Madagascar, a collection of islands off the east coast of Africa, is among the countries most impacted by climate change. It is a resource-rich country that is also struggling with poverty, debt, crumbling health systems, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a myriad of other problems. The country’s economic recovery depends on the transition to cleaner energy, but only if its development model effectively reduces environmental, climate and disaster risks, and provides social and economic benefits to the vulnerable groups that constitute 80 percent of the population.

The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2040, renewable energies such as wind and solar power will account for 82 percent of total metal and mineral demand. Another significant portion of metals will be devoted to the replacement of gasoline-powered cars with electric cars (which require six times more metals and minerals) and to the overall decarbonization of the transportation sector. According to the World Bank, more than three billion tons of metals and ores—including rare earths, cobalt, graphite, nickel, copper, and lithium—will be needed over the next 30 years to power technologies related to the energy transition.

Madagascar’s wealth in minerals and metals critical to the energy transition places the Big Island in a particularly delicate position. In the face of increasing global demand, companies from rich countries have rushed to secure these metals, particularly the rare earths with which Madagascar has been richly endowed by nature. The country sorely lacks the capacity to value these critical minerals and negotiate profitable contracts with the multinational companies that dominate the extractive industries.

Madagascar has become a “sacrifice zone” where the lives of the local inhabitants risk being “sacrificed” so that richer countries can successfully make their own energy transition. What geographer Julie Klinger calls “rare earth frontiers” are located in places where local lives and landscapes are seen as expendable in the name of the common good:

These places where toxic companies and their harmful effects eventually land are known as ‘sacrifice zones,’ because their destruction is seen as indispensable for achieving the common good. It is in the areas of sacrifice that the so-called negative externalities are located. They are not ephemeral or intangible: they have a specific geography that can be mapped. The destruction of landscapes and lives in rare earth mining has generally been seen as a fair price to pay, usually by those who do not live in the sacrifice zone.

As one European Union (EU) energy transition analyst has pointed out, “somewhere there is always someone sacrificing something, and at the moment this issue is not openly discussed in the EU. By refusing to build the new mines needed for the green transition itself, Europe is only shifting these harmful side effects to developing countries.”

How can Madagascar take advantage of its natural resources while minimizing the environment risks and not forcing the population to live in a sacrifice zone?

The Diversity of Madagascar

The rare earths mining project on the Ampasindava Peninsula in Madagascar has not reached the exploitation stage of extraction and processing. This is largely due to the resistance movement by local communities against the project to safeguard their livelihoods and their ecological and cultural heritage.

The majority of people affected by the rare earths project live on the Ampasindava Peninsula, also known as Tanibe Andrefa or “Great Land to the West” by the Sakalava, the majority ethnic group living there. The peninsula has about 33,000 inhabitants spread over 27 villages and four rural communes. It benefits from a microclimate that has allowed the production of the high value-added export crops of cocoa, vanilla, pepper, and coffee. Thanks to its indented coastline, rich in both coral reefs and immense mangroves, its exceptional marine biodiversity provides a living for many households through traditional fishing activities.

The Ampasindava Peninsula was formally designated a protected area in 2015 across 900 square kilometers, with the exception of the rare earths project mining concession. Eighty percent of Madagascar’s plants are endemic to the country, and 8 percent exist only on the peninsula. At least eight species of lemurs live on the peninsula, and six are endemic to northwestern Madagascar. Six of these are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the other two are vulnerable. The ecoregion, which features the second most diverse coral reef in the world, is one of the last sanctuaries at the regional level for the dugong and blue whale, both critically endangered species according to the IUCN. In addition, the beaches of Nosy Iranja Island, off the peninsula, are one of the most important nesting sites for green and hawksbill turtles in Madagascar. The mangroves, meanwhile, play a crucial role in sustaining fisheries that provide food and income for local people, protect villages from cyclones, and help combat climate change by storing significant amounts of carbon.

Over the centuries, a cultural identity on the Ampasindava Peninsula was built at the crossroads of the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean. The bay of Ampasindava shelters the vestiges of one of the oldest Malagasy cities, Mahilaka, which was a Swahili trading post. Today, cults and rituals dedicated to spirits and ancestors are still practiced on the Ampasindava peninsula, in places preserved by local communities as animist sacred sites or cemeteries. There are also many other archaeological sites in the region, such as the islands of Ambariotelo and Marodoka on Nosy Be, which are part of what is known as the “Echelles Anciens du Commerce” in northern Madagascar, a commercial and cultural network that links the region to the Comoros, Zanzibar, and East Africa. 

Madagascar and Rare Earth Elements

The beginning of rare earth exploration in the Ampasindava Peninsula dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, with studies conducted during colonization by French geologists who noted the presence of a particular granitic rock and studied the mineralogical properties of this rock named fasibitikite in the local language, notably its niobium-tantalum-zirconium composition which was documented in 1922.

