- Rising demand for energy, especially from renewable sources, looks set to increase pressure on the world’s forests, as many of minerals used in solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage are mined in sensitive forest areas.
- A World Bank concept called “forest-smart mining” claims to mitigate the negative impacts of mining on forests, but given the complex nature of the extractive industries, its real-life applicability has come into question.
- While poor governance is often the biggest challenge to efficient forest management, experts emphasize that only a radical reflection of human energy consumption can bring real change.
Mining and deforestation go hand in hand, with impacts that include displacement of species and pollution of water sources. A 2012 study attributed only 7% of global forest loss to mining, and the vast majority, nearly 73%, to subsistence farming and industrial agriculture such as cultivation of oil palms and soybeans, and cattle ranching.
But this could soon change as the world’s population grows and demand for energy continues to increase.
The shift toward low-carbon power generation in the form of solar panels and wind turbines, will require an extensive amount of minerals. An average 3-megawatt wind turbine powering around 1,500 households needs 4 to 7 tons of copper and 3 tons of aluminum, derived from bauxite. These resources, as well as other minerals like zinc, nickel and cobalt, essential in battery storage technology, are mostly found in tropical and subtropical forests. This raises questions of whether, and how, their extraction can be compatible with forest conservation.
A recent research paper published by the U.K. policy think tank Chatham House analyzed the impacts of the extractive industries on forests and looked into the potentials of “forest-smart mining,” an approach developed by the World Bank to mitigate the adverse effects of mining on sensitive ecosystems.
“Up to one-third of the world’s forests may already be affected by mining with regions such as the Amazon, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia at particular risk,” writes Siân Bradley, who authored the report. “While mining is not always a primary direct driver of deforestation and forest degradation, its indirect and cumulative forest impacts can be significant.”
However, one of the report’s conclusions is that the correlation between mining activities and their side effects, such as the impacts that come with the development of infrastructure or the influx of workers, remains “a blind spot.”
Last year, the World Bank launched a campaign claiming to mitigate these impacts by making mining “forest-smart.” The concept recognizes the growing pressure on forests due to land use changes. In response to questions from Mongabay, Christopher Sheldon, the World Bank’s practice manager with the Energy and Extractives Global Practice, said forest-smart means “that the integrity of forested land for these other uses should not be unduly compromised.”
In theory, this happens through policy commitments, strategic and cumulative impact assessments, the definition of strict no-go areas, as well as the use of other mitigation tools like biodiversity offsets.
What this means in reality is still unclear, especially in regions like the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical forest in the world, which has vast mineral reserves but weak governance.
“This new concept sounds like an excuse to go for mining no matter where,” said Samuel Nguiffo, a lawyer and founder of the Center for Environment and Development in Cameroon. Nguiffo has been monitoring developments in the forests of the Congo Basin, which straddles Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.
Nguiffo told Mongabay that the World Bank’s approach is reminiscent of the promises made when the logging industry was seen as the new way forward for Central African governments.
“We have been saying for a long time that logging can happen without harming the forest — and it proved to be not true. It also didn’t develop the economies,” he said. For mining, he said he expects the same outcomes.
One problem is the lack of effective administration.
“Many Central African governments don’t really have experience in mining, they have been looking for fast investments with the result that licenses are given out very fast,” Nguiffo said. This has prompted a worrying trend, where exploration concessions are granted to junior mining companies that dig up forests without having the finances to ultimately exploit the mineral reserves, he said. “The result is that large areas of forests are opened up, and then left idling. Once we realize that it was a scam, the forest is gone.”
Mining as a major driver of deforestation
Over the past 10 years, the Center for Environment and Development, based in Yaoundé, has observed a growing number of exploration permits given out to companies to search for mineral deposits, as well as oil and gas fields in the region.
These observations are confirmed by data visualized by the Global Forest Watch Forest Atlas, which monitors tree cover loss around the globe and shows a striking amount of mining concessions overlapping with intact forest landscapes throughout the Congo Basin. The region is home to the largest tract of rainforest on Earth after the Amazon, and the single largest peatland area in the world.
Even though levels of deforestation and forest degradation in the Congo Basin have not reached those of the Amazon or the tropical forests of South East Asia, there are alarming trends. In the DRC, primary forest loss in 2018 was 38% higher than between 2011 and 2017; CO2 emissions from tropical tree cover loss more than doubled between 2014 and 2019.
In Central Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have mainly been traced back to population growth, subsistence agriculture, and harvesting of firewood.
“But given the size of mining permits allocated on forest areas, the potential for mining to become a major driver for deforestation in the future is very high,” Nguiffo said. “If the price of some of the minerals increases on the world markets it can explode very easily.”
