When Robert Frost memorialised forests as “lovely, dark and deep,” the US poet was likely referring to wildlands that are rare, isolated wonders in today’s world.
Looking at data from across the tropics, a new report shows that 975,000 square kilometres (376,500 square miles) of virgin forests, an area about the size of Egypt, are threatened by mining and oil and gas extraction. That’s a fifth of the world’s intact tropical woodland, which conservationists are straining to preserve.
Between 2000 and 2013, Earth lost 7 per cent (919,000 km2, or 355,000 mi2) of intact green cover, which translates into 200 km2 (77 mi2) of forests destroyed every day. Most of these are irreplaceable old-growth forests that have filled out over centuries if not millennia, free from human interference.
In Central Africa, more than a quarter of intact forestland lies within concessions, most of it in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is seeing a surge in extractive activity.
Mining and oil and gas exploration are deeply disruptive operations. When these projects take hold inside wooded terrain, the impacts go beyond the extraction site, mutilating entire landscapes. Roadways, pipelines and railway lines pry open cloistered habitats. The networks don’t just gobble up forest patches, they tear through the forest landscape, increasing its vulnerability to human exploitation.
Often this leads to further fragmentation as existing pressure from human settlements, agricultural expansion and logging intensifies.
Intact forests are exceptional shelters for terrestrial wildlife, providing a breadth and richness of resources absent in degraded lands. They are also superb at storing carbon. Even though only 20 per cent of tropical forests remain undisturbed today, they stash away 40 per cent of the carbon sequestered by tropical forests.
Flourishing forests don’t preclude humans entirely. In fact, more than a third of the intact forested area is home to marginalised Indigenous peoples who leave a lighter footprint and have proven to be trusted guardians of their lands.
The recent analysis covered three regions — South America, Asia Pacific and Central Africa — which host about 5.2 million km2 (2 million mi2) of intact tropical forests. Three-quarters of it lies in South America, about 16 per cent in Central Africa, and the rest in the Asia-Pacific region.
The new paper found that mining concessions overlapped with 11 per cent of the intact forest cover, while for oil and gas concessions the figure stands at 8 per cent. The overlap as a percentage of the forested area was the greatest in Central Africa. In terms of the actual area, South America had the highest overlap, largely because of mining projects in Brazil.
Though mining within forested areas is pervasive in top mineral-producing nations like China, Russia and the US, a 2019 World Bank report noted that it is of greatest concern in countries like Brazil, the DRC and Zambia. These countries have high forest cover, mining activity is concentrated in forest areas, and there is heavy dependence on mining revenues.
Careful planning of extractive projects by both governments and the private sector could lead to the successful implementation of the mitigation hierarchy.
The Emerging Threat of Extractives Sector to Intact Forest Landscapes
Mining leases include 589,000 km2 (227,000 mi2) of intact forests globally, with Brazil and the DRC seeing the largest chunks of their forests menaced by mineral extraction. Nearly 6,500 mining contracts awarded in Brazil threaten 370,000 km2 (143,000 mi2) of pristine forests.
These concessions tend to be concentrated in some regions; one such cluster lies smack in the middle of Central Africa, menacing the vibrant jungles of the Congo Basin. It is one of Earth’s last remaining great forests, the second-largest stretch after the Amazon.
The DRC is a hotbed not just for mining but also for oil and gas exploration projects, with the largest tranche of its forests falling within oil and gas concessions. Papua New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean has also allowed oil and gas concessions to cover 73,000 km2 (28,000 mi2) of intact forest land. In South America, these leases are concentrated in the region’s west and central Amazon.
Most of the projects considered in the study area are in the exploratory phases, so, the study authors argue, the window to implement mitigation measures is still open. “Careful planning of extractive projects by both governments and the private sector could lead to the successful implementation of the mitigation hierarchy,” they write, referring to a framework by which mitigation actions are prioritised for industries with a significant environmental footprint.
However, a lack of transparency has hindered efforts to hold extractives-based companies in the public and private sectors responsible.
A study conducted to promote the World Bank’s controversial forest-smart mining approach found that most of the world’s mining giants operate in forest areas. Taking into account parent ownership, the analysis found that Brazilian multinational Vale, the world’s largest iron ore producer, has the “highest proportion of forest mines,” making up more than 90 per cent of its portfolio.
Russia’s United Company RUSAL, US-based Alcoa, Canada’s First Quantum Minerals, and Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal all figured on the list with the highest proportion of forest mines in their portfolios at that time.
Though only a few mines operate within areas of conservation importance, about 77 per cent of those considered in the assessment were located within 50 km (30 mi) of a protected area, and 52 per cent were situated within a 50-km radius of a Key Biodiversity Area.
The World Bank study was limited in scope because comprehensive data about mining and oil and gas concessions are difficult to find. The new study published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change did not include mining data from China, India, Malaysia and a dozen other countries. Information about Singapore’s oil and gas concessions was also missing.
The study was undertaken by researchers from WWF and WCS and funded by Swedish furniture giant IKEA, which in recent years has come under fire from environmental watchdogs for alleged sourcing of unsustainably harvested timber. The study authors did not publish raw data on concessions used in their analysis, citing “contractual obligations to data custodians.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.
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