In Guinea, an illegal $6b gold ‘bonanza’ threatens endangered chimpanzees

  • Earlier this year, Australia’s Predictive Discovery announced that it had found more than $6 billion in “bonanza”-grade gold deposits in eastern Guinea.
  • A Mongabay investigation has found that the company’s exploration is taking place inside the boundaries of Haut Niger National Park, in violation of the law establishing the park.
  • The park is home to an estimated 500 western chimpanzees, one of the highest concentrations of the critically endangered primate in West Africa.

On July 19, Australian mining firm Predictive Discovery posted a breathless press release on its website. “Bonanza”-grade gold had been discovered at its Bankan exploration site in a remote part of eastern Guinea. Drilling samples were indicating that the deposits at the site were massive — 3.65 million ounces, the company later estimated, worth more than $6 billion at current market prices.

The find was a vindication of Predictive Discovery’s expansion strategy in West Africa, which in the last few years had included a vast array of new sites dotted across Guinea along with neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. In the weeks following its announcement, the company’s share price nearly doubled, as investors rushed to get in on what looked like one of the biggest gold discoveries in recent West African history.

What Predictive Discovery left out of its jubilant release, though, was that the location of the drilling site, along with its work there, was illegal.

Predictive Discovery’s “Bankan Project,” and the exploration permits that cover it, lie inside the boundaries of Haut Niger National Park. As of 2009, the last year a census was carried out in the park, there were an estimated 500 western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) living in the savannas and woods of its core conservation area, called the Mafou forest. “[T]he HNNP remains one of the sites with the highest abundance of chimpanzees in West Africa,” its authors wrote. The 647,000-hectare (1.6-million-acre) park is also home to hippos, duikers, and a handful of lions.

Savanna woodland in the Haut Niger National Park. Image by Yakoo1986 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Savannah woodland in the Haut Niger National Park. Image by Aboubacarkhoraa via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The gold deposits found by Predictive Discovery are in the park’s buffer zone, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the core conservation area. Article 13 of the decree that established the park, signed by then-President Lansana Conté in 1997, allows some agricultural and other activities to take place in that area. But only the “controlled use of renewable natural resources” is permitted — a narrow description that does not include industrial gold mining.

In an interview with Mongabay, the local director of Guinea’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Forestry, Sangban Kourouma, confirmed that Predictive Discovery has been working inside the boundaries of the park.

“The Ministry of the Environment was not aware of the license that the Ministry of Mines issued to Mamou Resources, so that created a problem between the two [ministries] because of this company,” he said, referring to Predictive Discover’s local subsidiary. “I confirm that [they] are prospecting in the national park. When you take the Bankan road going to Sankaran, all the right side there, from Banfèlè to Faranah, this is the national park, so their activity is illegal.”

A map of the Haut Niger National Park in Guinea, from a chimpanzee census carried out in 2009. The northern border is the Niger River.
A map of Predictive Discovery’s operations inside the Haut Niger National Park, with the blue lines representing the borders of its exploration permits, from an October 2021 press release.

Mamou Resources holds four mining exploration permits in Guinea. Two of those permits fall inside the boundaries of Haut Niger National Park. A reporter on assignment for Mongabay visited a Bankan Project work site to speak with people living in the buffer zone and confirm details of Predictive Discovery’s operations.

“Everywhere they have to go, they have cut down trees to make roads. Wherever they think there is gold, they go there with their machine to shave it all off. We cannot say anything, even if we are against it,” said Sékou Sanoh, deputy chief of Bankan district.

Haut Niger National Park covers a mix of open savanna and forested areas, and is bisected by the Niger River, which runs 4,000 km (2,500 mi) through Mali, Niger and Nigeria. The environmental consequences of industrial gold mining can be severe, as chemicals like cyanide are often used to separate gold deposits from the minerals and rocks they’re found in. Predictive Discovery’s Bankan Project is located just a few kilometers south of the Niger River, raising fears that pollution could be carried downriver if runoff or spills occur.

