World Rainforest Movement

Rio Tinto’s biodiversity offset in Madagascar: How culture and religion are used to enforce restrictions


In September 2015, Re:Common and WRM investigated one of the most widely advertised biodiversity compensation initiatives in the mining sector, the Rio Tinto biodiversity offset in south-eastern Madagascar. Rio Tinto and its partners from the conservation sector claim that the company’s biodiversity conservation strategy will even have a “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity in the end, meaning that the company’s presence in the area would ultimately benefit biodiversity. This, even though extracting ilmenite at the Rio Tinto mine will destroy 1,600 hectares of a rare coastal forest with many species only found in this type of coastal forest in Madagascar. The “Net Positive Impact” is to be achieved through a combination of conservation measures inside the mining concession and biodiversity offsets at three different locations.

WRM and Re:Common visited communities affected by one of the biodiversity offsets, the Bemangidy-Ivohibe site, some 50 kilometres north of the mining concession. We wanted to find out what those most directly affected by the Rio Tinto biodiversity offset make of this pilot initiative in the mining sector.

Failure to disclose to communities that the “conservation project” in fact is a biodiversity offset

What we found was that little information has been made available to communities about what biodiversity offsets actually are. Villagers had not been informed that what had been presented to them as a “conservation project” was actually designed to compensate for destruction of a unique and rare littoral forest – and the livelihoods of families dependent on that forest – near the city of Fort Dauphin, some 50 km to the south of the Bemangidy-Ivohibe biodiversity offset site, where Rio Tinto QMM (1) is extracting ilmenite.

For example, soon after our arrival in one village we were told: “The company QMM has this project here to protect the forest, and they are bringing students from Tana [Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar] to do research here in the forest. We don’t understand very much what QMM wants here. They are planting some trees and that’s it. We don’t understand and we would be very grateful if you could share more information on their plans.”

Prior to the arrival of the Rio Tinto QMM biodiversity offset project, villagers practised shifting cultivation to grow their staple food, manioc, at the edge of the forest. Among the restrictions the Bemangidy biodiversity offset now imposes is that villagers are no longer allowed to plant manioc along the forest edge or use the forest as they did before.

Threat to food security

Because villagers were told they could no longer plant along the edge of the forest, communities started to search for new areas to cultivate. The only place available to them are the sand dunes. Fields are now as far as 3-4 kilometres from villages and to get there, villagers have to walk for about an hour, passing small lagoons and streams. Villagers explained that during the rainy season (from November to April), getting to and from the fields is treacherous, particularly when carrying food back to the villages. In addition, productivity in the sandy soil is lower than at the forest fields, and growing manioc in the sandy soils is not going well. The new manioc fields are not producing enough to feed all families in the villages.

In terms of food security alone, the Rio Tinto QMM biodiversity offset at Bemangidy is thus turning out to be a disaster. It leaves villagers without their staple food for much of the year and families have no regular cash income to buy food. At the same time, none of the alternative income generating activities that were promised at the start of the project have been forthcoming at villages such as Antsotso, and villagers have yet to receive compensation for loss of access to customary land.

Villagers at this biodiversity offset site felt that restrictions had been imposed without negotiation and with little regard for their situation. “They do not come to ask, they come to tell,” was a comment made by villagers on several occasions during our visit. If people are found farming in the forest without a permit, or in zones where use is prohibited, they have to pay a fine of between 50,000 and 1,000,000 Ariary (around 15-300 euros). To put this into perspective, more than 75 per cent of Malagasy people are living on less than US$ 2 a day and the official minimum wage in Madagascar was 125,000.00 Ariary (35 euros / month) in 2015. “If you can’t pay the fine, they take you to the Forest Department and then to jail,” one villager explained during a community meeting.

Deplorable tactics to enforce restrictions

State institutions and the conservation sector in Madagascar are increasingly using expressions rooted in customary land use decision-making to enforce local land use restrictions in and around protected areas. One example is how conservation NGOs use the word “dina”.

A dina is part of the traditional system of regulating customary land use within and among communities. The process of agreeing a dina involves a negotiation between those using the land, about how a certain area can be used. For this reason, a dina commands a degree of respect that state regulation generally does not. Until recently, a dina was not a written document—it did not need to be. Those to whom it applied had been involved in the negotiation and as part of the process, they committed to respecting what had been agreed together.

In the past decade or so, however, state authorities and conservation NGOs have begun to use the term dina for documents containing written rules imposed on communities as part of conservation projects. An academic article on the transfer of protected area management in Madagascar notes that dinas linked to such management transfers “reflect the agenda of the institution (NGO and/or project) that supports the implementation of management transfers, rather than the priorities of the community. They lack the flexibility of traditional rules and are incapable of taking into consideration the specific economic situation of rule breakers. They focus on repression and penalties rather than resource extraction modalities.” (2)

In conversation, villagers mentioned a “dina from Asity”. Asity Madagascar is the national affiliate of BirdLife International in Madagascar and in charge of implementing the biodiversity offset at Bemangidy-Ivohibe. The dina from Asity, villagers explained, prohibits use of fire anywhere on the hillside, even for taking shifting cultivation patches in recuperation back into cultivation. Shortly after our visit in September 2015, a villager burned the vegetation on one of these patches in preparation for planting. Villagers at a meeting discussing the draft findings of the field report explained that he is suffering and needs land to cultivate manioc. He was ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 Ariary [30 euros] for burning in an area where the dina that regulates forest use in the biodiversity offset area prohibits such use.

