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How the lithium rush in West Africa is harming rural communities

The scramble for ‘green economy’ lithium is bringing strain and uncertainty for rural West Africans

Jack Wolf Alix Smidman Noel Konan
12 May 2023, 2.12pm

Villagers working near the exploration trench created by Firering in Touvre, a small farming community of about 5,000 in Côte d’Ivoire


Kélémassa Diabaté

A tense situation between residents of Touvre, a small farming community of about 5,000 in Côte d’Ivoire, and a company searching for lithium in the area, came to a head last spring.

Villagers took to the streets to protest against the business's activities. They were met with live gun fire from AK-47s and tear gas from the local police. Though no one was shot, three women were taken to hospital, medical reports seen by openDemocracy show.

At the heart of the residents’ discontent, says Coulibaly Ibrahima, Cote d’Ivoire’s director general for mines, was that the licence to search for lithium in the area had switched hands from Ivorians to a foreign company: Firering Strategic Minerals, which is registered in Cyprus and listed on London’s AIM stock exchange. Around the time of the deal, prospecting activities escalated.

Even at the exploration stage, mining activities are dramatically disruptive to other economic activities in the area. Graders were furrowing through their farms. But, the fellow Ivorians who had first approached village elders to sell the idea that mining the area for lithium would improve local lives, were nowhere to be found. “Overnight, the villagers see the presence of other people on the ground. They were used to seeing Black people and one morning they see white people,” Ibrahima told openDemocracy.

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Simmering dissatisfaction with the project and its disruption to farming activities, bubbled into the street protests.

Touvre sits along the Birimian Greenstone belt, a rich geologic formation which extends over 800 kilometres north, from West Africa’s Atlantic shores right through to the semi-arid Sahel. Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Mali all sit prominently along the belt, and tensions similar to those in Touvre are likely to spread to many of their communities in the rush for lithium, a critical mineral for the electric batteries that the developed world is betting on to wean itself from fossil fuels and transition to ‘green economies’ . Advanced exploration projects are already underway across the region.

In Ghana, the most developed project to date is in Ewoyaa, which sits adjacent to the Kakum National Park, 100 kilometres west of Accra. Atlantic Lithium (formerly IronRidge Resources), an Australian AIM-listed company, was granted a licence by the government in 2021 to search for lithium over an area spanning 560 square kilometres that is covered in tropical vegetation, small holdings and tin-roofed villages. openDemocracy spoke to many people in the area. While largely optimistic about future job opportunities from the project, they also complained about destruction to their crops and inadequate compensation from the prospectors. Villagers have seen the trees they rely on for firewood and charcoal being felled at a speed they had not anticipated.

“We are only told they are prospecting but they keep destroying our lands,” one farmer in the village who did not want to be identified told openDemocracy. “They destroy your farm produce and pay you what they want. They can destroy about 19 of your palm trees and pay you a meagre 800 ghc (£54).”

Like in Touvre, graders are furrowing through area farms to prospect for lithium. “As soon as the grader goes through your farm, and if the clearing is done on your farm, that land becomes barren for life,” said Ekow Essel, who makes his living from acacia, palm trees and cassava.

“Eight hundred cedis for multiple trees is inadequate. Even if the cost is right, tree felling should always be accompanied by tree replacement,” said Jonathan Naaba from Tree Aid, a Ghanaian NGO. “Trees mean life, and are highly important for the environment; protecting land, increasing fertility and raising yields. They can also protect farmers’ livelihoods in years when other crops fail,” he added.

A spokesperson for Atlantic Lithium said the company had “worked closely” with the communities and government to make sure those whose crops are affected “are properly and fairly compensated”. “The process has been done in accordance with the Mineral Commission’s requirements and has been fully transparent,” they added.

The shaky promise of future jobs

On a continent with an expanding young population and rapid urbanisation, communities initially welcome mining projects because the companies promise they will create jobs and national governments echo that. “The lithium industry, from mining to production, is estimated to grow to 1.1 trillion US dollars by 2035. This can be a game changer for countries endowed with some of these minerals such as ours,” Ghana’s minister of natural resources told Parliament.

But not everybody is sold. M. Géraud Magrin, a geography professor at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris, said a new rush for yet another highly sought after commodity risks “cementing Africa in its old role as a mineral exporter.” He added: “It will bring very little development to Africa. Profits will stay with firms doing the extracting, and high-value chain economies such as the EU.”

Magrin also argues that the higher mechanisation present in modern industrial mining means there will be comparatively fewer jobs for local economies. Atlantic Lithium predicts the mine will create 300 jobs but, when asked by openDemocracy, wouldn’t say how many of these would be filled by members of the community already living within the licence area.

It doesn’t help that the new mineral rush prominently features old foreign players with a varied business history on the continent. Firering’s CEO, Youval Rasin, has been active in Cote d’Ivoire since 2002 with his main venture being a palm oil company called Dekel Agri-Vision (formerly DekelOil). It has been accused of land grabs and failing to live up to promises it made to villagers in Dibi, which sits on the country’s eastern border with Ghana.

In Dibi, Nana Arsene, a former village chief, set up an NGO, Yethio, specifically to advocate against Rasin’s Dekel. Arsene told openDemocracy that Dekel committed to securing land for the villagers who would be displaced by its palm oil plantations and building a local factory, but reneged on both promises. He also said the management of the plantations, from which the villagers should get a share of the proceeds, is not transparent. “They are the ones who do everything. We have no idea how much tonnage comes out of the plantations. At some point, they come and tell you that you ‘have this amount of money’. We have to rely on the figures they give us,” Arsene said.

Like what happened in Touvre, Arsene says that when the “villagers feel cheated and want to react, the state’s means of coercion are used to guarantee [the company’s] rights.”

When approached for comment Dekel said it had never promised to build a factory or secure land in the name of the village, and that all Diby’s “fruits are collected and transported to the nearby processing facility”. The spokesperson also referred to the process by which the village is awarded proceeds from the sales as “transparent” but provided no further details.

This article was funded by Journalismfund Europe and CiFAR

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