The threat to Madagascar from tar sands; a first hand account

The threat to Madagascar from tar sands; a first hand account

Date: 23 May 2011

Environmental campaigner Holly Rakotondralambo from Madagascar is visiting the UK this week to highlight the threat to her country from proposals to mine tar sands there.  Here she tells WDM about the concerns of the local communities around the mining areas that she has visited and what we can do to help stop the threat of tar sands mining in her country.

Holly Rakotondralambo talks to Liz Murray of WDM in Scotland

After the visit by the Canadian First Nations activists for RBS’s AGM in April, WDM is this week hosting environmental campaigner Holly Rakotondralambo from Madagascar who is here to highlight the threat to her country from proposals to mine tar sands there.  Holly is here on behalf of Alliance Voahary Gasy, a coalition of 28 Malagasy environmental and human rights organisations, all of whom are concerned about the impact that tar sands mining may have on Madagascar if it is allowed to continue.

Holly will be speaking at public meetings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London and to many journalists while she is here, calling on RBS not to finance Total’s involvement in tar sands extraction, and for the UK Government to set environmental and ethical investment criteria for RBS.    We were able to bring Holly to the UK as a result of individual donations from WDM supporters. 

Holly spoke to Liz Murray at WDM’s office in Edinburgh.

Liz:  what is the current situation with tar sands mining in Madagascar?

Holly:  There are two main areas that have been identified as containing deposits of tar sands.  These are at Tsimiroro and Bemolanga, in the western region of Melaky in Madagascar.  Madagascar Oil and French oil company Total have been exploring in these areas since 2008.  Total has taken 130 core drills at Bemolanga.  They have also built roads and offices there and have told us that they will decide next month whether or not to begin large scale exploitation of tar sands.  The local people are very worried about what this might mean, and so are we.

Liz: what are the specific concerns about tar sands mining?

Holly: There is growing concern among local communities about the effects that tar sands mining might have on agricultural land, water sources and the unique biodiversity of Madagascar; particularly since we have seen the devastation that has occurred in the Canadian tar sands mining areas.  There is great poverty in Madagascar.  Many people in the tar sands areas in Madagascar are small scale subsistence farmers who have had their land passed down through their families.  They are afraid that they will lose their land or that it will get poisoned.  There are also fears about the machinery and the huge lorries that will pass through this area to get to the mining sites.

There are also concerns that water supplies may be contaminated with toxic pollution in the same way that we have seen with the Athabasca river in Canada.  There are very limited water supplies in this part of Madagascar and most people rely heavily on the rivers for all their water needs, including drinking, cooking and washing.  Trees are also used to provide water, and local people make a kind of beer from this which they can sell to make some money.   But to exploit the tar sands deposits, many trees may have to be cut down.  And on top of this, the Malagasy government and people will only get a tiny percentage, as little as 4%, of the profits from any tar sands extraction.

 Of course we are also worried about the effect of tar sands extraction on climate change.  We are part of the international network REDD,  a United Nations collaborative programme working to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.  We don’t have very much old growth forest in Madagascar, but what we do have is vital as a carbon sink and could also have value to our country on the carbon markets.  But mining tar sands, which are such a dirty form of fossil fuel, will completely undermine and waste these efforts to reduce climate change.

Liz:   what interaction has Total had with the local communities?

Holly: Total have had very little interaction with the local communities.  My organisation held a public meeting in Bemolanga to let the local people know what the impacts of tar sands mining might be on them and also to help them work out what they could negotiate with Total that would benefit them.   There was very low awareness and we were surprised to hear that Total had not yet given them any information.  A week after our meeting, Total did come to the local communities and meet with them.  Total has also paid for a community hall and a bridge for the main town in the district of Bemolanga, but the bridge is a little way up the river from the usual crossing point and so the local people are still using their boats to get across the river rather than the bridge. 

Liz:  what is your message to us here in the UK?

Holly:  we would like you to do everything you can to stop the expansion of tar sands mining in Madagascar.  There is still time to stop it.   The Royal Bank of Scotland has financed Total, without concern for the impacts that Total’s mining in Madagascar may have.  But RBS is almost entirely owned by the UK government so they could stop this happening.  We urge the UK public to contact their MPs and call on them to stop RBS from financing the companies that are mining for tar sands.