Guinea is home to the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, a type of rock that can be refined into aluminum. With the West African country’s bauxite production poised to grow rapidly, a team from Columbia’s Earth Institute has been collecting information and developing suggestions to help guide Guinea on a sustainable path forward.
The team presented its findings at a workshop in June. In response to the event and its follow-up, Guinea’s six largest bauxite companies have signed a letter of intent to share best practices on limiting environmental impacts and increasing social responsibility.
“It’s a big deal for a country that has struggled with an underfunded enforcement regime and a large amount of social unrest around the mining industry,” says Lynnette Widder, project leader and professor in Columbia’s Master of Science in Sustainability Management (SUMA) program.
Refining the Refinement Process
In Guinea, foreign mining companies have traditionally extracted bauxite using their own workers and their own machinery, giving little back to local communities in terms of employment. Guinea’s president is trying to change that; his idea is that companies who extract bauxite from Guinean soil should also refine the bauxite into alumina and aluminum in Guinea. But, “there are myriad problems attached to that,” says Widder.
That’s why the United Nations Development Programme asked for help from Columbia University. At UNDP’s request, Widder’s team has been working to understand the impacts of Guinea’s bauxite industry, identify best practices, and develop a sustainability guide, especially in regards to climate change emissions. The project was a student-driven independent study that included SUMA students Ellen Griessemer, Dolores De La Cruz and Cecilia Coates, and Micah Cruz from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. In addition, SUMA alum Tom Pacioni helped lead the project as a technical expert and management advisor.
The team found that the foreign companies are relying on coal and petroleum to run their mining machinery. “That’s not so good when what you’re doing is extraction, and it’s devastating with refining,” says Widder. Refining bauxite into aluminum requires a lot of energy, thanks to the high temperatures involved, so relying on fossil fuels to feed the furnaces would be disastrous for Guinea’s carbon footprint.
But the country has a fantastic opportunity to avoid that. Widder and the team learned that Guinea has the largest potential for hydropower in Africa. “In fact, it has potential to be the power source for all of West Africa,” says Widder. Two large companies, Alcoa and Norsk Hydro, are using hydropower to produce aluminum in other parts of the world, and can serve as models for Guinea.
If Guinea can encourage the use of hydropower for its bauxite refineries, the refining process will not only be greener, but the project could electrify the country’s rural areas (where only around six percent of households currently have electricity), and give mining companies a reliable fuel source without having to import coal and petroleum, as they do today.
The team also presented case studies on how bauxite refineries can reduce water usage and reuse some caustic chemicals, which could reduce environmental impacts while saving companies money. The team offered examples of safer waste storage, as well as ideas for supporting biodiversity—such as rewarding local populations for participating in monitoring programs, and reforesting after mines close.
“It was this sort of trifecta that reflects where the industry is, where its power is coming from, and what its impacts are,” says Widder.
A More Transparent and Sustainable Future?
By signing the letter of intent, Guinea’s largest mining companies have committed to sharing and pursuing best practices in sustainable mining, including everything from power supply to social issues, to water protection, transportation and infrastructure.
Widder thinks the letter represents significant progress in an industry that’s traditionally extremely secretive and competitive.
“Whether or not something comes of it, who knows?” she says. “But it seemed like a pretty amazing outcome for a one-semester, student-driven independent study.”