The increase in gold mining activities in Côte d’Ivoire has been touted by the Ivorian government as a shot of adrenaline into the heart of national economy and the path to development of local communities where gold mines are operated. But the boom has been more of a curse for populations from the gold-rich area of Bonikro/Hiré where Newcrest, an Australian mining company, is disturbing the tranquility of locals.
Large tracts of land were taken away from farmers -who consider the compensation they were given inadequate- and the neighborhood left with unfixed roads and no adequate drinking water distribution system and health facilities.
One of the first things a visitor notices in Hire –the closest city to Bonikro mine located 250 km north-west of the Cote d’Ivoire’s commercial capital Abidjan– is the thick layer of dust that covers public buildings and houses that appear to have never had their facades cleaned since they were built. Trash are piled up on streets as garbage cans are scarce.
Construction of the Bonikro open-pit mine started in 2007, with commercial production commencing in August 2008. Newcrest acquired its interest in Bonikro as a result of the merger with Lihir Gold Limited in September 2010. Bonikro is owned and operated by LGL Mines CI SA, an Ivorian company 89.89% owned by Newcrest, with the balance held by Côte d’Ivoire Government (10%) and a minority shareholder (0.11%).
BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF MINERS
Before the commencement of the mining activities, locals in Bonikro lived a simple life. Though artisanal mining is part of the local tradition, subsistence farming and cash crops (cocoa, coffee, rubber, and palm oil) were valued as an income source.
“Before the arrival of miners, people held doors open for each other […] They say ‘good morning’ and hugged each other when they met in the streets. The community enjoyed a quiet sociability and hospitality, including food and drink for the have-nots,” Kouadjo Bi, a local resident, remembered.
Little did Bonikro residents and those from neighbouring villages realize their simple, idyllic life would become a gloomy scene of hardship after a gold mining operation was to be carried out on their land.
With the influx of miners and the growing number of people seeking jobs in the Bonikro mine, Hiré’s capacity is overstretched and power outages occur frequently as soaring electricity demand exceeds the available supply. In almost all quarters of the city, people are without running water and need to have it trucked in. A plastic tank, regularly filled by private vendors, is indispensable because you can’t count on supply from public service.
The development of the Bonikro gold mine has necessitated the destruction of cultivable plots of land and the permanent loss of access by farmers to those areas. It has also necessitated the relocation and resettlement of the approximately 360 inhabitants of the Bonikro village and approximately 200 people from the Bandamankro village.
ADDRESSING DISPLACEMENT AND RELOCATION ISSUES
Like dozens of other family heads who were displaced and who received compensation for lost houses, land and crops, Paul Kadio, 41, member of Bandamankro village council says the “relocation, resettlement and compensation measures were woefully inadequate.” For his 3-acre plot, Paul received 200.000 fcfa (US$ 400), which was quickly gobbled up by bills. This father of seven has now turned to garbage collection to eke out a living. Paul could not make a stand against the “expropriation for public purposes”. Under Ivorian law, such expropriation is subject to payment of compensation. How this compensation is achieved remains a debated issue.
The compensation rates for displaced populations is not clearly set out in the Mining Code and Mining Decree of Côte d’Ivoire which dates back to 1995 and which governs the granting of mining rights and the conditions upon which those rights may be terminated. The Ivorian parliament adopted a new mining code in March 2014 to “attract more investment into mining sector and to ensure local communities benefit from mining.” This new code which stipulates that displaced communities should receive fair compensation also requires holders or mining permit to prepare community development plan and to set up a fund in which it is to contribute to annually in order to realize socio-economic development plans.
In Côte d’Ivoire, like anywhere else in Africa, displacement and resettlement initiatives are complex and culturally sensitive especially when several ethnicities or villages are involved. The Bonikro operation located within the boundaries of several villages including Bonikro, Konankro, Gogobro, Bandamankro and Gabia is no exception.
The Environmental Impact Study (EIS) which identified the social aspects of the Bonikro operation outlined requirements to address issues like resettlement, land compensation, loss of agricultural land and general social wellbeing: “For a successful Displacement and Relocation Plan (DRP), the project promoter should make a clear distinction between the land owners and its operators and should take into account these differences in further formulations of compensation policies.”
While the inhabitants of Bonikro village have economic relationship with their land, those who live in the closest villages of Gogobro and Gabia are known to have a special connection with it, which is not just economic, but also social and sacred. They are the earliest known inhabitants of the area; the land owners, as evidenced by the country’s first administrative boundaries. Other people had settled in the area through sharecropping arrangements.
Article 68 of the 1995 Mining Code clearly says both the land owner and the tenant have the right to be properly compensated. Newcrest claims its resettlement and compensation program was concluded “in accordance with International Finance Corporation guidelines” whereby landowners and land operators were compensated for loss of land and income. But populations considered to be landowners do not buy into Newcrest’s fairness argument. Newcrest is accused of ignoring the EIS recommendations to focus on land operators mainly, thus fuelling waves of protests, mainly by disgruntled landowners who feel cheated by the Australian mining company.
