What is the extractive sector doing at a conservation congress?
Mining that transforms a rainforest into a moonscape, habitat into toxic tailing ponds. Oil exploration that leaves rivers polluted. Banks that finance these operations, cashing in while pristine areas bear the cost. For a long time, the private sector was the antagonist of conservation. Environmentalists only knew to confront corporations through protest and opposition.
That story has taken a slight turn, at least evidenced at the World Parks Congress. Businesses were explicitly recognized as an important stakeholder in preserving the integrity of protected areas. Several extractive sector representatives from Rio Tinto, Shell, BHP Biliton and DeBeers, to name a few, were actively engaged in the Congress, and discussions on the intersection of business and biodiversity were well-attended by those working in conservation. Rio Tinto had a strong presence, highlighting their offsets program in Madagascar. Conversations brewed around concepts such as the mitigation hierarchy, net positive impact, no net loss, biodiversity offsets and no-go zones—surprisingly, to me, with little opposition. The rhetoric was clear: the extractive sector has to be involved in conservation, and we are here to figure out how.
I came to the World Parks Congress intrigued by, yet skeptical of, the idea that extractive industries could achieve “no net (biodiversity) loss”, not to mention create a “net positive impact” in their operations. I questioned if these trending concepts can actually work in practice. Beyond that, is it moral or ethical for a company to “pay off” their impact, whether through offsets or other forms of conservation finance, and does it actually solve the problem? I realized that the response at the Congress to this question, and any other market-based solution proposed, was deterministic: Since these industries will never go away, we should do what we can to reduce their impact. If consumption is never going to decrease, we should at least help people consume better by purchasing certified products.
Is it moral or ethical for a company to “pay off” their impact, whether through offsets or other forms of conservation finance, and does it actually solve the problem?
One trend that emerged was the NGO-corporate partnership. Conservation International (CI) boasted of The Alliance, an arrangement with BHP Biliton, a large diversified resources company. While the company will finance the conservation and management of priority areas in the magnitude of millions of dollars, CI will provide technical expertise on their corporate policies and the design of the company’s conservation projects. The conservation NGO landscape is shifting, with several like CI taking risks to their reputations and partnering with traditional “villains” that may present conflicts of interest. Many are skeptical of this shift, but at the same time, it signifies a desire of corporations to integrate conservation into their portfolios. Rio Tinto pays partial salaries of staff from Flora and Fauna International and Birdlife International to provide technical advice on their biodiversity offset policy. Are conservation groups becoming bedfellows with the devil, so to speak, or is it a necessary adaption to shifting conservation realities? After all, having the extractive sector invested in this is the biggest bang for the conservation buck.
Regardless of the debate, companies are proceeding to pilot mechanisms following mitigation hierarchy principles. The mitigation hierarchy provides guidelines for companies, who in the face of causing environmental harm, should first avoid, then minimize, restore, and as a last resort, offset. Biodiversity offsets is just what it sounds like: compensating for the loss of biodiversity by creating measurable conservation outcomes elsewhere. For example, creating a habitat for a bird species in a nearby forest if its habitat is destroyed through a mining project. Understandably, there are many dilemmas around this idea that discussants aptly raised. Here are just a couple of them:
- “Like-for-like or better.” This is the idea that biodiversity in offset sites should be comparable to, or better than, that in impact sites. The science behind determining comparability in biodiversity is, however, so uncertain. Can the concept of a similar “quality hectare” be possible, when biodiversity is unique and biodiversity values site-specific?
- Additionality of offsets. There is fear that offsets will simply displace, rather than augment, funding committed to conservation. This cost-shifting is particularly likely if offsets occur within protected areas that are managed by the government. Perhaps offsets should not be allowed in protected areas unless governments fail to fund them. The benefit of financing protected areas is that an institutional structure already exists. Plus, many suffer from a lack of funding.
With these challenges, is the concept that extractives can contribute to biodiversity a myth? As a participant reflected, “I never talk about no net loss because every development is a loss.” By the end of the Congress, my skepticism had turned into… informed skepticism. I believe corporations can play a role in filling the gap in conservation finance, and the conservation community should support them critically with our technical expertise, as long as our values remain uncompromised. The ideological debate can turn into a case of the best being the enemy of the good. We have to recognize that conservation is hardly the core competency of business, but many do desire positive outcomes. Even if they did for the wrong reasons, we should encourage companies to do the right thing.
(Photo: Yanacocha open-pit gold mine, Peru. From should-know.com)