The World Bank expects that global demand for minerals like cobalt and graphite is going to increase by up to 500% in the next 30 years. As the Congo Basin is home to the world’s largest reserves of some of these minerals, as well as significant gold reserves, there is no doubt that the number of investments is going to increase, especially from Chinese companies.
The threat of growing deforestation is imminent, especially due to the location of these natural resources within sensitive forest areas. According to the World Bank’s Sheldon, “their exploitation requires the development of auxiliary infrastructures such as roads and railways that multiply and facilitate direct access to forests.”
In other words, if not managed well, the extractive industries will keep encroaching on the almost 200 million hectares (500 million acres) of natural forests in the Congo Basin, and it will be the indirect and cumulative impacts that will pose the biggest threats.
The trend has already started. A fifth of the Congo Basin’s tree cover constitutes intact forest landscape, as defined in the Intact Forest Landscapes map, developed by the University of Maryland, the World Resources Institute, Greenpeace and Transparent World. But a study by WWF found that 16% of these IFLs overlap with 998 mining claims, and 26% with 27 oil and gas concessions.
For many, the key to preventing this potential loss of forest is good governance. But often, forest preservation laws and policies only exist on paper. The DRC, for instance, implemented a new Forest Code in 2002 and has a strictly defined moratorium on the allocation of new forest concessions. But that hasn’t stopped forest areas from being farmed out for exploitation.
“Ministers have been granting new concessions in violation of the moratorium with all impunity,” said Augustin Mpoyi, a Kinshasa-based environmental lawyer and chair of the Council for the Defense of the Environment through Legality and Traceability (CODELT). The organization consults with and offers legal advice to communities affected by extractive projects.
Mpoyi told Mongabay that 58% of the DRC’s surface is covered with forest, about a tenth of which is legally protected. “The rest, even though included in the Forest Code, can be opened for any kind of industrial activity,” he said.
“We have very clear regulations about what a company needs to provide to mine in the forests, but we also have very high levels of corruption,” Mpoyi added. One of the hampering factors is that civil society organizations like his regular face threats and financial reprisals due to their opposition to investments, he said.
This goes back to the DRC still being “in the process of creating a state,” Mpoyi said, which hinders effective forest management. “If ever forest-smart mining can work it needs a state that applies the law.” Right now, he said, he doesn’t see any mechanisms in place that would facilitate strategic land use planning.
Sustainable extractive industries ‘an illusion’
The World Bank has acknowledged that, to date, no company, mine or country has managed to be 100% forest-smart. When asked about examples of where forest-smart mining is working, the World Bank’s Sheldon indicated that no concrete results have been recorded. “Companies are starting to explore ways to better integrate forest conservation into their operations but that there is still a long way to go and that we hope the FSM work will provide some guidance.”
Jutta Kill, from the World Rainforest Movement, called the World Bank’s campaign an act of greenwashing. She cited the example of biodiversity offsets like the one that mining giant Rio Tinto applied in Madagascar to illustrate that “the idea that the extractive industries can be sustainable or forest-smart is an illusion.”
In Rio Tinto’s case, the company destroyed a forest to make way for an ilmenite mine. To meet the requirements to compensate for net forest loss, it replanted another forest elsewhere. “But a forest is a system that has developed over hundreds of years, it cannot be created somewhere else. And what do the people do who live from the forest?” Kill told Mongabay.
Biodiversity offsets are controversial and considered the “last resort” in the mitigation hierarchy after attempts to avoid or minimize impacts have failed and the landscape cannot be restored. However, they remain a widely used tool by companies to legitimize local deforestation.
“We are seeing continued high rates of forest degradation and deforestation,” Alison Hoare, a senior research fellow in the energy, environment and resources program at Chatham House, told Mongabay. “So clearly, approaches currently taken by different stakeholders are not enough.”
With or without forest-smart mining, it will take radical change to truly counteract the alarming global trend of forest loss due to economic activities, Hoare said. “There needs to be a shift in approaches to development so that it’s not a model that is based on economic growth and increasing consumption but accepts that we have limited resources,” she said.
It’s a view shared by those in the middle of the struggle to preserve unique forests, like Samuel Nguiffo.
In light of what the World Bank calls “a mineral-intensive future,” the Cameroonian lawyer said there are important choices to be made: “We need to decide what we want to do with our forests: If we continue to pretend that all industrial activities can be done without harming the forest, it will prove not true and we are going to see a disaster.”
Banner image: A Grauer’s Gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late 2016. There are fewer than 4,000 of the gorilla subspecies left. Photo by Thomas Nicolon.