Banks face new ESG hurdle after Liberian mining pollution complaint

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Tuesday, 10 August 2021 13:14

A "resettlement town" at New Kinjor for people displaced by the New Liberty gold mine in Liberia. Photo supplied by IDI.

An NGO-backed complaint over pollution from gold mining in Liberia may lead to Western development finance institutions (DFIs) holding partner commercial banks responsible for the environmental, social and governance (ESG) impacts of their loans.

Canadian gold miner Avesoro may be drawn into a formal mediation process with victims of pollution from Liberia’s largest commercial gold mine as a result of a complaint filed against three European DFIs by US-based NGO Inclusive Development International (IDI). The DFIs have now accepted the complaint for review by their independent complaints mechanisms.

In March 2016, the New Liberty gold mine in north-west Liberia spilled cyanide and arsenic into a river that people rely on for fishing and drinking water. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation withdrew its investment after the accident. IDI says more than 10,000 people were affected by the spill.

South Africa’s FirstRand Bank is the lead planner of the loans for the mine and provided the majority of the financing.

In February, IDI and partner organisations helped community leaders in five affected Liberian towns to file the complaint against three European development banks – Germany’s DEG, France’s Proparco and FMO of the Netherlands – for their indirect support of the New Liberty project through investments in FirstRand. According to IDI, all three development banks have had a continuous relationship with FirstRand since 2012.

“We are calling on FirstRand, the European development banks and the retail and technology companies that source gold from New Liberty to ensure that Avesoro engages in good-faith mediations with the communities,” IDI executive director David Pred said.

  • Brands such as Apple, Macy’s, IBM and Canon have reported that they sourced gold from Liberia in their most recent conflict minerals reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • The Africa Report has approached FirstRand and Avesoro for comment.

Worse off

IDI argues that development banks are increasingly outsourcing their money to financial intermediaries such as commercial banks, which then make investments that lack sufficient oversight. It says each of the various loans made by the DFIs to FirstRand should have triggered a requirement to apply the DFIs’ ESG standards to high risk sub-projects, including the New Liberty mine.

IDI says most people who live near the mine, farmers and artisanal miners who relied on access to land and natural resources, are worse off than before it opened.  In March 2019, Avesoro, formerly known as Aureus Mining, announced a plan to extend the life of the New Liberty mine to 2029 and perhaps even longer.

  • Communities harmed by a project due to failure to apply the DFIs’ ESG standards should have access to the DFIs’ independent complaints mechanisms, IDI says.
  • The complainant argues that “such access should be available so long as the DFIs continue to have an active financial relationship with the financial intermediary in question and the financial intermediary has an active relationship with the project”.
  • In this case, the DFIs have “leverage over FirstRand to use its influence with its client Avesoro”.

Bottom line

IDI is pressing for a more expansive view of the due diligence needed from Western development finance institutions to include the loans given by their commercial-banking partners.

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