Extractive Industries on the Defensive
By Michelle Nel
British Petroleum and Shell International, among other transnationals, pledge to respect protected areas, but conservationists are wary of the big business discourse.
DURBAN, South Africa, (Tierramérica).- Mining and energy executives got caught up in a heated debate against environmental groups at the World Parks Congress held in from Sep. 8 to 17.
Alec Marr, an Australian representative of the Wilderness Society, accused the congress of having become "a dog and pony show for the extractive industries and those NGOs who receive money from them".
The extractive industries workshop was the most controversial during the Congress organized by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which drew more than 2,000 delegates from around the world to discuss ways to link conservation of nature with economic development.
In the days prior to the meet, the oil companies Shell International, British Petroleum (BP) and the International Council on Metals and Mining (ICMM, representing 15 transnational firms), announced their pledge not to explore or exploit any areas listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
"We abide by each government's decisions and have no plans to enter any new protected areas including World Heritage Sites," said Greg Coleman, BP vice president.
But delegates from environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and BirdLife International were skeptical.
"Mining companies have perpetuated the myth that mining alleviated poverty and have also encouraged current patterns of unsustainable consumption," says Christine Milne, an adviser of IUCN.
It is a "cop out" for mining companies to say they obeyed the laws of the countries they were operating in since extractive industries were sometimes guilty of promoting corruption by governments, said Milne.
The convention on the protection of global, cultural and natural heritage, adopted in 1972 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), established a list of natural and cultural sites of exceptional value to all humanity.
The IUCN, official technical advisor to the convention on natural heritage, has worked to establish a diverse set of categories for sites meriting protection.
"We see no contradiction between protecting the environment and energy industries. Relationships are important since we operate on six continents and in 100 countries. We have four operations in IUCN-designated areas," said BP's Coleman.
Adrian Loader, a director of Shell International, said the company had changed over the past 30 years and acknowledged its responsibility to conserve biodiversity.
And Sir Robert Wilson, president of ICMM, said, "Mining plays a crucial role in development," adding that both social and commercial investment required the rule of law, definable property rights, lack of corruption and stability.
But Wilson's remarks were ambiguous when he suggested strengthening the IUCN classifications of protected areas to create more "no-go" areas but also to create more "multiple-use" categories of parks that could incorporate mining.
The environmental, social and cultural effects of resource extraction are unacceptably high in many instances, said Adrian Phillips, senior advisor at the World Heritage IUCN/World Commission on Protected areas (WCPA), which is lobbying for stricter controls on industrial activities.
The Fifth World Parks Congress concluded with the signing of the Durban Accord and a Plan of Action for the coming decade, emphasizing measures that allow the system of protected areas to foment community development.
But some delegates say there is a long way to go before achieving that objective.
"In mineral-rich, poor countries, benefits from mining seldom trickle down to indigenous peoples," said Joji Carino, representative of indigenous communities in the Philippines, where protected areas cover just five percent of national territory, and mining operating 40 percent.
* Michelle Nel is a Tierramérica contributor.