Guinea: Ensure Rights Respect In The Major Iron Ore Project

Human Rights Watch today warned that Guinea’s vast Simandou iron ore mine project posed serious threats to local communities’ access to land, water, and the environment. Although the mining corporations building Simandou have pledged to uphold strict human rights and environmental norms, their track record in Guinea warrants the project’s strictest examination.

Simandou is being developed by consortiums led by Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining corporation, and Winning International Group, a Singapore-based firm with roots in China. Simandou is supposedly the largest untapped high-grade iron ore resource in the world. With mining accounting for a third of Guinea’s state budget in 2018, Rio Tinto and Winning claim that the project would provide “a sustainable source of prosperity for the people of Guinea for centuries to come.” However, the Simandou project will also generate a significant amount of carbon emissions and endanger the access of neighboring populations to land and water.

Simandou’s reserves, which have remained untapped for years due to charges of corruption, ownership issues, Guinea’s political instability, and the region’s remoteness and challenging terrain, contain enough iron ore to construct more than 500,000 Eiffel Towers. However, the Winning and Rio Tinto consortia decided to jointly develop the project’s port and railway infrastructure in August 2022, with mining set to start in 2025.

The expansion of Simandou, according to the Chinese government, is crucial to diversifying and securing its supply of iron ore, the primary component of steel production. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of steel, and Rio Tinto’s consortium includes Baowu Steel, which is also the leading producer worldwide.

However, the removal of villages and destruction of forests are necessary to extract the iron ore from Simandou. The 600-kilometer railway that is envisioned for the project will cross Guinea as it carries ore for export. According to Rio Tinto and Winning, this will establish a “strategic corridor” with benefits for the local economy beyond mining. However, according to a 2021 environmental and social impact assessment commissioned by the Winning consortium, construction of the railway will level more than 100 square kilometers of land and obliterate critical habitat for endangered animals, including the West African chimpanzee.

According to a 2022 environmental and social impact assessment commissioned by Winning for its portion of Simandou, mining pits will span the mountain’s ridge for nearly 20 kilometers. According to the analysis, the deforestation caused by mining could result in the release of up to 271,300 tons of carbon dioxide at just Winning’s sites, which is the same as burning 300 million pounds of coal. This estimate was made by Human Rights Watch using a tool created by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).

Human Rights Watch estimated using the US EPA tool that Winning’s assessment predicts the mine will emit over 19 million tons of carbon dioxide over the course of its anticipated 22-year lifespan, which is the same as burning 21 billion pounds of coal. According to Human Rights Watch, Rio Tinto and Winning are still determining the project’s overall carbon footprint but are concentrating on minimizing it where they can.

The two impact studies that Winning ordered for the railway and mine indicate that hundreds of residents will be evicted due to construction. The studies caution that deforestation and land loss risk endangering local farming, hunting, and fishing, with detrimental effects on families’ access to food. This is true even for villages that are not relocated. According to the studies, the project might have a significant impact on the villages’ already precarious water supplies, with Simandou’s mountains serving as a crucial supply of water for nearby rivers.

The environmental and social impact evaluations for the railway connecting Simandou were provisionally approved by Guinea’s government in July 2021, and work on the railway’s infrastructure has already started. The impact analysis for Winning’s mining locations has not yet been reviewed and approved by the government of Guinea. The impact studies for Rio Tinto’s mining operations and its component of the rail line are currently being updated.

The Rio Tinto and Winning consortia pledged to develop Simandou in accordance with global environmental and social performance standards and to put into practice the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in a joint letter to Human Rights Watch dated September 23, 2022.


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