Extractive industries threaten a million square kilometres of tropical forests
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Extractive industries threaten a million square kilometres of tropical forests

ACCORDING to a recent report, mining companies currently have claims on 11 percent of all intact rainforests left in the world, meaning 590,000 square kilometres of pristine tropical forest ecosystems are at risk. That’s an area larger than France.

Oil and gas concessions, meanwhile, cover 8 percent of tropical intact forest landscapes (IFLs). That’s another 408,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of the US state of California.

The report, issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) during the “Intact Forests in the 21st Century” conference hosted by the University of Oxford in the UK last month, defines an IFL as “a large patch of forest, including naturally treeless ecosystems, that has no remotely-sensed signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation, and are large enough to maintain biodiversity, such as wide-ranging species.”

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As of 2016, there were 5.2 million square kilometers, or just over 2 million square miles, of tropical IFLs left in the world. The report finds that, in total, nearly one million square kilometres of those intact tropical forests are potentially threatened by extractive activities like oil and gas development, mining, and logging.

2017 study found that intact forests are declining rapidly around the globe, with more than 7 percent lost between 2000 and 2013 — a rate of loss that is twice as fast as overall global deforestation.

The impacts of IFL loss can ripple out well beyond the local region where the loss occurs, as the WWF and WCS report details: “Intact forests absorb nearly 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from human sources, greatly slowing the pace of climate change. Many indigenous groups live within intact forests and rely on forest resources for their livelihoods and culture.”

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Gold mining deforestation is seen from a satellite image in the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, Peru. This is an undated handout photo provided by Matt Finer, obtained by Reuters June 21, 2018. Source: Reuters

“These forests generate significantly more rain than degraded areas, providing water and reducing drought. Forest loss and degradation compromise the supply of medically beneficial species that millions of people rely on, whilst forest degradation brings people into closer contact with infectious diseases.”

Tom Evans leads the REDD+ and Forest Conservation Program at WCS and helped prepare the report. He told Mongabay that, aside from the direct deforestation with which they are associated, mines and oil and gas developments are also often responsible for polluting watercourses and soils, while timber harvesting can damage the forest structure “to a very severe extent,” especially in poorly managed operations.

Some damage is done even by the logging operations that are managed the best, Evans added. This, in turn, affects carbon storage, biodiversity, and many other ecological functions of the affected forests.

Extractive activities are not currently underway in all of the one million square kilometers of IFLs that WWF and WCS found to be potentially threatened, Evans pointed out. “The figure includes exploration licenses and exploitation licenses.”

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But “Even during the exploration stage many are likely to be subject to impacts, which can be significant in some cases.”

And while not every concessions will make it to the extraction stage, during which extractive activities tend to be concentrated in a small proportion of the total concession block, “the knock-on effects of the access infrastructure tend to be much more extensive,” Evans said

In other words, as damaging as the direct consequences of extractive activities can be, there are ways to limit their impact. But the indirect impacts to IFLs of exploration and exploitation activities are often far more substantial:

“The roads, railways, pipelines and canals associated with extractive industries often have an even more significant impact, over a much wider area and long after the extractive operations have ceased, because they fragment forests (which creates edges vulnerable to all sorts of other degradation) and they open up access to previously remote areas which can trigger an upsurge in agricultural expansion, commercial hunting and further logging,” Evans noted.

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An open pit copper-gold mine on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Source: Rhett Butler / Mongabay

There are a number of recommendations in the report for mitigating the impact of extractive industries on IFLs.

“Boiled down, they include the point that governments and the business community, including finance institutions, need to be aware of the value of these intact landscapes and take all feasible measures to avoid damaging them, or to minimise and mitigate any damage that does occur,” Evans explained.

“We’d also like to see this reflected in the way international policies such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity are put into practice. These steps should lead to much better spatial planning of development at the national level, more care in the issuance of licenses, the use of better practices by the companies themselves, and more effective monitoring and reporting.”

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WWF and WCS are hoping to conduct further research that will allow them to name the specific companies responsible for the threats particular regions are facing, as well as highlight examples of good practices being employed to minimize threats to tropical IFLs from extractive industries.

“All forests have environmental value and it’s important we halt deforestation and promote restoration worldwide,” Evans said.

“However, intact forests are among the jewels in the crown, with a stack of exceptional values including carbon storage, contribution to regulating local and regional climates, protection of imperiled cultures, high biodiversity values and greater resilience to the pressures of climate change.”

This article originally appeared on Mongabay.