequately protect rural land rights, mining companies can maintain that the land communities have occupied for generations remains, “property of the state,” minimizing their obligation to provide fair compensation, such as land of equivalent value to that lost to mining.
Bah acknowledges that mining has brought benefits to the community, including improved local roads and infrastructure. “A journey to Conakry that used to take several days is now over in a day,” he says. CBG says that it plans to find Hamdallaye replacement land, assist farmers to work more efficiently, and help the village to develop other income sources. But with much of the village’s land already gone, and the planned relocation site largely a vacant lot, many of Hamdallaye’s villagers are increasingly skeptical that CBG will deliver on its promises. “In less than 10 years, I think the land will be exhausted,” says a local farmer.
Bangoura’s health clinic is a half-finished one-story building, unfurnished except for one or two beds and tables. “I’ve asked for more equipment,” Bangoura says, almost apologetically. Bangoura’s clinic is in Djoumayah, a village at the bottom of a valley a few kilometers from a hilltop bauxite mine belonging to Guinea’s largest bauxite exporter, La Société Minière de Boké (SMB). The road SMB uses to transport ore from the mine for export passes less than 200 meters from the clinic and the village school.
When SMB began operating in 2016, villagers say, dust blown down from the mine or churned up by trucks’ tires on the unpaved road fell onto crops, trees and homes. “We were overwhelmed by dust,” a local farmer says. “The dust would be in your spit and your clothes completely ruined.” Bangoura, who began working in Djoumayah soon after the mine opened, worries about the impact of dust and exhaust emissions on local air quality: “We’ve seen sicknesses like coughs and colds that then lead to bronchitis, pneumonia and other complaints that we can’t manage at our level and so we refer to larger clinics.”
The health clinic where Bangoura works is in a peaceful village at the bottom of a valley. The village school is a short walk away.
The construction of SMB’s mining road, less than 200 meters away, meant that hundreds of mining trucks passed by every day.
Bangoura’s fears echo those of other health workers and scores of villagers living close to mining roads, bauxite mines or ports. “When you come back from your fields dirty, and covered in dust, even if an illness doesn’t show straight away, it can certainly appear later,” says one community leader. Public health experts say that, given the lack of reliable local health statistics, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions about a link between mining in the area and respiratory illnesses. But Bangoura’s experiences serving Djoumayah and other communities suggest to him that reduced air quality from mining is affecting people’s health: “I believe the level of respiratory illness is elevated because of the dust.” In February 2018, an air quality measurement during a government inspection mission to Djoumayah recorded a level of fine particulate matter, small dust particles damaging to human health, more than ten times the guideline levels of the World Health Organization.
Although the traffic on the mining road has reduced since SMB finished extracting bauxite from the mine closest to Djoumayah, Bangoura worries that the village’s experience will be repeated elsewhere. Fréderic Bouzigues, SMB’s director-general, told Human Rights Watch that the company’s mitigation measures, such as watering mining roads to reduce dust, ensure that the air quality is safe. But the consortium operated for years without conducting the monitoring needed to verify this claim, only in December 2017 beginning air quality monitoring. “SMB hasn’t even asked me whether I see a link between mining and health consequences,” Bangoura says. SMB said that the first results of its air quality monitoring would be made public in late 2018.
“We can’t find water, that’s the biggest worry here,” said Maïmouna, looking out over an open-sky mine operated by SMB that is 750m from her village. Maïmouna says that sediment in rainwater flowing down from the mine has gradually blocked a stream where she used to get water. “Everything is ruined down there now,” she said.
The village was for months forced to rely on the company to deliver water in a tanker. SMB finally constructed a borehole but villagers say the water is of poor quality. “We asked SMB to test it. But they wouldn’t give us the results,” says a local leader. In the meantime, the tanker deliveries are becoming less frequent. “It only comes every few days now,” says Maïmouna. An April 2017 environment ministry inspection report concluded that SMB, “has not taken any effective measure to reduce pollution of surface water by the transport of sediments into waterways.” SMB’s leadership told Human Rights Watch that it is only aware of one location where sediment run-off had damaged water sources, and that the situation had been quickly remedied.
Maïmouna lived in a peaceful hilltop village, Lansanayah, 15 kilometers from Boké, the capital of Guinea’s bauxite belt.
“We used to find water down the valley from the village,” she says.
But Lansanayah has been transformed by the arrival of Guinea’s largest bauxite exporter, La Société Minière de Boké, on its doorstep.
“There’s no water in the valley anymore,” says Maïmouna. “The mine has ruined it.”
Maïmouna’s story reflects the experiences of many communities who say that the arrival of bauxite mining has blocked or polluted rivers and streams and reduced access to water. Water scarcity means that women and girls, who are primarily responsible for fetching water, are forced to walk longer distances or wait longer to use overburdened water sources. “I’m up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get in line for water,” says one woman. “I take my children with me so that by the time we’re finished they can go to school.”
Maïmouna says she is lucky that her husband works in mining, so they get some benefit from the mine in Lansanayah. But she says mining companies and the Guinean government should do more to address the impact of mining on women. “Although our husbands have work, we’re suffering,” she says.
No Sign of Slowing Down
Guinea’s government, which has already overseen a doubling of the country’s bauxite production since 2015, plans to expand production by another 50 percent by 2020. As Guinea’s bauxite boom continues, the government should ensure that protecting nearby communities is at the top of its agenda. This requires adopting urgently needed regulations to ensure that farmers who lose land to mining are fairly compensated, and efforts to assist mining and environment officials provide better supervision of mining companies. If mining companies don’t meet their social and environmental obligations, the Guinean government should hold them accountable, including by fining or suspending persistent violators. Guinea’s pursuit of profits from bauxite should not come at the expense of the individuals and communities most affected.