From 1988 to 1991, the Soviet Geological Mission explored the potential of the zone in partnership with the National Military Office for Strategic Industries (OMNIS). On April 18, 2003, Calibra Resources and Engineers obtained an exploration license for the Ampasindava concession, which was transferred in January 2008 to Zebu Metals, which continued the evaluation studies of the concession’s mining potential.

In February 2009, a coup d’état deposed President-elect Marc Ravalomanana during his second term. Andry Rajoelina became the president of the High Transitional Authority, which ruled the country until 2013, and granted in October 2009 to Tantalum Rare Earth Malagasy (TREM) the exploration license for the Ampasindava concession, which consists of 48 mining blocks with a total area of 300 square kilometers. Because TREM is registered in Mauritius as an offshore company, it is virtually tax-exempt in Madagascar under the Mauritius-Madagascar bilateral tax agreement.

Ampasindava has been considered as one of the most promising rare earth deposits outside of China since December 2011, following an estimate of its mineral resources at 104,000 tons of rare earth oxides (REO). Those deposits are predominantly in the layer of soil overlying the source rock, which greatly facilitates their extraction. By October 2014, SGS Canada Inc. had re-estimated Ampasindava’s mineral resources at 562,000 tonnes of REO that are low in radioactive elements and high in the most expensive and “critical” heavy rare earths.

TREM’s exploration permit had been renewed in January 2015 for three years. Despite the dubious nature of its mining permit—which was issued by the Transitional Regime, which did not have the authority to make long-term commitments on behalf of the country—the company had started its research operations with thousands of test pits drilled throughout its mining concession. It planned to conduct a pilot mining test and build a plant in the Betaimboay village, which is very close to the seashore, in parallel with continued exploration in other areas of Ampasindava.

TREM’s failure to rehabilitate many test pits and the complaints of peasants about its research operations conducted without their prior agreement led to the mobilization by a local peasant organization of a large part of the communities neighboring the rare earth exploitation project. Several NGOs working in the environmental field then joined the effort. The first declaration expressing opposition to the rare earth mining project appeared in 2016, and was presented to parliamentarians. The head of TREM responded by sending a letter to the minister of mines complaining of defamation by civil society.

Also that year, the National Environment Office (ONE) authorized TREM to commission an environmental impact assessment of its pilot production plans in Ampasindava. Although pilot production cannot begin until this assessment has been approved, no assessment was submitted to the ONE for approval. TREM’s exploration license expired in January 2017, and the company has not taken any samples since then, although it still has two monitored enclosures and at least one other fenced area in Ampasindava.

TREM has also had several shifts in ownership. In 2016, a majority of shares went to a Singapore-based company, ISR Capital. Then, in 2020, control shifted back to a Mauritius-based company, Reenova Rare Earth Malagasy (RREM). Faced with strong opposition from affected communities, RREM attempted to restart operations. But in mid-2022, its president died and two senior executives resigned, stating that the company was no longer able to function as an entity. The RREM project is currently on hold, and its local offices are closed.

The impact of the Rare Earths Projects

At public meetings in early February 2015, TREM announced that thousands of exploratory drillings had discovered that the deposit in the Ampasindava region contained rare earth oxides at a concentration of 0.08 percent, including praseodymium, neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium. According to the company, Madagascar’s ionic clays, 20 percent of which appear to be heavy rare earths, the most sought after and difficult to produce, are similar to those mined in southern China.

Extraction, therefore, is likely to be similar as well—through on-site leaching. In its 2016 letter to the Ministry of Mines authorities, TREM explained the methodology: pits would be dug to be filled with leachant, ammonium sulfate diluted in clear water. The pulp—water containing rare earth sulfate—would be collected through sub-horizontal tunnels. Once the rare earths were removed from the soil, the site would be subjected to a high-pressure wash to remove any residual chemicals and to remediate the groundwater before the tunnel shafts were closed.

China, which has a monopoly on global rare earth production, has relied on-site leaching technology since June 2011 to break with two decades of surface filtration of ammonium sulfate clays, which resulted in severe environmental degradation and adverse health impacts on workers and nearby communities. Although considered less harmful, the on-site leaching method is controversial because its environmental impacts are far from negligible. It does not completely avoid the destruction of vegetation cover, while necessarily leading to soil pollution and potentially groundwater pollution as well.

To obtain one ton of rare earths, it is necessary to process about 1,300 tons of clay soil. The company expected to produce 10,000 tons of rare earth ore per year for at least 40 years, which translates into the processing of the astronomical quantity of 520 million tons of clay soil. This will affect 7,000 hectares, one-third of which is expected to have its vegetation completely destroyed and the top layer of soil removed. Approximately 2,200 hectares of natural vegetation cover, rice fields, cash crop plantations, and areas needed for the livelihoods of riparian communities will be destroyed. Moreover, the massive deforestation is expected to significantly reduce the range of Mittermeier’s sportive lemur, one of the endangered lemurs found only on the Ampasindava Peninsula.

