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Alive and well – for now: Visiting Namibia’s uranium and biodiversity-rich desert

Posted on: 14.07.11 (Last edited) 16 December 2016

Fauna & Flora International’s Rio Tinto Partnership Manager David Wright recalls his recent trip to help Namibia find the balance between conservation and mining.

Three months after Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) last Business & Biodiversity team visit, we returned to Namibia to help start the vital process of assessing land use and biodiversity in the uranium-rich Erongo Province in the Central Namib.

The ancient and usually intensely arid Central Namib supports a unique biodiversity which, following the heaviest rains for three generations, is more alive today than it has been for almost 100 years. The effect these heavy rains have had on the landscape is palpable.

As Erin Parham (FFI’s resident Geographic Information System expert) and I drove from Walvis Bay to the Province’s capital, Swakopmund, dwarfed by the sand dunes towering above the coastline, we were shocked to find our passage across the ephemeral, Kuiseb River thwarted by that most ubiquitous element of river ecosystems – water!

We turned our two-wheel drive Volkswagen around and reluctantly back-tracked some 30 km to join a sealed road which guided us to a bridge, facilitating our safe passage over the torrential river below.

Alive but threatened

These recent heavy rains have brought the desert out of dormancy. Biodiversity is abundant here but this abundance is not without threat. The region’s inimitable geology supports some of the largest deposits of uranium in the world and the government of Namibia has every intention of extracting this valuable resource to help satisfy global demand.

There are currently two significant uranium mines in the region. Together, Rössing Uranium Limited, operated by Rio Tinto, and Langer Heinrich, operated by Palladin, are capable of providing 10% of the worlds uranium output.

Two further mining licenses have been awarded to Forsys Metals Corporation’s Valencia mine and Areva Resources Namibia’s Trekopje mine. The government has issued in excess of 80 exploration licenses.

Finding the balance

Fauna & Flora International is working with the Ministry of Mining and Environment to minimise the impacts of the country’s burgeoning uranium mining industry. We are building on the government’s 2009 Strategic Environmental Assessment of Uranium Mining in the Central Namib by helping to fill fundamental data gaps critical to the region’s sustainable development.

Our Business & Biodiversity team, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, has now assembled a group of national and international experts to undertake a landscape-level, land use and biodiversity assessment. This trip saw the whole team convene in Swakopmund to hold the initiative’s inception workshop.

The landscape-scale approach looks at sustainable management of a mosaic of land uses, where people live and work in harmony with nature and within the natural resource limits of the landscape.

Practical tools to protect biodiversity

The outputs of the FFI-led assessment will help decision makers understand the inherent and monetary value of natural resources and to make better informed decisions about development in the Central Namib. The tools produced by the experts should help to balance short-term economic opportunities, such as mining, with longer-term activities such as ecotourism, whilst still maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

A critical goal is to promote the creation of corridors of continuous natural habitat across the landscape. These corridors include formally protected areas as well as valuable biodiversity on privately or communally owned land, protected through conservation stewardship agreements and conservancies.

Offsetting – a new concept with huge potential

Biodiversity offsets – land managed for biodiversity and ecosystem services to offset the residual impacts of development – play a vital role. Fortunately, the mining companies in the area welcome this concept.

Rössing Uranium Ltd is committed, under its corporate mandate of Rio Tinto, to achieve a net positive impact on biodiversity. This cannot be achieved through biodiversity offsets alone but may be accomplished by considering the impacts throughout the entire mine life – from exploration through to closure and into perpetuity.

It is critical that the mitigation hierarchy is applied, where impacts to biodiversity are avoided, minimised, rehabilitated, and, finally, for residual impacts, offset.

Harnessing the power of GIS

A fundamental output of this project will be a Geographic Information System (GIS) database that will be owned, hosted, accessed and updated by the Government of the Republic of Namibia. It will be made available for use by other key stakeholders to facilitate the sustainable management of land uses at a landscape level and the planning for future sustainability.

GIS will support biodiversity monitoring, risk assessment, resources management and conservation by joining an active network of organisations and experts in partnership with government decision makers, NGOs and private companies.

Most importantly, the project will ensure that both the GIS database and the augmented capacity of Namibian GIS, scientific research and monitoring skills, form part of this project’s outcomes.

Read about Fauna & Flora International’s partnership with Rio Tinto.

Learn more about Fauna & Flora International’s Business & Biodiversity Programme.

UPDATE:

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Rio Tinto worked successfully in partnership for 13 years from 2003 to 2016. The purpose of our collaboration was to integrate best practice management of biodiversity into Rio Tinto’s decision-making processes. For well over a decade, this work continually pushed the boundaries of mining best practice through pioneering initiatives for maintaining biodiversity values in their areas of operation.

FFI’s long-term partnership with Rio Tinto ended in 2016, when it became apparent that achieving a Net Positive Impact (NPI) on biodiversity was no longer a priority for the company. Since FFI fervently believes that NPI (colloquially no net loss or net gain) is an important objective towards which our corporate partners should strive, the decision was made to focus our efforts on working with new and existing partners who are demonstrably committed to achieving this goal.

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David Wright

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