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Montagne d & # 39; Or in Guyana: the Guinean counterexample

Montagne d & # 39; Or in Guyana: the Guinean counterexample

One of the promoters of this gold mining project in French Guiana, the Nordgold company, promises to promote local employment and respect the environment. But in Guinea, where the company already operates a mine, very few buildings are used and animals die mysteriously.

At the foot of the cyanide mud lakes of the Lefa mine in Guinea is a village of 1,700 inhabitants, Fayala-Carrefour, which is to be relocated soon.
At the foot of the cyanide mud lakes of the Lefa mine in Guinea is a village of 1,700 inhabitants, Fayala-Carrefour, which is to be relocated soon. © Radio France / Philippe Reltien

An overview of Philippe Reltien

"We have built the Montagne d & # 39; Or project in a responsible manner, from an economic, social and ecological point of view, and the protection of nature, as well as health and safety, are important values ​​for us." These are the words of Igor Klimanov, the development director of the Russian company Nordgold, which plans to exploit a gold mine in French Guiana in the middle of the forest within the company Montagne d & # 39; Or. Amazon, and wait for the green light from the French government to start.

Jobs for the local population, respect for the environment … does Nordgold have these promises in the other mines that the company maintains? Research in Guinea, where the Russian group has managed a gold mine since 2010.

"We had the hope that young people would be accepted"

Located in northern Guinea, in Siguiri prefecture, 700 km from Conakry, the Lefa mine runs 24 hours a day. The factory continually processes hundreds of millions of tons of a red mine, which is extracted gold by tanks filled with cyanide. Discarding goes to a large settling basin that is consolidated. And all this at a hundred meters from a village, Fayala-Carrefour, where the locals live. Nordgolda acquired the mine in 2010 by purchasing it from a local company, theSMD. After some expansion work, this mine became the most productive of the Russian group in Africa.

The Lefa mine is located in North Guinea. At the edge of lakes, cyanide sludests, the village of Fayala-Carrefour.
The Lefa mine is located in North Guinea. At the edge of lakes, cyanide sludests, the village of Fayala-Carrefour. / Google Maps

While Nordgold promises to use local in Guyana to help economic development, this is not the case in Guinea. After eight years of Russian management 900 positions were eliminated and the jobs of machine operator or security officer were outsourced to foreign companies. "It was hoped that some young people would be hired, but some posts were occupied by foreigners, while they had to be occupied by Guinean men, regrets KhaledKeita, the new prefect of the region. We would have liked to see that, with equal competence, we could give priority to local skills."

But why does Nordgold recruit so little locally?

Wage differences from 1 to 100

Officially, the inhabitants would not be well educated enough. An argument that does not change to the subprefect. "To say that it is a problem of skills is a little bad will, growls Siaka Camara. There are many scholars here, we can train them at the mine and have them work. "

The company recruits Canadians, Australians, Indonesians or South Africans who have an older mine experience and who promises all the comfort that local Guineans who live in the village without water do not have. nor electricity.

But even trained and employed, Guinean workers are not treated in the same way: wage differentials can range from 1 to 100 between locals and expats, while the mine code in Guinea imposes equal pay for equal competence. However, Nordgold claims to pay an average salary that is twice the national average. "Some expats of the mine would be paid about $ 7,000 to $ 10,000 per month, says Momo Bangoura, trade union leader of the factory. On average, Guinean employees who work here are rarely paid more than $ 1,000 per month. And with the subcontractors it is even worse. Some do not even get $ 150 a month. "

150,000 miners around the mine

A hundred and fifty dollars a month affects a large proportion of the 135 Lefaissus mine workers in the local community, out of a total of 1,225. A salary that is largely insufficient to live: some then turn to wild gold panning.

Nordgold harvests high-quality gold on the surface, scoops the top layer of the earth with gigantic mechanical shovels and fills the holes that have been dug. Once the countries have been abandoned, despite Nordgold's attempts to prevent them, the miners, with women and children, dig around the mine, at the foot of the lake in the residues and mud, or at the abandoned sites of the others. mining companies, looking for the golden gram that gives them enough money to buy a bag of rice.

