Following the Money to Justice from Guinea’s Siguiri Gold Mine

In late 2015, Sira Bérété was walking home from high school in the Siguri region of northeastern Guinea, near the border with Mali. Bérété, a ninth-grader at the time, heard gunshots and tried to run. A bullet slammed into her shoulder. She lost consciousness. A bystander rushed her to the local clinic, which saved her life. But she has not been the same since. She dropped out of school and is in constant pain. “I’m still afraid,” she said, her eyes pooling with tears.

Sira Bérété

Bérété was shot when Guinean security forces moved into her community, a sub-prefecture called Kintinian. The soldiers accompanied representatives of AngloGold Ashanti, one of the world’s largest gold mining companies. Two years earlier, the South African company had announced that it needed to expand its Siguiri gold mine into a cluster of villages in Kintinian. The 365 families living there, however, did not agree to the resettlement terms that the company offered. In March 2015, the company issued a memorandum requesting that the Guinean government make the area available within three months or it would shut down all its operations in the country.

The government heeded the message. First local authorities arrested 11 community negotiators. Then they sent in a feared military unit known as the beret rouges, which is notorious in Guinea for its record of human rights abuses. The security forces looted their businesses. They used tear gas inside people’s homes, beating the occupants and setting huts on fire.

“Those soldiers came to take our land. They brutalized us,” Bérété said. Shortly after, the company turned up to conduct its resettlement inventory with soldiers by their side. One by one, the residents were forced to sign the inventory summary that was handed to them. Some said they were told directly if they didn’t sign they would die. Several months later, their homes and orchards were bulldozed and they were moved to a resettlement site that lacked water, trees, access to schools and health care, and means to make a living.

The families turned for help to the Guinean human rights organization CECIDE, which had worked with them in the past. In order to document the abuses, CECIDE’s funding partner, the 11th Hour Project, helped them organize a fact-finding mission alongside another Guinean human rights organization, Les Mêmes Droits Pour Tous (MDT), and two international partners, Communities First and Advocates for Community Alternatives, that were in the 11th Hour Project’s network. The resulting report provided a credible, evidence-based account of the forced evictions.

Serious violations of Guinean and international law had occurred. But the domestic courts provided little hope for redress. CECIDE, MDT and the community knew they needed to look beyond Guinea’s borders for justice.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

CECIDE reached out to Inclusive Development International, which specializes in follow the money investigations that uncover the investors, financiers and buyers backing harmful projects. This can open up advocacy opportunities in cases that have few obvious ways forward.

The investigation of AngloGold Ashanti and the Siguiri mine uncovered numerous international pressure points for advocacy. A team from Inclusive Development International traveled to Kintinian with CECIDE and MDT to present the findings directly to the displaced community. They learned that the world’s largest banks and investors were funding the company’s operations. Global consumer brands such as Apple were buying its gold. These actors have reputations to protect and claim to follow international human rights standards.

Perhaps most important was a financier hidden in the mine’s investment chain: the World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation. The IFC had loaned money to the South African commercial bank Nedbank, which in turn lent money to AngloGold Ashanti without ensuring that it respected the IFC’s social and environmental standards. This represented a clear violation of IFC’s policies.

DEMANDING ACCOUNTABILITY

Armed with this information, the community members requested that Inclusive Development International, CECIDE and MDT help them file a complaint to the IFC’s independent accountability mechanism, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman. The three organizations submitted a complaint in April 2017, annexing the fact-finding report as evidence. The Ombudsman found the complaint admissible and then proceeded to assess whether the case was suitable for mediation, which the community desired, or if it would instead be transferred for a compliance investigation.

Getting AngloGold Ashanti to agree to mediation was not straightforward. It had no direct relationship with the IFC and was under no obligation to participate in the voluntary process. Moreover, the power imbalance between the world’s third-largest gold mining company and the displaced Kintinian community was too great. A number of other strategies had to be deployed to secure justice.

The community’s advocates first wrote to AngloGold Ashanti setting out the community’s desire to enter into mediations to resolve their grievances and negotiate development benefits from the project. Inclusive Development International also wrote to AngloGold Ashanti’s top investors and financiers, including U.S. investment firm BlackRock; South African and European pension funds; the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund; and several major commercial banks that provided financial services to the company. We pointed to each of the institutions’ human rights, social and environmental policies and commitments and called on them to use their leverage to urge AngloGold Ashanti to enter into good-faith mediations with the community and make every effort to ensure redress. A number of these actors communicated their concerns to the company, which proved critical to getting them to the mediation table and leveling the playing field in a highly asymmetrical power relationship.

Feeling the heat from its investors, AngloGold Ashanti agreed to mediation and a dialogue has been underway since July 2018. As of 2021, after more than 200 hours of dialogue, the two sides have reached agreements on access to water and schooling at the resettlement site, compensation and livelihood restoration, as well as security and human rights and community consultation and consent on any future resettlement required for the company’s mining operations.

These agreements still need to be implemented. Progress could yet be slow, and there will no doubt be complications along the way. But the community is satisfied with these outcomes especially considering how hopeless the situation was in the days and months after the evictions.

This case demonstrates the power of following the money to uncover international pressure points behind seemingly untouchable corporate opponents. It also illustrates the importance of 1) the community getting organized and speaking with one voice; 2) collective evidence on impacts and violations in order to make a strong case, and 3) implementing a multi-pronged advocacy strategy, from direct engagement with the company and key pressure points along their investment and supply chain to using an effective international accountability mechanism. The combination of all of these strategies and approaches helped the community to achieve their goals.