Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Devastation, Madagascar

Devastation, Madagascar

France's Total and US based Madagascar Oil tangle with military governments to push tar sands projects forward

Macdonald Stainsby

December 27, 2010

Total's proposed tar sands operation in Madagascar is potentially the dirtiest mining operation its kind in the world, in a region where the local people have few options but to live next to it. If, as some charge, Total helped bring down a democratically elected government in order to install a regime that would favour their tar sands project, it's likely that international campaigns against Total and their social and environmental record could well expand.

In 2008 Total bought a 60% stake in the Bemolanga tar sands field, a field that they predict may operate at just under 200 000 barrels per day of bitumen using strip mining techniques developed in Alberta, Canada. The bitumen is less 'pure' in place, which means it will produce more toxic tailings and require even more water usage than the already notorious strip mines north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. If developed, the Bemolanga mine would rival the largest of the mines in operation today.

Not unlike Alberta, for at minimum of 20 years after the start of operations, Madagascar will only receive 1% in royalty payments from this development. An index published by the World bank ranks Madagascar as the 12th poorest country in the world, wedged between Nepal and Afghanistan.

France, the former colonial master of Madagascar, had seen its influence waning in the country under the previous presidency of 'Marc' Ravalomanana-- a free market leaning leader who had sought stronger ties with the United States. Part of Ravalomanana's program saw the country attempt a break with what is still often called “Françafrique”, which refers to the continued dominance of France in the economic and political relations of multiple former colonies across Africa. Though the details are undisclosed, local and international observers believe that the successful coup, which was led by former disc-jockey (and 36 years young) Andry Rajoelina in March of 2009, was a military reaction against breaking from the traditional French relations.

Tar sands at the heart of a coup?

That thesis is backed up by disputes that have emerged between the American-centred Madagascar Oil and the current government. Madagascar Oil was told early on after the coup that the government wanted to “renegotiate” their standing contracts and licenses. MO halted all exploration in several of their blocks, including the large Tsimiroro deposit. Total, however, suffered no such pressures.

A $100 million windfall for Madagascar Oil at the end of November, 2010 renewed speculation that a new push to develop the Madagascar's tar sands deposits is on. The November announcement that the first public offering of a company that has yet to produce petroleum for market had received an injection of cash raised on the Alternative Investment Market in the UK came at a tumultuous time, just weeks after an another attempted coup, this time against the French-leaning coup leader Rajoelina, and was followed by a stop trade order on December 17 barely two weeks later after Rajoelina has now apparently re-consolidated power.

Despite the name and the cute ring-tailed lemur in the corporate logo, Madagascar Oil is an American entity based in Houston, Texas. In 2008, Madagascar Oil indicated that it was lacking in sufficient overhead capital and mining technology to develop the tar sands deposit that is similar to Alberta, but much heavier and harder to extract in the Central Western coastal region of Melaky, while retaining full control of a second in-situ deposit to its immediate south.

In August of 2010, I left Antananarivo, and drove westward towards the Melaky region to investigate the impacts of the proposed tar sands projects. The roads start out paved, then gravel, and from there, the road is a mish-mash of red-clays and gravel with more potholes on it than any other such road I have seen in my lifetime. The distance to the Melaky Region is less than 300 kilometers, but it took 14 hours to drive, a vast improvement over the 3 days it took a couple of years ago. When I arrived, I met with locals who are organizing around the tar sands.

“There is a problem with the new [Rajoelina] government and Madagascar Oil, not with the new government and Total. The new government tried to review the contracts between the government and Madagascar Oil. With Total, it's okay,” said Jean-Pierre Ratsimbazafy, who lives and works on social and environmental issues with a community based NGO in the Melaky region, as well as with the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar. In the months following, MO did the pubic offering and rescinding, all oddly coinciding with the attempt and then apparent failure of members of the military to re-overthrow the government once again.

"Following a meeting between the Ministry of Mines and Hydrocarbons and Madagascar Oil in Antananarivo late on 16 December, the Ministry has indicated that it is interested in acquiring from the Company all of its licences excluding Bemolanga," a representative from Madagascar Oil told the UK Guardian on December 17, 2010. That Madagascar Oil executives admit the government wishes to take over their claims lays credence to the possibility of Total's involvement behind the scenes. Bemolanga is the only exploration block that is majority owned by Total.

Whatever the behind the scenes details are, the tightening of what amount to sanctions from the United States, and several African countries, the implication of France, Holland, Morocco and the World Bank in financing illegal exports of rosewood trees from the famous national parks that are home to the equally famous lemurs, the exodus of investors and further increased poverty indicators (due, in part, to a switch over to the informal sector from many formerly employed persons in the waning export sector) have all been results of the 2009 military ascension to power of a man who, until a recent referendum, was too young to constitutionally be the president. In fact, it is widely believed the bulk of the illegal logging money was going into the hands of those in the military loyal to the coup leader Rajoelina.

