Unsuccessful UK visa application prevents Athanase Monja from attending Rio Tinto AGM, where he hoped to highlight impact of mining on his community
A Madagascan farmer who says he and his neighbours have lost access to their land because of the UK mining company Rio Tinto has been blocked from visiting London, where he had been due to address the firm’s annual general meeting.
Athanase Monja planned to speak at the firm’s AGM on 12 April, but was refused a visa by the Home Office. Monja, a subsistence farmer, fisherman and first assistant to the mayor in his town of Antsontso, was told by British officials he had a “lack of qualification” to speak about environmental and human rights concerns.
Athanase Monja had planned to speak at Rio Tinto’s annual general meeting on 12 April. Photograph: Courtesy of londonminingnetwork.org
Monja wanted to highlight the impact of the Rio Tinto mine owned and operated by QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) on the south-east coast of the island, which is noted for its biodiversity.
The mine was billed as a future model for responsible mining, but campaigners say it has had a devastating impact on the environment and community. QMM, which is the local Rio Tinto subsidiary, uses a controversial biodiversity offsetting scheme that pledges to counteract environmental damage by protecting other areas.
Yvonne Orengo, director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a charity that runs social and environmental projects on Madagascar, said the AGM was a rare opportunity for local people to make their voices heard. “They would have an audience of shareholders who have vested interests and probably have more power to hold the company to account than anybody in the local community over there. That’s the sad reality,” she said.
“Malagasy people are mostly living from the land, and it’s important to them spiritually and culturally, as well as for their livelihoods. Any loss of land, and any loss of access to natural resource like forest, is going to severely impact on their wellbeing and ability to survive.”
After making his visa application, Monja was contacted by QMM and questioned about why he had travelled to the island’s capital, Antananarivo, and why he wanted the visa. London Mining Network, a coalition of anti-mining campaign groups, said: “It is unclear why the foreign multinational would have had access to this information or considers it has any jurisdiction to question Malagasy citizens in this way.”
Campaigners say QMM’s conservation projects are rapidly losing credibility. In October, QMM’s biodiversity committee resigned, writing that Rio Tinto and QMM had watered down their commitment to responsible mining by creating “a vague and fundamentally weakened strategy”.
Committee members said there was “an untenable level of reputational risk” for those who continued in their current roles.
Rio Tinto said in a statement that it welcomes attendance by all interested parties at its annual general meetings. “On a number of occasions in recent years, representatives of the communities in Madagascar have travelled to the AGM in London, they have had their questions answered and we have made arrangements for them to meet executive members of staff to discuss their concerns in more detail.”
A fisherman wades through the surf with a shrimp trap near the village of Ilafitsinana, near Fort Dauphine. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
It added that offsetting should not be seen in isolation. “During the active mining phase of a project such as QMM, we work to rehabilitate and restore the mine site as the project progresses. At QMM, we conduct afforestation, agricultural projects and forest restoration on mined lands to balance the economic needs of host communities with the conservation of a biologically diverse habitat. The biodiversity offset sites that are supported by QMM were all existing Madagascar government-designated protected areas.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits and the onus is on the applicant to submit the evidence required.
“Our highly trained immigration officials consider each application objectively against the immigration rules and it would be absolutely wrong to say their decisions are influenced by any external factors.”