On Frontier of New ‘Gold Rush,’ Quest for Coveted EV Metals Yields Misery

Photo for The Washington Post by Chloe Sharrock/MYOP
A truck used for transporting bauxite along the mining road that cuts through Guinea’s Boké region, on Sept. 19, 2022.

KAGBANI, Guinea – One of the poorest countries on Earth has become a crucial player in the world’s green-energy transition.

Guinea, a West African nation of more than 13 million people, is home to the world’s biggest reserves of bauxite – a reddish-brown rock that is the main source of aluminum. That lightweight metal, in turn, is essential for electric vehicles because it allows them to travel farther without recharging than if they were made of steel. And over the current decade, when experts expect global sales of EVs to increase almost ninefold, demand for aluminum will jump nearly 40 percent, to 119 million tons annually, industry analysts say.

Guinea is already seeing an unprecedented boom in its bauxite exports, which increased almost fivefold from 2015 to 2020, according to U.S. government statistics, and analysts predict production will continue to increase dramatically over the next decade. The country’s northwestern region of Boké, at the epicenter of the bauxite fervor, has been transformed by a relentless stream of trucks and trains hauling the precious ore along newly built roads and tracks to coastal ports.

But across Boké, thousands of villagers are paying a steep price, according to dozens of interviews with residents of six villages in the region, nonprofit monitoring groups and industry experts. The Guinean government has reported that hundreds of square miles once used for farming have been acquired by mining companies for their operations and associated roads, railways and ports. Villagers have received little or no compensation, rights activists and locals say. In the next two decades, according to a government study, more than 200,000 acres of farmland and 1.1 million acres of natural habitat will be destroyed by bauxite mining – an area almost the size of Delaware.

The breathtaking demand for EVs – which typically require six times the mineral input by weight of their fossil-fuel-burning counterparts just to make them go – is driving a new “gold rush” for an array of metals, including bauxite, nickel, lithium and manganese, needed to build and power them. But while EVs are widely considered essential for global efforts to tackle climate change, the costs and unintended consequences of securing these minerals have often been overlooked. There has been little recognition of the toll this mining is taking, and could increasingly take, on local communities, workers, the environment and even political stability, because much of the activity is occurring in remote corners of the world, from fishing villages in West Africa to far-flung islands in Southeast Asia.

Without a full accounting, the green-energy transition risks repeating the cruel history of previous industrial revolutions.

When a Chinese mining firm first arrived in 2016 in this Guinean village near the Atlantic coast, company representatives and government officials offered residents jobs and cash in exchange for hundreds of acres of their farmland, villager Mohamed Sylla recalled. The residents felt compelled to accept.

Soon after, dynamite blasting to forge a road for the bauxite mine shattered the concrete walls of Sylla’s house, sending his wife fleeing for safety and forcing his family to move. Over the years that followed, he said, he watched as thick layers of dust from trucks hauling bauxite destroyed villagers’ harvests of eggplant, corn and cashews and as barges transporting the ore abroad chased away once-plentiful fish.

In interviews, women in northwestern Guinea said they now despair over paltry harvests, and fishermen, like 30-year-old Sylla, said they draw in hauls so small they can barely make a living. Villagers said the jobs they were promised by the Société Minière de Boké – a consortium including a subsidiary of the world’s largest aluminum producer, China Hongqiao Group – never materialized. The cash payments have proved to be deeply disappointing.

“I am frustrated,” said Sylla, his eyebrows arched above his dark sunglasses as his voice alternated between agitation and quiet resignation. “But even more than that, I have lost hope.”

Runoff from the mine road rendered water in many of the rivers and streams undrinkable, Sylla and other villagers recounted. Then, last year, the water pump the mining company had built for the villagers broke. Kagbani was out of water.

Sylla said it wasn’t hard to rally the locals in response. The villagers headed to SMB’s train tracks – which the company added in 2021 as an additional means of transporting the ore – locked their arms and refused to move.