Locals organize in the face of social and ecological costs

While Total SA has earned enmity in Canada for both proposed upgrading facilities and mines, the direct impact on the human population of Melaky, one of Madagascar's poorest regions may end up coming at an even higher social and environmental cost.

“In the [Melaky] region, the problems are deforestation & the consequences of the fires, and recently there are many companies who explore petroleum here,” said Ratsimbazafy. Along with these issues, there are also possible uranium mining sites and offshore oil exploration in a major whale corridor.

“In Bemolanga now, there are two problems. One problem is a social problem,” said Ratsimbazafy. Total has already relocated the local population for this development: “They drove the villagers out of the site of Bemolanga,” he said. There is also the ecology, the water, the lands and desertification, affecting the people living near the Bemolanga deposit.

More than just lemurs, 60 percent of the birds in Madagascar don't exist anywhere else in the world. Same goes for 85 per cent of the fauna, every mammal other than bats and 96 per cent of the dung beetle varieties.

Yet the Bemolanga field lies in a vastly dry and deforested area, one where villages of a few hundred or less live with zero services or power are scattered across the landscape. Though eco-tourism has been one of the mainstays of the country since the collapse of an old socialist collective model some 20 years ago, few adventure seekers would travel to the areas Total and Madagascar Oil seek to develop. The people in the area constantly re-burn the grasses to provide fresh grass shoots for the zebus and chickens that they raise, some for their own sustenance, and some for export to the more urbanized centres of the country.

“The villagers currently use the land to plant kassava and potatoes, and in the natural forests there are natural yams the villagers seek for food,” explained Ratsimbazafy. The natural forest he refers to takes less than ten minutes to drive across. It's all that is left.“In Bemolanga there is very little water, so in the dry season there is no water-- Total says they will collect the water, but on the site of the Bemolanga [mine] there is no [water] reserve," said Ratsimbazafy.

There is only one large river near Bemolanga and it is a mere trickle of water compared to the Athabasca River near the giant mines in Canada. Multiple villages rely on the water-- untreated, of course-- for everything from drinking to washing to supplying water for their livestock (who wander the landscape without fences) to fishing for extra food. There is no water to spare. Each family in the villages gathers an average of five buckets of water a day, transported by foot and carried on their heads.

If the mostly Dene and Cree hamlet of Fort Chipewyan is ground zero for tar sands development in Alberta, villages like Ambonara approximately a mile from the operations plant that bears Total's name are ground zero in Madagascar. They have an even more direct reliance on the water, and have no such thing as a treatment plant or plumbing of any sort.

As for benefits, much like similar villages around the world near extractive plants they have had the local liaison office of Total SA hand out t-shirts, hats and promising local wealth to end all of their daily problems-- and not warning them whatsoever of massive new ones that may begin. The experimental project has so far disturbed only small blocks of land with mining, and has created 10 small tailings ponds, all of which are now filled over and even planted-- with trees that do not naturally occur in the area.

You see men wearing Total shirts and hats all over the neighbouring regions, especially in Morafenobe, a town of perhaps 1000 people that is a short drive from Bemolanga and Tsimiroro, the two large tar sands deposits that exist in Madagascar. This town is likely to expand rapidly if Total moves ahead with strip mining operations here, though the privately owned airport that Total runs right near their plant suggests they may already be planning to bring in workers from outside the region. Their airport has a giant Total windsock, visible from the much smaller villages near Bemolanga. If one place struck my thoughts wandering about Morafenobe, it was Fort McMurray, Canada- the town of debauchery that hosts the majority of those who work in the mines run by Syncrude, Suncor and Albian Sands, among others.

Madagascar is famous for it's ecology, but the poorest region in the country is also in the most barren, perhaps keeping “big win” organizations that often only attempt to protect areas that look spectacular on a postcard away from trying to halt the project. Some individuals have even written that “at least this is nowhere near the national parks and the lemurs,” and similar sentiments. Total is, however, already relocating people who have lived there for generations, some of whom are members of the poorest communities in one of the world's poorest countries.

The villagers whose lives and land seem to hang in the balance are not lost, yet. There has been one upside to the coup, which is that the Alliance Vohary Gasy has sprung up to coordinate popular resistance across Madagascar. Their stated goal is that no longer shall the government of Antananarivo and foreign corporations decide without the input of the people as to what developments should take place in the country. Without taking sides in the dispute in governance, they advocate for community level democracy to expand. They have done so, in part, because the international community has mostly left since the coup of 2009. Positive resistance often takes place because of the most dire circumstances, and a feeling of the need to act independently of others whose help seems to have dissipated.


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