Mining and biodiversity offsets in Madagascar: Conservation or 'Conservation Opportunities?'
Rowan Moore Gerety, special to wildmadagascar.org
August 30, 2009
Google Earth satellite image of the mining area. Image acquired on Sept. 19, 2004.
As befits a project of this scale, Rio Tinto has developed a large, sleekly-designed website to promote the mine and accompanying port, not as beacons of industrial achievement and profitability, as one might expect, but as but as presenting tremendous "conservation opportunities," which, the reader will discern, is not the same as conservation.
While conservation simply involves protecting existing swaths of the natural world from further degradation, creating 'conservation opportunities' requires a lot more groundwork. In order to create conservation opportunities near Fort Dauphin, Rio Tinto will use a floating dredge to pull up deposits of sand to a depth of 20 meters over an area of nearly 6000 hectares of coastal forest and marshes over the next forty years. As a result, they will have the opportunity to put all vegetation aside and "store the topsoil for use in rehabilitation," or "forest restoration"—reseeding the closed mine with key species the company found in the original forest. Extracting titanium dioxide from beneath 6000 hectares of forest and wetlands has also given the company the opportunity to turn 977 hectares of habitat into three widely separated conservation zones, to be exempted from mining in order to "protect several dozen species from extinction." It remains to be seen whether the three conservation zones in question will be large enough to sustain the species that live there.
Rio Tinto ranked at the top of its field in last year's Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In Fort Dauphin, their subsidiary QMM has committed to reforesting large tracts of land around the mine in order to provide a more sustainable source of charcoal and wood for construction. It has partnered with a broad set of NGOs in a program to promote vegetable farming in the region, which in turn will reduce locals' dependence on the existing forests for their sustenance and their income. So it is important not to hurl mud at the company's efforts to mitigate the environmental impact of what is, by and large, an ecologically disastrous industry. QMM may indeed be better than the rest, and there are signs that Rio Tinto's practices are gradually improving. But reading the company's glib accounts of its commitment to biodiversity, something does not compute.
In the way of a growing number of corporations operating large-scale industrial projects in beautiful places, Rio Tinto leans heavily in Fort Dauphin on the social capital afforded by the idea of environmental or biodiversity offsets (BDOs), actions taken elsewhere to counteract the negative ecological impacts of a given project. As a recent article in Mining Magazine put it, "BDOs can contribute to developing a social license to operate." Offsets might also be described as trading "conservation opportunities" (read devastation) at a mining site for genuine conservation efforts in another area.
From Rio Tinto's literature: "The total residual impact is calculated by measuring the area and quality, or condition of habitat, of biodiversity value likely to be lost after the mitigation hierarchy has been followed." In order to establish the likely residual impact of its project, Rio Tinto conducted "extensive baseline research" on-site in the late 1990s in preparation of the environmental impact assessment it submitted to the Malagasy government in 2001. But the company's presence in the affected area began some 15 years earlier, with exploratory drilling and road construction. According to the Mining, Minerals, and Sustainable Developments Project, then, Rio Tinto has acted true to industry form: "Often the EIA is not carried out until after detailed exploration or even development drilling, by which time the site can be covered by a network of roads, making it impossible to establish true baseline data." It was not until 2001 that Rio Tinto formed an "Independent Biodiversity Committee" to evaluate the project's offset and mitigation measures. Before that, environmental research was conducted by a team on the company payroll with obvious incentives to understate the conservation value of the mining area and play up the potential of mitigation efforts.
Thus, we find a map in a joint publication of Rio Tinto and the World Bank which details the relative quality of forest fragments within the mining areas. It shows fragments of "good condition," "partially degraded" and "very degraded" forests with intervening gray areas that one assumes are of negligible conservation value. Yet viewed through the lens of Virah Sawmy's research, it becomes harder to distinguish between "good condition" and "degraded" (patchier) forest, and the intermittent unforested gray areas must be considered as part of the whole.
Evidence drawn from satellite imagery casts further doubt on the analysis of deforestation presented in QMM's EIA. Virah Sawmy cites two studies that argue that QMM's presence in the region has accelerated deforestation—by undermining land tenure rights of local groups, increasing accessibility to forest areas through road construction, and prompting an influx of migrant workers.
If mining companies like Rio Tinto are sincere in their commitment to biodiversity and sustainable development, then efforts to study and analyze the potential impacts of a mining project on the surrounding ecosystems ought to coincide with the earliest stages of exploration. This is the true baseline, and it will give the same depth to research about the ecology of a potential mining site as research into its extractive potential.
Rio Tinto writes in a pamphlet on biodiversity offsets that it believes offsets to be "inappropriate where the operation impact is on completely irreplaceable biodiversity values." That much seems obvious, but if the "biodiversity values" in question are truly "completely irreplaceable," then is it appropriate' to destroy them for a 40 year supply of white paint? Especially, that is, when the product leaves Madagascar at $100 a ton to be sold at the next stage of refinement for twenty times as much. If the mining giants were sincere in their commitment to biodiversity, then surely there would be some instances in which the "biodiversity values" of a place outweigh the value of the minerals it contains.
But if, as I suspect, they are not sincere, then we cannot let them cling to the banners of "sustainability" and "biodiversity" with impunity. You cannot offset ecological damage indefinitely: there is only so much planet to go around. The true tradeoff lies not in biodiversity offsets, as they would have us believe, but in the choice between true conservation and industry, which, whatever its economic potential, seldom offers more than "conservation opportunities."
Rio Tinto did not respond to requests for comment
Rowan Moore Gerety is a writer living in Los Angeles. He was in Madagascar from October-December of 2008. He can be reached at "rowanmg [at] gmail [dot] com"
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