Rio Tinto’s Madagascar 'social licence' undermined

| 4th April 2023 |

The QMM mine at Mandena, Anosy region.

Human rights violations reported as villagers 'gagged' during negotiations for compensation from Rio Tinto’s QMM mine in Madagascar.

That Antanosy villagers have been experiencing the same conditions, ‘gagged’ at the hands of QMM, should be a concern to the company and its investors.

Its only two years after the findings of the Australian joint parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves. The final report criticised and made recommendations to Rio Tinto to cease its insistence on confidentiality clauses in agreements with traditional owners. 

At Rio Tinto’s QMM mine in Madagascar the commitment to stop “gagging clauses” has not been applied.  

It is just over a year since two mine tailings dam failures at Rio Tinto’s QMM mine brought local fisherfolks’ lives to a halt when the appearance of hundreds of dead fish in downstream lakes precipitated a fishing ban. 

Villagers were plunged into food insecurity and hardship, and the events led to months of conflict.

When resolution was finally brokered, in May 2022, a total of 8,778 villagers submitted claims against QMM.

Instead of taking the opportunity to resolve tensions and improve relations with traditional owners, QMM appears to have done the reverse and dug a deeper grave for its social licence to operate.


Local negotiations for compensation have lacked all transparency – largely due to QMM’s confidentiality or ‘gagging’ clauses.

Despite attempts to silence them, voices have emerged from the ground with reports that suggest the QMM process has violated human rights and failed international standards.

The most critical of these has been that villagers were explicitly told they could not discuss the arrangements with QMM outside of the negotiating room. 

As a result, villagers could not seek advice from third parties, as is their right. Nor could they speak publicly about the QMM process.

After one community member spoke on the radio, a group of local representatives felt obliged to perform “mifona” to QMM, a form of repentance usually reserved for sins against God.

It also appears that multiple QMM documents requiring villagers’ signatures were not first explained. Nor were copies of the signed papers provided to villagers when they asked. 

When objecting to these infringements, villagers were told that if they did not sign immediately, they would not receive the compensation due to them. 

The majority of villagers are non-literate, so these failures by QMM are both incompetent and unacceptable. 


So too it seems are the sums of money that have been offered to villagers. These have not met their demands and do not reflect their real losses.

That Antanosy villagers have been experiencing the same conditions, ‘gagged’ at the hands of QMM, should be a concern to the company and its investors.

Fisherfolk have lost almost half their annual income for more than a decade as a result of QMM’s impact on local lakes (PWYP 2022).

Based on available information, fishers and usufructuaries have received compensation equating to just approximately £29 per year, for each year of a thirteen-year period of losses.

This amount is equivalent to one month’s income for a subsistence farmer living on less than $2 a day.

Landowners are reporting payments as low as £0.02 per square metre in one payment received.

Additionally, between payments, QMM has inflicted new penalties on villagers, giving little with one hand while taking away a great deal with the other.

For example, QMM has created a Red Zone, ring-fencing natural resources, including a river and two local lakes that do not belong to them. 

These water resources are public domain, but QMM is telling villagers they can no longer use them. 


Not only is there no explanation why, after ten years of extraction, the lakes are suddenly out of bounds – but QMM has no legitimate mandate to impose such restrictions.

These lakes are the main source of livelihoods, food and drinking water for the majority of some 15,000 villagers living around the mine who, no thanks to QMM, have no access to alternatives for their survival.

QMM has also announced, we hear, that it will commandeer the only remaining rice fields for one community and will move sacred ancestral tombs, despite local objections.

These and other conditionality that appear to accompany QMM’s payments are not transparently reported.

They appear as the actions of a company desperate to assert state-like power, far from the humility, contrition or care that Rio Tinto has been broadcasting as their mantra since the Juukan Gorge debacle. 

The actions are likely to deepen hardships and the resentment of rural producers living on the poverty line, who already lost more to QMM than they can afford.


Since last November, issues with the compensation process have been raised with Rio Tinto by Publish What You Pay Madagascar (PWYP MG), the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) and Malagasy diaspora.

When asked in February to provide details of the agreements made by QMM with villagers, the company declined, claiming the arrangements were “confidential”.

The company insists a notary and mediator were present for the negotiations. However, these officers were engaged by QMM and carry no guarantee of independence.

