JOHANNESBURG, Aug 17 (Reuters) - A Chinese-backed consortium
building infrastructure for a massive iron ore mine in Guinea
started blasting a railway tunnel in a habitat for a critically
endangered chimpanzee species with no plan in place to manage
the impact on the animals, company and government statements and
satellite imagery show.
The consortium is developing the mine in the West African
country's Simandou mountains. Anglo-Australian mining company
Rio Tinto PLC has permission to mine an
adjacent part of the deposit, the world's biggest, and has said
it plans to export the ore using the railway and port being
built by the consortium, Winning Consortium Simandou (WCS).
The construction company hired by WCS to build the railway,
China Railway 18th Bureau Group Co Ltd, said in a June 7
statement on its website that a shaft was blasted into the
hillside "with a roar of cannons" on May 29, weeks before
Guinean officials met to consider an environmental and social
impact assessment (ESIA).
According to minutes of that meeting, Guinean officials did
not order the company to stop blasting, but did call for
revisions to the assessment - including a management plan for
chimpanzees. For any projects that could impact the environment,
Guinea requires environmental assessments to be finished and
approved ahead of time, Article 28 of its environmental code
The Western chimpanzee is "critically endangered," according
to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN),
which maintains a benchmark inventory of endangered species.
That's the most vulnerable of its five classifications, one step
away from extinction in the wild.
The entire area of Guinea is home to nearly two-thirds of
the remaining estimated 52,800 Western chimpanzees in the wild,
according to the authority.
Extensive work on the tunnel has been taking place for
several months, according to a Reuters review of satellite
imagery provided by Planet Labs. A June 28 image shows two main
construction areas at either end of the tunnel, connected by a
new access road through the mountains. This was not visible in
China Railway 18th Bureau Group did not respond to questions
about the construction work sent by Reuters on July 28. After
the questions were sent, its statement mentioning the hillside
blast was removed from its website.
WCS said no blasting took place before it received the
required permits or before the environmental assessment had been
approved, but neither WCS nor Guinea's government provided the
basis for that assertion or made a copy of the approved
environmental assessment available.
"The WCS team is assessing environmental and social impacts
through the ... ESIA process and will put in place appropriate
mitigation measures prior to construction," it said in response
to Reuters questions.
Guinea's mines ministry didn't respond to requests for
comment about the tunnel construction, environmental assessments
and chimpanzee protection.
Rio Tinto is not involved in building the railway, but has
said it will use it. It declined to comment on the construction
work, or say whether the risk to chimps meant it might change
its transportation plans in future, saying it was studying its
The IUCN said in 2016 the Western chimpanzee population had
declined by 80% from 1990 to 2014. The main threats are habitat
loss, poaching and disease. It said last year the animals "are
on a trajectory towards extinction unless drastic measures are
The Simandou railway "will permanently change the Guinean
landscape," said Genevieve Campbell, who leads an IUCN task
force that advises companies on how to minimise their impact on
apes. The project needs to ensure the "appropriate mitigation is
already in place before construction begins."
Chimpanzees could engage in lethal fights if the railway
forces one community into an adjacent community's territory,
Simandou has an estimated 8 billion tonnes of high-grade ore
reserves. It is key to Chinese companies looking to wean
themselves off Australian iron ore amid a worsening trade war
between the two countries.
$15 BILLION PROJECT
The risk to chimpanzees - through collisions with trains and
increased pressure on their habitat - was highlighted in an
earlier assessment, carried out by Rio Tinto in 2012, when it
was considering building a railway from Simandou to the coast.
Rio has held rights to the deposit since 1997 but never
Among the hitches were the cost of the infrastructure,
including the railway, that the government has said must be
built if the mine is to go ahead. Now Rio has two of the
deposit's four licence blocks, and WCS the other half.
Rio Tinto's global head of external relations, Lawrence
Dechambenoit, said at a June ceremony to open a new office in
Guinea's capital that Rio would collaborate with those building
the infrastructure. Simandou is the company's most important
project, he said.
The $15 billion cost of developing WCS's half of Simandou
and building the railway and port will largely be financed
through the group's own funds, "given the extensive financial
capacity of its members," the consortium has said.
The tunnel will be part of a 670-km (416-mile)
"Transguinean" railway and port project. In a speech on March
19, mines minister Abdoulaye Magassouba said work on it would
start on June 1 and continue until January 2024.
China Railway 18th Bureau Group said in its June 7 statement
it had "officially entered the tunnel" on May 29.
Rio Tinto's earlier impact assessment, seen by Reuters, said
600-700 chimps were present in the area where WCS is building
the tunnel. The whole line would cut through important chimp
habitats, it said; blasting tunnels was likely to disturb the
To mitigate this, Rio said it could minimise the width of
the railway corridor, rehabilitate the habitat cleared for
construction, and prepare the site by "physically removing or
scaring away animals."
The Simandou mountains' dramatic landscape, rich
biodiversity and cultural sites make them a sensitive place to
launch mining. Rio's previous environmental assessment said
whole peaks would be erased by mining in its half of Simandou.
The Pic de Fon, the mountain range's highest peak, would be
removed by the 20th year of production.
Reuters couldn't determine if the rail route planned by the
WCS consortium differs substantially from the one Rio had in
mind: No environmental plan for the project has been made
public. A draft environmental and social impact assessment
submitted to the Guinean government for three tunnels, including
the one announced by China Railway 18th Bureau Group, was dated
An environment ministry committee made 32 recommendations to
strengthen the plan, including mitigating impacts on
chimpanzees, before work progressed, according to a summary of a
July 5 meeting on the website of its Bureau Guinéen d'Etudes et
d'Evaluations Environnementales (BGEEE).
The BGEEE, which is in charge of publishing information
about environmental assessments, didn't publish the draft or
respond to requests for a copy.
WCS told Reuters the recommendations were included in a
final version of the plan, but declined to share a copy. It said
it had launched surveys to prepare measures that will mitigate
The WCS consortium's members include Shandong Weiqiao, a
subsidiary of the world's largest aluminium producer China
Hongqiao Group Limited, Singapore's Winning Shipping, and
Guinean mining logistics firm United Mining Supply Group (UMS).
WCS told Reuters in March that it aimed to finish its impact
assessments for the Simandou project as a whole by December this
(Reporting by Helen Reid and Joe Bavier in Johannesburg,
Additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London and Yew Lun Tian
in Beijing; Edited by Amran Abocar and Sara Ledwith)