“If the water is contaminated, it’s going to be a disaster,” said one conservationist with prior knowledge of the park, who requested anonymity. “And not only for local people here, but other countries as well. It’s going to have a huge impact.”

Although Predictive Discovery’s Bankan Project is not located inside either of the park’s core conservation zones, the establishment of an industrial gold mine inside its boundaries would be likely to attract workers and migrants from other parts of Guinea, as new roads and infrastructure are developed around what would be one of the biggest gold mines in West Africa. An influx of new arrivals and mining activity would put pressure on the park’s integrity and increase the prospect of incursions into the core zones, potentially threatening biodiversity there.

Mining equipment at Predictive Discovery's Bankan Project site, October 2021. Image by Abdoulaye Sylla for Mongabay.
Mining equipment at Predictive Discovery’s Bankan Project site, October 2021. Image by Abdoulaye Sylla for Mongabay.

In an email to Mongabay, a spokesperson for Predictive Discovery said its activities were in compliance with Guinea’s Mining Act and that it had the “full support of the Guinean authorities.”

“Predictive Discovery has always been fully committed to abide by the legislative and regulatory framework applicable in all the jurisdictions it operates in and we are extremely conscious of our responsibilities to our host country and its local communities,” said Paul Roberts, the company’s managing director.

Predictive Discovery said it was “nearing completion” of an initial environmental study for its Bankan Project, under the supervision of Guinea’s Ministry of Environment, after which it would carry out a more detailed environmental impact assessment for the next stage of its operations.

Shortly after Mongabay requested comment for this story, Predictive Discovery issued a press release acknowledging that its Bankan Project falls inside the boundaries of the park, saying it was looking for “possible solutions” that would allow it to begin large-scale extraction at the site.

“Absence [sic] any change of decree, Buffer Zone 2 of the Upper Niger National Park is a protected area where the mining of mineral deposits is not permitted. However, there are precedents in Guinea for Mining Permits to be granted within highly environmentally sensitive areas,” it wrote.

In the days following the press release, the company’s share price fell sharply on investor worries about the future of the project.

According to Predictive Discovery’s financial filings, one of its largest shareholders is the U.S.-based investment firm Franklin Templeton, a signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment that, in its own words, “aspire[s] to be a global leader in stewardship and sustainability.”

Franklin Templeton did not respond to a request for comment.

Gold deposits on a quartz rock. The chemicals used to separate gold from rocks in industrial mining operations include cyanide. Image by James St. John via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The director of Guinea’s Office of Parks and Reserves, Mamady Sayba Keïta, told Mongabay that the Guinean government had been discussing Predictive Discovery’s operations internally.

“It should be noted that Mamou Resources is exploring, not exploiting, because any form of exploitation is prohibited in the integral protection zone. We have called a meeting between the Ministries of Mines and the Environment, and with the Mining Development Center to clarify the limits,” he said.

Mining and other extractive projects failing to adhere to environmental regulations is an old story in the region and across the world, with laws set up to protect biodiversity and community rights often brushed aside over handshakes with investors. Predictive Discovery told Mongabay that it had the “full knowledge and support of all relevant Ministries” in Guinea for its operations, despite the 1997 decree setting aside Haut Niger National Park for conservation and limited local use. Its request for a mining permit inside the park will serve as an early litmus test for the priorities of Guinea’s new government, which came to power in a military coup in early September.

Predictive Discovery’s Guinean “bonanza” is also symbolic of the challenges faced by protected areas worldwide. Weak governance, lack of funding, and the political sway of extractive interests mean that those areas are often protected more in name than in practice. On a map, a protected area may be an impressive feat of biodiversity preservation. But on the ground, the results can be much more mixed.

At the COP15 biodiversity summit, policymakers are debating a proposal to put 30% of the planet under some form of area-based conservation, including by expanding the number and reach of protected areas worldwide. But as long as there are officials willing to overlook national laws and park regulations, as is currently the case in Guinea’s Haut Niger National Park, the story may not change even if the numbers do.

Abdoulaye Sylla and Latoya Abulu contributed to this report.

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