We don’t have to choose between modernisation and wildlife

Saturday May 23 2015

Andrea Athanas is a programme design manager

Andrea Athanas is a programme design manager with the African Wildlife Foundation. PHOTO | FILE 


One-quarter of the world’s mammal species, one-fifth of the world’s bird species, and between 40,000 and 60,000 plant species are found in Africa. Of the world’s 34 identified biodiversity hotspots, eight are in Africa.

May 22 was the International Day for Biological Diversity. The day, established by the United Nations, aims to increase awareness and understanding of biodiversity issues, and this year’s theme — Biodiversity for Sustainable Development — draws attention to some of the efforts being made toward the establishment of Sustainable Development Goals as part of the UN’s Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Ensuring that protection of biodiversity is integrated into development initiatives that span a number of sectors has long been on the Agenda, yet progress towards meaningful integration has been slow. This is particularly true in Africa.

Africa supplies approximately 11 per cent and 7 per cent to the global oil and gas sector respectively, and contains 10 per cent of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves.

As the world turns to Africa to supply the fuel and raw materials needed for many industries, from transportation to manufacturing, there will be increased pressure to extract and mine the natural resources that lie below its surface. This need not mean sacrificing the natural resources that lie above its surface though.

Africa’s natural systems sustain its population of more than a billion, and generate a number of benefits for both the nations they are found in and the global community as a whole.

The Congo Basin, for example, is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest and supports the highest level of biodiversity in Africa. It also supports an estimated 40 million people who depend on it for their livelihood.

It is often referred to as the world’s second lung for its role in regulating and stabilising the planet’s climate (the first lung is the Amazon Basin). If, however, its ecological integrity is sacrificed to logging, mining and drilling interests, the repercussions for the region and global community will be considerable. A suitable balance of development and biodiversity protection needs to be sought.

How the underground oil, gas and mineral resources are exploited has significant impact on the above ground ecological systems. Done carelessly and in the wrong places, exploration and extraction can have devastating and lasting effects on biodiversity.

According to an article in the Global Journal of Science, Environment and Earth Sciences, the oil industry in Nigeria, while contributing immensely to the growth and development of the country, has also rendered the Niger Delta one of the five most severely damaged ecosystems in the world.

Studies have shown that the quantity of oil spilled over 50 years of oil extraction comes to between 9 million and 13 million barrels, which is equivalent to 50 Exxon Valdez spills. This has impacted the rich system of mangroves, soils and fisheries in the delta.

In most cases, once an area of high biodiversity is lost, it is near impossible to re-establish and the costs of restoration are often prohibitive. 

But that is not to say that there cannot or should not be any resource extraction in Africa. Africa needs to grow, and oil, gas and mineral resources can provide an engine for that growth. Robust measures and safeguards can be put in place for the planning, management and responsible governance of resource extraction.

This includes conducting a thorough, science-based analysis of an area before the first drill is placed, and identifying those places not suitable for exploitation because the risks are too high, such as Lake Natron in Tanzania, Murchison Falls in Uganda or Mount Nimba on the Guinea-Côte d’Ivoire border.

Building a sustainable future for Africa is paramount, and efforts to conserve not only Africa’s wildlife (a valuable resource in itself) but also the ecosystems on which wildlife and people depend will enhance and sustain the continent’s rapid economic growth. African governments and citizens should not feel they have to choose between modernisation and wildlife.

At African Wildlife Foundation, we see part of our responsibility as a pan-African conservation organisation as articulating a vision of a modern Africa that is friendly to wildlife and friendly to business.

And we are showing what that vision looks like on the ground, from businesses adopting sustainable practices that protect wildlife corridors to partnerships between rural communities and private companies that alleviate poverty, provide employment and protect wildlife.

One of the key ingredients though to developing Africa’s green economies is ensuring that all stakeholders are at the table — government and non-government actors, rural communities, business leaders, industry leaders and conservation groups.

Whether the ecological systems that sustain the people and wildlife of Africa prosper or collapse will depend on how we work together to design and deliver economic systems that respect people and nature. Collaboration and a shared commitment to place people and nature at the centre of development need to be core to the new Sustainable Development Goals.

Andrea Athanas is a programme design manager with the African Wildlife Foundation. Her work has involved advising industry leaders such as Shell, Nestle Nespresso and the International Council on Mining and Metals on how to manage biodiversity risks.