While the production of the Lefa mine yields six tonnes of gold annually, the wild gold tension makes it possible to extract ten tonnes, taxed by the authorities. And the phenomenon is growing: they are now almost 150,000 to try their luck. Locals, but also many foreigners who have entered Guinea legally and have found no work.

Very dangerous working conditions

Although craft gold mining is legal, this causes many problems.

The effect is initially disastrous for the forest, where wood is cut in mass to place the beams in the galleries of the mines. But above all, it is extremely dangerous for the miners themselves, in a region where the tropical climate and the heavy rains cause frequent landslides, in the tunnels dug with the resources of the edge. There are techniques to quickly pump water in case of flooding, but there are still dead.

At the bottom of the hole a gold digger throws the ore richer in gold. A hole that can fill up quickly in case of flooding or landslide.
At the bottom of the hole a gold digger throws the ore richer in gold. A hole that can fill up quickly in case of flooding or landslide. © Radio France / Philippe Reltien

The working conditions are extremely precarious: women and children walk barefoot in the statuettes, with cymbals on their heads, or debilitating mud in the noise and smell of the crushers, as can be seen in this video. we turned 100 kilometers from the mine:

Gold miners also use mercury to separate the gold from the ore, which is as toxic as the cyanide used in the Lefa mine. This gold from Guinea is then resold in the form of blocks, mainly in Dubai, to make jewelry.

Nordgold promises 90% of local employment in French Guiana

Are these problems in Guinea likely to return to Guyana with the Montagne d & # 39; Or project?

Russian society claims to do a lot for the local community of Guinea. The company finances drilling, renovates schools, gives a monthly scholarship to each teacher, maintains mosques and pays three trips each year to villagers to Mecca.

Some are already convinced that Nordgold will act differently in Guyana, inspired by models from other mining groups that are active elsewhere. "In New Caledonia training has been given to ensure jobs in all sectors occupied by the local population, says Senator LaREM of Guyana Georges Patient. This is what I advocate for Guyana and I believe that the French state would be in favor of getting inspiration from what was set up there. "

Even if the French legal framework is more restrictive than in Guinea, how can it be ensured that these recommendations are properly applied in Guyana? "We respect French regulations and we have strict rules, says Pierre Paris the director of the company Montagne d & # 39; Or, 55% owned by Nordgold, head of the Guyanees project. We can only hire people who are legally on the territory and we have repeatedly pledged to have more than 90% of local employment for this project. " More than 700 positions will be available, for salaries of which, we are told, will be the average of what is practiced in French Guiana.

Montagne d & # 39; Or is therefore committed to respecting labor law and not to underpay certain employees. On the other hand, there can be no guarantee that the company has a say in local employment. "European and French legislation do not oblige to give the local preference, explains Erwann Seigneurin, journalist for the website of Le Kotidien. Obviously, the company has every interest in doing so, given the rejection or approval that the public can have for it. " According to the journalist, in Guyana, employees in gold mining are mostly people from neighboring countries, where a mining culture already exists.. "It is complicated to say that it is only about local employment, He added. It will probably be people who become detached. & # 39;

"Many animals have drunk water from the cyanide lake are dead"

In French Guiana, Nordgold and Montagne promise d & # 39; Or respect for the environment. But what about Guinea?

When the mining history of Guinea began, the environment was not really a subject. "There was no protest about the arrival of these industrial mines, explains Ludovic Dupin, chief editor at Novethic, media and advice in responsible economy. Companies that have moved to these countries have distributed money around them. When a farmer receives two, three or ten years' wages in one go, he gives up his field and his forest, his exploitation, that is no problem. "

But today the concerns about the environment are real. The cyanide waste lake near Lefa Mine is about to overflow and the embankments are worn out. One of these dikes is just above Fayala-Carrefour, the village of 1,700 inhabitants, and they are worried: for five years the cattle dies while drinking water from the lake. Despite slope work, no barrier impedes access.