LEGAL BATTLES AND COMPENSATION CLAIMS PROBLEMS
The Research Licence originally granted to Equigold CI- SA by Presidential Decree N°96-668 on August 28, 1996 locates the Bonikro Gold deposit within the administrative area of Oumé. But, the Bonikro mine Exploitation License N°PE32 issued a few years later locates the mine in Hiré administrative district.
A coalition of representatives from 12 villages from Oumé District accused Newcrest of redefining the administrative inner boundaries “thanks to its own GPS technique”.
Newcrest communication bureau in Abidjan rebutted zoning allegations and declared: “Determining and setting administrative boundaries is the responsibility of the government and Newcrest has no role or influence in this process.”
In 2012, based on official maps and several other administrative documents that locate Bonikro area in Oumé administrative unit, the coalition initiated legal proceedings against Newcrest. The company was informed of a claim for compensation lodged with the Abidjan Court. The disgruntled traditional leaders asked for 5.000.000.000fcfa (US$ 10 million) as compensatory payments relating to damage and interest. Pretrial hearings have begun; the case is pending before the court.
Several residents of Bonikro who were evicted to make way for the gold mine, continue their battle to have their compensation reviewed while others say they have yet to receive compensation for losing their lands or farms. The issue is aggravated by people’s sense of belonging to their ancestral lands and burial grounds of their forefathers; an element that cannot be compensated for.
The form and scope of compensation is still unclear to those who received it. Souanga Kouadio, 37, an evictee, was paid 200.000fcfa (US$ 400) for a half-acre teak plantation. 580.000fcfa (US$ 1160) is all Akissi Konan received as financial compensation for her “6-acre teak tree plantation destroyed by the mining company”. Another evictee received 262.000fcfa (US$ 524) for his half-acre land with cocoa, cassava plants and banana trees. “The financial compensation mechanism is really obscure and illogical,” Akissi Konan exclaimed.
The evictees declare they cannot even come close to replacing the income they made from the land with the meager compensation handed to them. In most cases, compensation paid equals only a few years of what their subsistence on the land would have provided them anyway.
Newcrest admits that it provides the payment but emphasizes it does not bear the sole responsibility for the calculation of how much must be paid: “Land acquisition processes and compensation payments are undertaken by Newcrest in full compliance with national government regulations and guided by international conventions and good practice. Specifically, rural land and crop compensation rates are determined through a consensual and participatory process that includes all relevant stakeholders and government agencies.”
The company maintains the compensation rates were “formalized through a Prefectural Ordinance and are applied to calculate compensation amounts according to the requirements of the Mining Code, its application ordinance and other related regulations.”
Kpan Dro, the regional prefecture Head in the nearest Divo city claims that the government is doing its utmost to safeguard the rights of populations and that it will never allow economic operators to cheat populations and trample on their rights. But local populations still point the finger of blame at local prefecture and municipality authorities suspected of conniving with the mine operators to ride roughshod over their rights.
Attempts to get more reactions from the prefecture’s officials on financial compensation mechanism remain unsuccessful.
The contentious issues of decent jobs and decent living conditions have repeatedly triggered protests from disgruntled youths, who mostly cross with paths anti-riot security forces.
On April 8, 2009, Gogobro villagers used pieces of wood and stones to block access to Bonikro mine and burnt down three cars belonging to the mining company. Security guards and police opened tear gas on demonstrators. Twenty four people were arrested and held in custody in the nearest regional town of Divo for one month. Similar violent protests have made the national headlines since the company began its operations. The conflict between villagers and the mining company has escalated rapidly with the expansion of the mine.
Germain Yao, 28, a local resident, was leading one of the protests, to fight for what he considers as unfulfilled promises. “During the confrontation with the police, many demonstrators were injured with some suffering lifelong disabilities as a result. We still don’t understand why the Bonikro gold extraction project can’t benefit local populations,” Germain said.
Martial Kouadio, the secretary general of the Hiré District Youth Union (UJCH) is revolted against what he calls “Newcrest job scam” and made serious allegations of irregularities in recruiting local residents in Bonikro mine. “150 young local residents were selected at the end of a recruitment process for menial jobs positions that don’t require specific qualifications. But at the end of the day, only 20 were offered the job and instead of full contracts, as promised, they were offered ‘casuals’, two-week and three-week contracts,” Martial declared. “The promises of decent health facilities, drinking water supply and roads asphalting did not come true. Yet the company continues to extract huge resources from the land of our forefathers,” he added.
Newcrest is defensive about this deplorable record and maintains it strives to create economic value for local communities in a number of ways, including through “direct and indirect employment, investments in infrastructures […], services and support for community programs”. It says it spent A$6.4 million from 2011 to 2014 in a “sustainable community development program in the Bonikro/Hiré area.”
The amount of the Bonikro/Hiré community expenditure is disputed.
