November 26, 2021

in Ivory Coast, a village against the State

At the entrance to the village of Séréodé, in the north-east of Côte d’Ivoire, a tree trunk has been laid across the road. At the approaching truck and jeep, a handful of young men indicate by gestures that there will be no passage that morning. At least “Not as long as the promises made are not honored”, specifies the oldest of them, Anderson Kouassi, 45 years old. In question, the dust which rises from this purple track as soon as a vehicle takes it. A cloud of particles that invades the lungs and reddens the eyes, clothes and skin.

President of the village youth, Anderson Kouassi demands that “Those who benefit from the road take care of it”. Two hours later, a tanker sprayed the track to pack the dust. The jeep and the truck can continue on their way to their destination: the site housing the manganese mine and the ore beneficiation plant that has been the source of all conflicts for more than ten years in this little corner of the Coast. d’Ivoire located about twenty kilometers from the border with Ghana.

Today, the villagers won their case. But “This is rarely the case”, specifies the leader of the sling: “Usually, either we are ignored or we are sent the gendarmerie. “ Blocking the road for the sake of dust, it may seem disproportionate. But in recent months, with works to extend the plant, the repeated passages of large trucks carrying machining parts on the outward journey and manganese on the return have caused real red tornadoes. Residents complain of coughing “Which do not end” and a host of other inconveniences.

“We should have joined in the complaint of our brothers in the village of Similimi, concludes Anderson Kouassi. We are suffering as they have suffered all these years. “

“Mountains of black stone”

In January, thirteen residents and the chief of Similimi, a village barely 2 km from Séréodé, filed a complaint before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) against the Ivorian state. They accuse him of being “Responsible for human rights violations committed against them” and to have “Failed to protect them from human rights violations committed by third parties within the framework of the operations of the mining company Bondoukou Manganèse SA (BMSA)”. An unprecedented approach in Côte d’Ivoire.

The Similimi group of plaintiffs blames the Ivorian authorities for their “Negligence” and not having done anything against “Land grabbing” for which the Indian mining company BMSA is said to be responsible. Between the latter and the village, a climate of cold war reigns today, without direct confrontation, but punctuated by legal proceedings.

Still, everything had started off pretty well. By the own admission of the inhabitants of Similimi, it was they who, in the mid-2000s, had “Showed the Indian engineers the mountains of black stone” surrounding their village. They did not yet know that it was manganese, a strategic mineral (the fourth most used metal in the world) which is used in particular to make steel and components for the chemical industry.

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In the process, in 2006, the company Taurian, ancestor of BMSA, was granted an exploration permit in “Opaque conditions”, says Hyacinthe Kouassi, an expert in the Ivorian mining sector regularly consulted by international donors.

Very quickly, exploration took on the appearance of exploitation. “Their license gave them the right to extract 50,000 tonnes to carry out studies, but they took nearly 200,000 tonnes”, reports Hyacinthe Kouassi on the basis of testimonies collected at the time. Since the prospecting period gives right to tax exemptions, this process is a trick – illegal – well known in the mining sector.

Abuses, the company would be customary. In 2010, while the environmental and social impact study was not validated by the Ivorian authorities, it began to extract manganese. Worse, recalls the expert, the study “Ignored the villages that were within the perimeter of the site concerned”. Like Similimi, which is however less than 100 meters from one of the sites exploited. Contacted on several occasions, BMSA never responded to requests from World Africa.

“Our plantations have been destroyed”

Unlike other minerals, manganese extraction takes place from rock in hills and mountains, not from the bowels of the earth. The mining mines cover a large area and the surroundings of Similimi offer a lunar landscape. On the hills once grew cashew trees, orange trees, avocado trees, yams, coffee and cocoa were cultivated there. Today, they have become open-air vaults. “All our plantations have been destroyed, we have almost nothing left to eat”, explains Gérard Kouma, one of the complainants.

Watch the full video report by Laureline Savoye by clicking here.