VIDEO | Montagne d & # 39; Or, the bad Guinean example:

"No inhabitant died of cyanide in the village, explains Fabala Keita, the village chief. But many animals that have drunk water from the cyanide lake are dead: cows, goats, sheep or chickens. " The villagers could receive compensation from Nordgold, but not systematically. "All animals are not reimbursed, complains about Fabala Keita. Those who died a few meters from the lake were not considered dead because of cyanide. "

Even if the company agrees to compensate for the death of animals, it should be noted that cyanide is not responsible for the death of these animals, even if there is a strong suspicion.

"Sometimes we feel the poisonous gas at night falls on the village"

Is the cyanide mud retention lake still waterproof and safe for the inhabitants of the village of Fayala-Carrefour?

In contact with water, cyanidesis changes into toxic gas. Some testimonials collected on the spot mention odors that reach the houses. "Sometimes we feel the toxic gases that fall on the village at night, says Hamadou Camara. We see many people who cough. "

In rainy weather, this resident could see mud flowing from the mine lake through an open breach over a football field. "When it rained, the cyanide passed, and when it rains a lot, it goes to the village " He says. Since the end of the summer of 2018, a dyke has been installed to control these excesses, but it has not yet been completed. The trees that dive into this mud have lost their leaves and are all dead.

In the summer of 2018 a dike was installed to stop the overflows of cyanide mud.
In the summer of 2018 a dike was installed to stop the overflows of cyanide mud. © Radio France / Philippe Reltien

My and more magnified, the village moved

Since the installation of the mine, the game around the village has disappeared. For sub-prefect Siaka Camara, it is a complete ecosystem that has changed. "People were busy farming, breeding, hunting … But now, with these machines in the bush, the animals have fled, the species have disappeared, the environment and the ecosystem have been achieved. We are afraid of the consequences in the long run. "

Although the effects are limited to fauna and flora, some residents want to leave the village. Especially for Nordgold to enlarge the mine and the tailings lake. "People are very concerned about the effects of cyanide, reports the head of the village, who has asked that everyone be moved elsewhere, at the expense of the mine, with compensation for one job per family. The government has been asked to help us. It is clear that if we can not roll back the lake, we have to be moved. & # 39;

The company also considers it necessary to move the village, which is likely to be rebuilt elsewhere, but"Only for reasons of growth and expansion of the mine". Nordgold also says that he respects international regulations and says he is very attached to environmental issues.

Nordgold adjusts its Guyanese project

A dike to close a breach in a cyanide lake, animals that die, residents who cough … all the elements of care and interrogation for the Montagne d & # 39; Or project in French Guiana.

"The company promises that the retention basins will keep the cyanide separated and that it will not escape" says Ludovic Dupin, from Novethic. For him, Nordgold is not interested in behaving in the same way as in Guinea. "If a cyanide leak in nature is leaking, the French state can attack it and it has to pay huge sums. On the other hand, the image would be catastrophic and investors could turn away. & # 39; The mediatization and the possible pressure of the local population can thus play against the image.

At the end of August 2018, the company changed its Guyanese project: the remaining sludge from the plant, which will be discharged into a 190-hectare lake, will be rejuvenated before being discharged into the open air. A non-existent process in Guinea. " We have already indicated that we are introducing a responsible model, says Pierre Paris.The project we carry out in Guyana is 50 kilometers from each house and each farm. "

"There is little chance that the promises of the operator will be fulfilled"

In 70% of the cases, according to Philippe Marion, geologist at the ENSG in Nancy, the accidents are the result of the dykes of the reservoirs that yield. A problem on the Montagne d & # 39; Or site would affect all downstream villages and fishing and tourism activities, according to Laurent Kelle, head of WWF French Guiana office.

Can the commitments made by Nordgold be fulfilled? "As always in this kind of projects, there are the promises of the operators, and then there is real life, is worried by Pascal Canfin, Director General of WWF France, opposed to the project. I am afraid that, given the sensitivity of the ecosystem to hundreds of protected species, there is very little chance, if we look at other mining projects in the world, that the promises made by the operator are kept. "

This file is a risky subject for the French government. Many see a possible "Notre-Dame-des-Landes." While the ecological issue is currently central to the debate, Montagne d & # 39; Or will undoubtedly be the real first test for the new minister of ecological transition, François van Rugy State Response by December 2018, if the schedule is respected …

Musical programming from Secrets d & # 39; info

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