For mine critics, the projects implemented in no way reflect the funds allegedly invested in community development. The refurbishment of healthcare and educational facilities, occasional road maintenance works, pig-farming and rice-growing projects for youth in the region and the computers and transmitter offered to the local radio station -Watta FM- are all smoke and mirrors. They also emphasize the fact that these projects do not have a real and lasting impact on the social and economic development of local communities.
Newcrest claimed to have created hundreds of short-term jobs since it acquired Bonikro mine in 2010, including approximately one hundred positions offered to Hiré local youths only.
Asked why Hiré and Bonikro local residents still languish in abject poverty and keep seeking in vain for job at the mine, company community relations officer Famoussa Kamara, linked the situation to the 2010-2011 post election crisis and the ensuing economic convulsions that have caused soaring unemployment rates. Government-owned newspaper Fraternité Matin and independent daily L’Intelligent d’Abidjan quoted him saying that the problem of unemployment has deeply worsened due to the post election crisis, prompting many youths to feel abandoned and frustrated.
Instead of building a new district hospital, Newcrest has rehabilitated the local health center which seems presentable on the façade, but actually has a backlog of problems to deal with. Inconsistent supply of medicines and frequent power outages have been a major challenge in the running of the facility.
BAD ROADS AND CONSEQUENCES
At the Hiré hospital, the records of pregnancy-related deaths and infant mortality are kept secret. However, the medical staff acknowledges that women sometimes pass away during delivery.
“To prevent pregnancy-related death, we usually transfer women with pregnancy complications to the district hospital in the nearest regional town of Divo. But, the state of the roads leads to delays,” said a female nurse who wished to remain anonymous.
Brahima Traoré, 32, is one of the mini-van drivers familiar with the road connecting Hiré and Divo, located near Bonikro mining site. He plies the lane back and forth during the week.
“The 40 kilometre road is in a very bad state, with unavoidable potholes. It now takes us more than an hour to reach Divo unlike before when it was rather smooth. Besides the damages it causes to our vehicles, the time we waste on that short distance while transferring a sick patient in a critical situation is a terrible experience,” Brahima said.
Mini-van drivers should not expect Newcrest’s solutions to road degradation problems now even if the worsening road situation is ascribed to the company’s mining trucks. “Maintenance of national roads in and around Hire and Divo are the responsibility of the government,” Newcrest officials noted. They also point out that the company’s use of these national roads by its vehicles is “compliant with government regulations”.
LAXITY AND INDIFFERENCE
Local residents keep accusing the government and local authorities of colluding with Newcrest officials in ‘abusing their fundamental rights’.
“Injustices were exposed to the authorities who made no attempt to take punitive action against Newcrest. They displayed a complete unwillingness to hold this company accountable,” declared Kouamé Bi, 57, a member of Gabia village council who has successively met with the sub-prefect, the prefect, the local Member of Parliament, the Mayor and the Head of the Regional Council to no avail. The traditional leader was referred from pillar to post as he made inquiry about the review of compensation for land acquired for mining activities. He says he has reported the case to the CN-ITIE - the national chapter of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) - and to the mine ministry. He is still awaiting a response.
FEAR OF TOXIC WASTE
There is considerable anxiety amongst the villagers about the mine’s impact on their farmlands, water, and health. They are afraid the ecological damage caused by hazardous waste discharged from the mine would not be adequately repaired after the mining company leaves the zone.
The Environmental Impact Study for the Bonikro mining project exposes concerns over environmental preservation. It warns that the project poses “ecological danger downstream from the project area” and deplores the fact that the mining company was issued “the environmental permit without the scrutiny of the displacement and relocation plan.”
Over the years, Newcrest has been largely defensive and dismissive of soil contamination and water pollution allegations. In a 2013 public statement, the company emphasized that it is “signatory to the ‘International Cyanide Management Code for the Manufacture, Transport and use of Cyanide in the Production of Gold’ and noted that “Bonikro is in the process of achieving compliance based on a structured corporate program.” The Australian mining company assures it “continues to progress Bonikro’s cyanide management infrastructure and supply chain to full compliance with the ICMC” but emphasizes that cyanide is “safely and appropriately used at Bonikro and the mine is fully compliant with all national government regulations regarding cyanide use.”
To date, no cyanide spill has officially been reported, however, people are cautious. “We have little faith in regulators and authorities who are in the pocket of mining companies. We are just raising the alarm on environmental issues to ensure local residents are informed and warned to keep people and livestock away from the areas surrounding the open-pit mine,” said, with a worried voice, Alain Kouamé, a 23-year old student, native of Bonikro.
Bonikro residents and those from neighbouring villages and towns had welcomed the announcement that an international mining company was coming to break their land and dig out gold. Many had believed it would improve their standard of living. However, after years of exploitation, the mining company seems not to have contributed enough to change the lives of locals, who keep calling for the review of compensation for the destruction of their land, farms and social life. They are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the pending proceedings and hope to win the case.
*The US Dollar exchange rate used in this paper is: US$ 1 = 500F Cfa (XOF).