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Communication gaps in Rio Tinto’s Madagascar mining project create mistrust and social conflict

Differences of understanding about a mining project in southern Madagascar have led to mistrust and social conflict which, unless addressed, could escalate.

The report examines the communication processes between mining company Rio Tinto and local people affected by its new ilmenite (titanium dioxide ore) mining operation and reveals that many local people had little or no advance knowledge of the dramatic changes taking place and the reasons for them.

The report argues that communication plays a vital role in forewarning people affected by such large-scale development projects of the changes that will take place, and in managing their expectations. One of the greatest risks to the project is a lack of social acceptance.

At a cost of US$585 million, the ilmenite mine at Fort Dauphin represents the largest foreign investment in Madagascar's history, and is set to run for at least 40 years. Run by QIT Madagascar Mining S.A. (QMM) – a subsidiary of the Rio Tinto mining company – it is the first in a series of projects planned by mining companies and the World Bank in Madagascar to exploit mineral deposits including ilmenite, nickel and bauxite.

According to QMM more than 1,000 people have been permanently affected by the mine project, which requires the removal of rare fragments of coastal littoral forest and heathland. Many have lost land to enable construction of the mine, quarry, port and roads to go ahead, while others have lost ancestral grave sites or have had to leave their homes.

Those interviewed said there had been a lack of communication about the project from the beginning. Perceptions and expectations differed dramatically, even among people living close together.

The research found that many people had positive expectations about the benefits of the mine mainly to do with employment and compensation, which have not yet been fulfilled. For example, one displaced person interviewed said, 'There are plans to have a fishing project [and] a weaving project but we don't know when. There are plans but nothing happens.'

And in late 2006, frustrations due to late compensation payments, compounded by a lack of information, led to displaced people blockading construction of the new port road, demanding immediate cash settlements.

'Better communication with stakeholders could have helped to identify employment needs and opportunities, and put into perspective the limited local employment opportunities on offer,' says Rod Harbinson, author of the report and head of Panos London's environment programme.

'This research shows how essential it is for any large-scale development project to have a well-designed communications strategy that involves all stakeholders, particularly where a project leads to rapid and far-reaching change to the environment and people's lives.'

The report suggests that for a large-scale development project to succeed, a number of fundamental requirements need to be met: all stakeholders need to have a place at the negotiating table; they need to speak the same language; they need an understanding of cultural differences; and an understanding of what is meant by a process of negotiation. And there has to be a commitment that the process will lead to tangible outcomes.

'The immediate challenge now is for all stakeholders to improve levels of trust and communication, in order to avoid any further breakdown in relations,' concludes Harbinson.

The report recommends one way forward is to create a negotiating space acceptable to all stakeholders, convened by an independent, external organisation.


Notes to editors:

Panos London interviewed 123 stakeholders as part of the research in February 2007. It reflected the wide range of people involved in and affected by the project, including landless poor people, marginalised local villagers, foreign construction workers, corporate, academic, civil society and government experts, and local business people.

Panos London is part of the worldwide Panos Network of independent institutes working to ensure information is used effectively to foster debate, pluralism and democracy.

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