The absence of a third-party counsel to the villagers during the negotiations and for the establishment of legal agreements undermines any claims that QMM’s process has been equitable.

The Juukan Gorge inquiry report contains numerous references to Rio Tinto's inappropriate insistence on confidentiality in arrangements with traditional owners, which prevent them from speaking out when they need to. 

That Antanosy villagers have been experiencing the same conditions, ‘gagged’ at the hands of QMM, should be a concern to the company and its investors. 

So too should incidents of coercion and intimidation, reported by civil society to Rio Tinto last November, that have been ignored.


It should not be forgotten that when the 2022 protests began, QMM vilified rural villagers who took to the streets, bemoaning that they were a small, politically motivated group of extortionists.

As this is national election year in Madagascar, it is likely the authorities and QMM will again attempt to politicise the situation and criminalise dissenters. 

One local leader, Eugene Chretien, has already been arrested and banned from holding public meetings. His offence: a small personal debt, a civil matter that has already been resolved with the creditor. 

Hundreds of people protested outside the tribunal, believing QMM was behind the unnecessary arrest with the intention to suppress gatherings and stop a petition recently signed by thousands of local people against the company. 

Both this leader and his lawyer were intimidated and threatened while in police custody. The lawyer is bringing an action against the local police.

Meanwhile, a complaint against QMM has been submitted to the tribunal by a local Deputy for villagers, on the grounds that compensation has been inadequate.

Far from de-escalating conflict and bringing peace back to the region, it would seem QMM has destroyed that opportunity and instead stirred up more unrest, while typically trying to invert the blame.


When the CEO asked Malagasy civil society representatives at a meeting in London last July whether QMM’s problems could be fixed, he was told “yes – but only if the right changes are made”.

In the absence of positive change, PWYP MG, ALT UK and Malagasy representatives are demanding a fully independent audit of QMM’s process.

QMM's insistence on confidentiality is itself justification for an independent audit.

The audit should encompass the technical through to the social. From the structural reasons for QMM dam failures, through to the compensation for affected community members afterwards.

It should explain the fish deaths in full, and the water quality issues that have been a subject of contestation since the QMM buffer breach was raised in 2017.

Importantly it should engage communities and civil society in scoping, framing and monitoring the audit process to ensure that it is credible, answers all outstanding issues, and has teeth to right any wrongs.

If Rio Tinto wants to convince the Malagasy people and the world generally that it has changed since Juukan Gorge, it must start providing tangible manifestations of its intent.

Right of Reply

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto yesterday told The Ecologist: "The recently concluded compensation process, led by local authorities, was the outcome of a charter signed by QMM, representatives from government, local communities, and local NGOs and took place in the presence of a mediator and two independent observers from the community, who were chosen and agreed by the parties, in order to ensure the objectivity, transparency and neutrality of the dialogue. Throughout the process, QMM made resources available to all parties to fund external expert advice, should it have been requested. All outcomes during the negotiations were shared, by their representatives, with the complainants. To protect the identities of the beneficiaries, in accordance with international best practice, QMM did not make the outcomes public. At no point did QMM institute 'gagging orders'."

He added: "Following three cyclones and extreme rainfall in Fort Dauphin in early 2022, a controlled water release, authorised by the Malagasy regulator, was required to ensure the integrity of our infrastructure and the environment surrounding our operation. QMM water sample analysis and assessments done by the regulator showed no significant change to the water quality in the receiving natural environment, and no link between the activities of the mine and the observations of dead fish made by community members. Despite no evidence of impact, a further study, led by South African environmental research centre, Water Research Group (WRG) was commissioned by QMM. This study, which investigated the cause of the fish death phenomena analysed a series of fish, water and sediments samples collected from the same location of the fish deaths as well as other critical monitoring points. Preliminary results from the study, which will be completed in the coming months, conclude that the 2022 fish deaths are unlikely to have been caused by any of the metal concentrations in fish."

This Author

Yvonne Orengo is an independent communications consultant and Director of the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in 1994. She lived and worked in southern Madagascar to develop social and environmental programmes, and she has followed the evolution of the Rio Tinto/QMM mine for over twenty-seven years. ALT UK is working with Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Madagascar and international campaigners to research and advocate about the impacts of the QMM mine on rural communities in Anosy region, Southern Madagascar.

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