After two days of protest – one of many demonstrations across the region in recent years – the company delivered a new water pump, Sylla said. Villagers left the tracks, but Sylla said the paltry water supply was little consolation for what they had lost.

On the red-dirt road connecting the coastal port to the mines in Boké’s interior, a massive yellow truck appeared on a Sunday morning, cutting through the silence, its horn honking. Ten seconds later, another truck appeared. Then another, and another, and another.

Even after a night of heavy rain, SMB’s trucks kicked up clouds of dust that coated the nearby palm, cashew and mango trees. The trucks had already made their first bauxite delivery of the day to the port and were returning to the strip mines for more. It wasn’t even 9 a.m.

Under then-President Alpha Condé, Guinea’s government gave a permit to SMB in 2015. Around the same time, Indonesia and Malaysia were restricting their own bauxite exports because of concerns over, respectively, foreign exploitation of resources and environmental degradation. SMB shipped its first ton of bauxite from Guinea within six months, even before the Environment Ministry had concluded its impact assessments, rights activists said.

SMB quickly overtook the Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée – a 50-year-old multinational jointly owned by the Guinean government and private companies, including the American firm Alcoa and the Anglo-Australian firm Rio Tinto – to become Guinea’s biggest bauxite producer. In the span of just five years, production increased so rapidly that Guinea jumped from a 6 percent share of the world’s bauxite market to 22 percent.

During that time, the EV revolution was taking off, driven by unparalleled demand in China, where 1.8 million of the vehicles were sold in 2020, requiring nearly 900 million pounds of aluminum, according to CRU, a business consulting firm that analyzes the mining and metals industries. By 2030, when CRU estimates that China will sell as many as 18.5 million EVs, it will need a staggering 8.8 billion pounds of aluminum.

Though smaller, the U.S. market for EVs is also gaining pace, projected to grow more than fivefold between 2020 and 2028. The aluminum supply chain for American automakers, including Ford, General Motors and Tesla, includes bauxite mined by both of the major producers in Guinea, according to a 2021 report by Human Rights Watch and Inclusive Development International, a U.S.-based advocacy group that aims to defend communities threatened by corporate development.

Ibrahima Diallo, a former government official, said the rapid expansion of Guinea’s bauxite industry is in many ways a success story. He said it has created thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual tax revenue. But he said the government was ill-prepared for the tremendous interest in the country’s minerals, and it lacked the means to protect the environment or funnel the revenue to areas most affected by the boom.

“We could not imagine, even us mining experts, that it was possible,” said Diallo, now an instructor finishing his doctorate in mining. “It was a huge explosion. . . . And no one was ready.”

Aboubacar Dembo Diaby, a leader in the village of Dapilon, was perplexed when he spotted a team of Chinese workers trekking through its peanut and potato fields. They had arrived with no warning, he recalled, and were digging holes with strange equipment on that spring morning in 2016, taking samples of the blood-red soil.

“What,” he asked, “are you doing here?”

The men didn’t speak French or Susu, the local language, and Diaby didn’t speak Chinese or English. But soon after, he said, a team of officials from SMB and the local government arrived in his palm-shaded village to explain. The company needed vast swaths of land near Dapilon, which was to become the site of SMB’s main port. In exchange, Diaby said, the company offered villagers a one-time payment ranging from $200 to $450.

N’Näissata Dansoko, a widow and mother of seven, said she was initially optimistic as she listened to company representatives talk about bringing electricity, a hospital and job-training programs to the village. Dansoko, who cannot read, recounted signing the paper giving up her most fertile fields.

When she opened the envelope with the cash, she felt her heart might explode. The wad of bills was a fraction of what she had expected based on the land’s value – and a fraction of what she projected she would need to make up for the years of losses that would follow. “Nothing,” said Dansoko, her almond-shaped eyes flashing as she shook her little red-leopard-print purse. “They gave us nothing.”

