Fauna & Flora International (FFI) works with several companies leading the development of major infrastructure projects, and with the development banks that fund them. Back in 2016, when FFI suggested that one of its corporate partners in Africa should be thinking about its potential impact on illegal wildlife trade when planning a new project, the initial response was exasperation. The list of factors it was being asked to consider seemed to be getting longer by the day and, it insisted, the extractives business has nothing to do with illegal wildlife trade!
We pointed out that the new project was close to populations of endangered primates, extremely close to one of the best-studied bushmeat trade centres in the region, and would potentially be responsible for bringing thousands of new faces into the area. An impact assessment was duly commissioned, which confirmed that hunting, poaching and trade were issues a major infrastructure company needed to factor into its planning.
The development of large-scale infrastructure projects across the globe is one of the hottest topics in both conservation and finance. The arguments in favour of more infrastructure are strong, particularly in developing countries. 2.5 billion people lack access to basic sanitation; 1.3 billion have no electricity. Addressing these needs will require major investment. But the sheer scale of this, with US$70 trillion of new investment expected by 2030, raises concerns that speed is compromising quality.
In Africa, for example, plans to create 53,000 kilometres of development corridors are likely to have major repercussions, particularly for the 2,200 protected areas that stand to be affected. Land clearance, increased access to sensitive habitats, pollution and a concentrated influx of people and money can all have serious environmental and social impacts, and the potential to directly undermine the stated development goals.
Many of the companies responsible for leading these projects, and the development banks that finance them, do have rules and policies in place to minimise these risks. However, at a time when investment and potential impacts are reaching unprecedented levels, these essential safeguards are under increasing threat. Major companies, hit by falling commodity prices, have been accused of quietly backtracking on environmental and social commitments that may reduce profitability, while recent development bank reforms and revisions have been criticised for, at best, putting ease of implementation before effectiveness.