According to The Guardian , “the production of one ton of rare earths generates 1,000 tons of water contaminated with ammonium sulfate and heavy metals, and 2,000 tons of toxic waste.” TREM planned to export 10,000 tons of rare earths per year for more than 40 years, so the waste generation would be an estimated 400 million tons of contaminated water and 800 million tons of toxic waste over the life cycle of the mine. To avoid contamination, TREM would have to store the sludge in completely watertight compartments strong enough to withstand heavy rains and bad weather. Northern Madagascar experiences rainfall in excess of 2,000 millimeters per year. There is therefore a high risk of leaks or overflows from the storage sites, which would lead to changes in the acidity and siltation of nearby rivers.

The topography and hydrography of the peninsula increase the risk of contamination, as rivers and runoff flow from the mountains to the sea through the peninsula, its valleys, forests, crops, and mangroves. In the event of a cyclone, mismanagement of clay sludge storage can lead to an unprecedented disaster for the entire coastal zone, its biodiversity, and the resources on which the survival of its communities depends. Acidification of coastal waters would be fatal for coral reefs.

On-site leaching uses large quantities of water and is not “hydrogeologically controllable,” which implies a high risk of contamination of groundwater and surface water because the medium in which the leach solution circulates is not confined. The resulting water pollution due to increased pH, electrical conductivity, total dissolved solids, sulfates, and other pollutants leads to disruption of ionic balances and a decline in biodiversity. Sulfate pollution of rivers and downstream reservoirs persists long after mining ceases due to increased microbial production of hydrogen sulfate, a substance that is extremely toxic to many aquatic organisms and plants.

The various stages of the industrial process of rare earths extraction and concentration involve the production of “large quantities of toxic residues, in the form of gaseous emissions, dust, wastewater, and solid waste, containing fluorides, sulfides, acids, and heavy metals, among others. It is estimated that 6-7 tons of ammonium sulfate and 1.2-1.5 tons of oxalic acid are required to produce one ton of rare earth oxides.

Furthermore, the radioactive risk during the extraction and concentration of rare earths cannot be overlooked, even though TREM claimed the existence of low levels of radioactivity as well as a minimal presence of thorium and uranium in the ores it explores. Indeed, as underlined by Julie Klinger, “all rare earths can cause organ damage if inhaled or ingested; several corrode the skin; and five of them—chromium, gadolinium, terbium, thulium, and holmium—are so toxic that they must be handled with extreme care to avoid radiation poisoning or combustion. In addition, rare earths tend to coincide with radioactive thorium and uranium, which means that rare earth mining also creates radioactive waste that must be addressed.»

The environmental impacts of the rare earths project are very likely to turn into real social and economic costs that will be borne mostly by women and their communities. In particular, farmers derive their income from growing rice and cash crops such as vanilla, pepper, coffee and cocoa. If rare earth mining were to continue, farmers would suffer a considerable loss of income. Water pollution would reduce the catch for fishermen, whose daily catches have already dropped by 50-60 percent between 2019 and 2022.

In addition, the erosion of living standards and loss of income for women and their families would mean that many of their children, especially girls, would no longer be able to attend school, as shown by field research results in the coastal areas of the Ampasindava Peninsula. This would clearly have a detrimental long-term intergenerational impact on their educational and employment prospects.

The impact on the development of the tourism sector would be particularly disastrous, given that it is the mainstay of the livelihoods of the vast majority of the population of Nosy Be, Sakatia, and the other islands bordering the peninsula.

Madagascar’s Alternatives

Madagascar has long suffered from the “resource curse.” The exploitation of the country’s natural resources has stimulated rentier behavior and government authoritarianism, as well as poverty among local populations and inequalities within the country. The country’s history is full of examples of national leaders unable to exploit natural resources for the improvement of the living standards of present and future generations. The root causes of this resource curse include public mismanagement of natural resources revenues and weak, inefficient, unstable, and corrupt institutions. The volatility of natural resources revenues due to fluctuations in world commodity prices is also a more cyclical cause.

In general, policy makers need to reconsider the role and place of extractive industries in the country’s economic development in light of the impacts of the neoliberal and extractivist policies that have led to the multidimensional crisis facing the country. The protection of common public goods—land, air, water—must be ensured in the face of the climate crisis and the global race for strategic minerals.

The exploitation of mineral resources must be based on local and regional priorities with the free, informed, prior, and ongoing consent of the communities concerned. It must give priority to small-scale, low-impact extraction under collective forms of ownership and control.

Madagascar’s energy transition must ensure energy sovereignty through collective, decentralized, and sustainable forms of renewable energy under the democratic control of communities, and the gradual reduction of fossil fuel exploitation within the limits imposed by the national targets set out in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Madagascar’s transition to clean energy must respect international labor, health, safety, and human rights standards, particularly women’s rights and social protection for vulnerable groups. The overall ecosocial transition must also harness the dividend of the Malagasy youth, given that high rates of youth unemployment in the country create fertile ground for insecurity, conflict, and other social ills.

Zo Randriamaro, a feminist and human rights activist, is researcher and sociologist from Madagascar. She is the founder of the Research and Support Center for Development Alternatives–Indian Ocean, which provides support to communities affected by large-scale mining and agricultural projects.