Across the six villages – four near SMB’s mining operations and two near CBG’s – residents repeated versions of Dansoko’s story, describing one-time payments that did little to make up for lost earnings on generations-old farmland.

Both companies took advantage of Guinea’s weak property laws, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, which found that the firms largely ignored the villagers’ historical ties to the land. In its 2021 report, the group said the companies took it upon themselves, with little public input, “to arbitrarily determine if and how they compensate families for their land.”

Since the 1980s, 17 villages in the Sangarédi area, about 40 miles east of Boké, have lost roughly 7,500 acres of crop and grazing land to CBG’s mining operations, according to mapping done by local communities and satellite imagery gathered by Guinean environmental groups and Inclusive Development International.

Three nonprofit groups, including IDI, brought a complaint in 2019 on behalf of 13 Guinean villages, alleging that CBG had violated their rights and failed to provide adequate compensation. The complaint was brought against the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank that provided CBG a $200 million loan in 2016 for its expansion; the case is now in mediation. CBG agreed in 2021 to stop dynamite blasting within 1,000 meters of villages and to change the type of blasting to lessen its impact. The mediation process has now turned to villagers’ concerns about water access and quality.

CBG did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The amount of property acquired by SMB in Boké has not been fully tallied by community and rights groups. But in Dapilon alone, satellite imagery collected by Human Rights Watch shows that the company has taken over nearly 500 acres since 2016.

SMB General Manager Fréderic Bouzigues said in a statement that the company ensured “that the customary land rights of individuals and communities are recognized,” working through consultants to acquire land and regularly updating the price paid for it based on market surveys of the Boké region.

Bouzigues said the consortium has created more than 10,000 jobs since 2014 and is finalizing the construction of a practical training center that will funnel graduates to internships. He added that the consortium has also supported the area’s fishermen by donating “over 10 motorized fishing boats to the fishing communities and provided vocational training and licensing for fishermen to fish out of the river channel to the high sea.”

Dansoko now rents farmland from a neighboring village, but she said that the property is less fertile than what she sold to SMB and that the dust from passing trucks has made it impossible to grow a dry-season crop at all. Pressing her hands to her temples as she tried to calculate her losses, Dansoko said her earnings are about a tenth of what they once were.

She and Diaby said they did not realize the value of the bauxite under their country’s soil until the foreigners started taking it away.

“What causes others joy elsewhere,” Diaby said, “is what is causing us to suffer.”

About 70 miles northeast of Dapilon, the reddish-orange Fassalywol River snakes past the village of Fassaly Foutabhè. Local women say they used to spend many pleasant hours on the river’s banks, chatting as they fished and prepared meals from the eggplant, tomatoes and peppers they grew. But they said that since CBG expanded its operations, including opening a bauxite storage site upriver in 2018, sediment has rendered the water uninhabitable for most fish and undrinkable for humans.

Rivers and streams across this region have been affected by mining, with the clearing of vegetation for mines and associated operations causing soil erosion, filling once-clear waters with sediment.

In Fassaly Foutabhè, CBG constructed several boreholes to supply water. But the basins for storing water are murky and filled with insects. Villagers said they now rely mostly on rainwater, which is virtually nonexistent during the dry season.

Aminata Bah, a grandmother of 11 who used to collect drinking water for her family from the Fassalywol, said she believes more villagers are falling sick because of the lack of clean water. “Without water,” Bah said, “there is no life.”

The mining operations have also taken a toll on the Rio Nuñez, a narrow channel that snakes along the banks of Boké’s villages and becomes wider as it nears the Atlantic Ocean. Fishermen in pirogue canoes said waters that used to yield massive hauls are now nearly devoid of fish.

On a recent cloudy afternoon, Aboubacar Camara, a slight man with a wide smile and a Boss hat, steered his pirogue past SMB’s port, passing the towering fueling station for the barges and the hulking machinery used to load them with bauxite – multiple barges a day, each laden with about 8,000 tons. He navigated among these vessels and the speedboats of the SMB security patrol. He steeled himself for their wakes, which precariously rocked his pirogue.