Like almost all the people met in this village of nearly 600 inhabitants, Gérard Kouma denounces the way in which the company has compensated his family. If a compensation scale is provided for by the mining code, the terms have not been respected. According to the villagers, the state has not played its protective role here either. “The compensation was made at the prefecture, but we did not receive any document attesting to the payments and the agents took 10% commission on derisory sums”, accuse Gérard Kouma.

Calculation of compensation “Was done with a wet finger”, says Michel Yoboué, of the Extractive Industries Research and Advocacy Group (GRPIE), an NGO defending the rights of Ivorian mining communities which supports residents in the legal process. He pursues : “The company and certain state agencies have taken advantage of the vagueness of land reigning in the country, as well as the naivety of certain planters, to grab their land at little cost. “ Today, the plaintiffs ask the State to compensate them for all the damages suffered up to 12 billion CFA francs (approximately 18.3 million euros).

Read also: Mining contracts in the DRC: “Congolese companies are at the heart of the problem”

The corruption charges are confirmed by a senior local government official, on condition of anonymity. The latter recognizes that there has been “Black sheep” among civil servants, with “Complicity at all levels”, and wonders about the conditions of the renewal of the operating license of BMSA, in 2018, while all “These problems were already well known”. But according to him, the arrival of a new team at the prefecture of Bondoukou marks a turning point, because “The new administration has seized head-on this catastrophic file where a company does not play fair”.

In Similimi, in the northeast of Côte d'Ivoire, the villagers live among rocks rich in manganese.

A turnaround that comes too late, according to residents. “The mine should have given us wealth, it brought us misery”, summarizes Gérard Kouma. The village chief, Adou Kouamé, describes in detail the nuisances that punctuate their daily life: explosions with dynamite, rock falls near the mine, polluted water sources, sterile land, plantations degraded by dust … “Little paradise” in which he grew up is no longer.

His greatest distress? That “People of the mine” destroyed the sacred forests and hills – places of worship and worship – around Similimi. “They killed our fetish, our protective genius, and today there is no more communion between us and the ancestors”, explains the chief, who sees it as the main cause of the drop in food production. Believing that this destruction has ” decreases [son] authority with the populations ”, he feels today a “Great anger” against the state.

Zogota’s Guinean precedent

The company turns a deaf ear. A few villagers have indeed been recruited on an interim basis, in recent years, to work as handlers on the mine site, but it has not financed, built or repaired anything in more than ten years in a town that has no electricity, nor drinking water. Some also accuse him of having sought to undermine village cohesion. “They offered me money several times, which I refused. And after that, they spread the rumor, including to my father, that I had received 5 million CFA francs ”, confides Michel Kra Kouman, also complaining.

The people of Similimi today demand to be “Compensated” and « relocalisés ». However, “It may be very hard to leave”, all the same “The village is not what it used to be”, laments Michel Kra Kouman. Others claim that it is first the company that leaves. A demand shared by the surrounding villages, like that of Séréodé. In the meantime, some are wondering about the choice of having lodged a complaint against the state. “The ECOWAS court is not competent to deal with a complaint against a company, justifies Michel Yoboué. And we don’t know what it would have been like in a court in our country. ”

Read our survey: Guinea: the billions of Simandou

This seasoned activist, who in the past coordinated “Publish what you pay” campaigns for the extractive industries, knows the “Resonance” what can this kind of affair have “When it is carried internationally”. He has in mind the precedent of the Zogota iron mine in Guinea. After a complaint lodged by the villagers, the ECOWAS court of justice ordered the state, in 2018, to pay 4.56 billion Guinean francs (around 430,000 euros at the time) in reparation for the murders and violence perpetrated. against the protesting communities. A story that we like to tell in Similimi to give birth to a little hope.

Further south, Hiré, a village close to a gold mine, has been “resettled” a little further in the same region. after long consultations between the State, the mining company and the communities concerned. Some people from Similimi went there to find out what had happened. Upon their return, they went to tell everything to “Their brothers from Séréodé” who see every day the factory and the mine nibble their plantations, their water sources and their places of worship. “We must prepare and the State to recover so that we do not lose the land of our ancestors”, says Anderson Kouassi, the village youth president, his face flushed with dust.