Meetings with a conservation NGO involved in the implementation of the biodiversity offset additionally revealed that deplorable methods have been used to ensure compliance with these restrictions on forest use. In the meetings, we heard about various methods and tactics used to “make the offset project a success”. These tactics are perhaps not a unique occurrence in the conservation sector. But they are rarely shared in such a candid way.

We were told that because Rio Tinto QMM is undertaking the biodiversity offset with a view to creating a “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity, conservation NGOs had a particular obligation to help them succeed. What followed was an explanation of how this was done at the Bemangidy-Ivohibe biodiversity offset site.

To introduce the Bemangidy biodiversity offset activities, NGO staff engaged in a series of visits to communities. Sometimes, these were joint visits by the company and the NGO; sometimes, NGO staff would visit the villages around the biodiversity offset site without Rio Tinto QMM representatives. These visits were presented alternatively as a means of implementing the offset project in a participatory manner and as being part of a process of slow persuasion. “Basically it was brainwashing,” we were told at one point in the conversation. (3)

In a first meeting, NGO staff would talk about the importance of the forest, followed by the presentation of the biodiversity offset, which was presented only as a conservation project. There would also be a harsh critique about current local land use practises. We learned that not all community meetings went well. One meeting in particular, with Rio Tinto QMM representatives present, was described as “a fiasco”, partly because villagers had requested resolution of the outstanding issue of compensation for lost access to the forest.

To avoid a similar “fiasco” at following meetings, these were started with a church service. The meeting on the offset project that followed the church service was also held in the church, “to avoid disruption”. (4) It was thought that people would remain calmer in a church. This was described as “leveraging on the ecumenical culture”. Such “leveraging on the ecumenical culture” also facilitated alluding to God and ancestors as the ones who had requested protection of the forest “for future generations and to respect the ancestors”.

Tapping into the strong culture of reciprocity in traditional customs— the importance of sharing, and the sentiment that if one does not learn how to give one will not receive—also made it easier for the NGO to cast aside requests for compensation more easily.

Biodiversity offsets – a double land grab in the name of biodiversity

Communities affected by the Rio Tinto QMM biodiversity offset at Bemangidy-Ivohibe, in south-eastern Madagascar, that were struggling already before are now facing an increased risk of hunger and deprivation as a direct result of a biodiversity offset benefitting one of the world’s largest mining corporations. Yet Rio Tinto is able to claim that its ilmenite mine has come “at the rescue of the unique biodiversity of the littoral zone of Fort Dauphin”. (5) This is despite the fact that a large portion of the 1,600 hectares of a rare littoral forest inside the mining concession will be destroyed during mining.

The mining giant and its collaborators speak enthusiastically of a “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity, claiming that the coastal forest it is mining would have been destroyed anyway over the next few decades by local peasant farming practises. The arguments used to underpin this claim are certainly questionable. Regardless, Rio Tinto QMM argue that by retaining some forest inside the mining concession as well as protecting and restoring forest elsewhere that is similar to the one being destroyed at the mine, the company’s mining activities will result in a “Net Positive Impact” on biodiversity, compared to what might otherwise have been. They further claim that the forest at the biodiversity offset sites would have been destroyed through peasant farming without the activities implemented by Rio Tinto and its partners through the biodiversity offset.

The reality, however, is very different from the story in glossy brochures distributed internationally. Subsistence livelihoods of villagers affected not only by the mining itself but also by the biodiversity offset are made even more precarious so Rio Tinto can increase its profits from the extraction of ilmenite. Thus, in reality, the Rio Tinto QMM biodiversity offset model project turns into a double land grab in the name of biodiversity.

The report is available in English and French at
A Malagasy version is available on request. A summary in Italian is available at

(1) The mine is run by QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), a joint venture in which Rio Tinto holds 80% and the state of Madagascar the remaining 20% of shares.
(2) M. Berard (2011): Legitimite des normes environnementales dans la gestion locale de la foret a Madagascar. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 26. P 89-111.
(3) Response from Asity to the description of the conversation, received on 08 April 2016 by Email: “la façon dont on a rédigé la phrase ne relate pas vraiment la réalité. Primo, le « lavage de cerveau » n’est pas le mot approprié, mieux vaut dire que c’est un moyen d’apporter des éclaircissements pour la population. Secundo, les visites servent à sensibiliser la population sur les tenants et aboutissants du projet Offset.” [The manner in which the sentence is written does not really reflect reality. First, “brain-washing is not the appropriate word, it is better to say that it is a process of clarification for the population. Second, the visits serve to raise awareness about how the Offset project works.]
(4) Response from Asity to the description of the conversation in the report, received on 08 April 2016 by Email: “En voici la réalité : tout au début, des groupes de personnes trouvaient toujours les moyens de perturber la réunion. Pour éviter cela, nous avons négocié avec les responsables de l’Eglise de Iaboakoho à débuter la réunion par une prière, et de prendre les décisions difficiles dans l’église même.” [“Here’s the reality: at the beginning, groups of people always find ways to disrupt such meetings. To avoid this, we negotiated with the leaders of the Church at Iaboakoho to start the meeting with a prayer, and to take the tough decisions in the church.”]
(5) A mine at the rescue of the unique biodiversity of the littoral zone of Fort Dauphin, QIT Madagascar Minerals SA Press Kit, 2009.