Camara said he used to catch up to 100 pounds of fish a day. But the massive, relentless barges, he said, have disrupted the once-rich fishing grounds, and the hulls of the passing speedboats routinely slash the large nets that fishermen tie to buoys. His daily catch, he said, is now closer to 10 pounds.

Pulling his pirogue up to one of the buoys, marked by a white tassel flag, Camara began to pull in a net. The sound of lapping waves and the call of seagulls mixed with a steady whirring of the port’s machinery as rain began to fall.

He looked at the fish caught in the net – no more than two dozen – and shook his head. “Petit, petit, petit,” he said.

As the rain turned from a trickle to a downpour, he steered his pirogue to the next buoy, hoping for something better.

Strip mining for bauxite is inherently disruptive. Industry experts acknowledge that loss of land, disturbance of wildlife habitats, and noise and dust are inevitable. They agree that mitigating the damage requires effective regulation, community involvement and aggressive oversight. So far, all have been sorely lacking in Guinea.

The Natural Resource Governance Institute, a New York-based organization that advocates for sustainable and inclusive development, gave the Guinean government a “poor” rating for control of corruption in 2021 and a “failing” rating on rule of law. Mamadou Oury Bah, an activist with Action Mines Guinée, said effective oversight was impossible under Condé’s government because of pervasive corruption.

After Condé was ousted by Col. Mamady Doumbouya in 2021, the young leader of the country’s special forces signaled his willingness to get tough on foreign mining companies. But decisions by Doumbouya’s government, including a freeze on mining revenue that had been shared with local communities, have prompted critics to doubt the prospects for real improvement.

The bauxite mined in Guinea is shipped abroad for refining into alumina, which is in turn smelted into aluminum. SMB sends its ore to China Hongqiao Group, the world’s largest aluminum producer, while CBG ships its bauxite to refineries in the United States, Canada and Europe, according to IDI.

The world’s major car companies, which purchase the refined metal, do not map their aluminum supply chains back to the mine level and as a result do not adequately police them for abuses, according to the report from Human Rights Watch and IDI. The groups called bauxite “a blind spot” for car manufacturers. Several automakers responded to the groups’ findings, citing the complexity of supply chains as an obstacle to identifying the source of their aluminum.

Ford and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment for this article. General Motors declined to address specific concerns over bauxite mining but provided its general guidelines for human rights and corporate responsibility.

IDI noted that some automakers have raised concerns, for instance when 11 American, European and Japanese companies wrote in 2021 to the Aluminum Association trade group, expressing their “concern about the situation in Guinea” and endorsing the mediation efforts between CBG and the villages. IDI called this a positive step but added that car companies should be doing their own regular supply-chain audits.

On the ground, villagers say accountability is hard to come by.

In the shadow of one of SMB’s mines, where villagers say that dynamite blasting is so loud they can’t sleep and that protests have been met with arrests, Diallo Thierno Mamoudou said he feels betrayed by the mining company he once dreamed of working for. Three years ago, his 20-year-old brother, while farming, was struck in the head during a rockfall caused by dynamiting, Mamoudou recounted. When Mamoudou found him, his brother was covered in blood, unable to speak.

At an SMB-run clinic in their village of Barkéré, a Chinese doctor gave his brother penicillin and sent him on his way, Mamoudou recalled. The young man’s face still swells up at times, and he sometimes loses his vision and his balance. Mamoudou said the family’s repeated efforts to get further medical care or even an apology from SMB have been ignored.

“I don’t want to try to work with them anymore,” said Mamadou, sitting in a cement house filled with cracks from the dynamite blasts. “I just want them to leave.”

As the global demand for electric cars begins to outpace the demand for gas-powered cars, Washington Post reporters set out to investigate the unintended consequences of a global EV boom. This series explores the impact of securing the minerals needed to build and power electric vehicles on local communities, workers and the environment.