Making tough decisions in Namibia’s uranium region

There is something about the extraordinary Erongo Mountains that induces wonder and creativity.

They are a series of ancient, rocky batholiths forming a mountainous ring of granite on the eastern boundary of Namibia’s uranium province, protruding between the harsh Namib desert and kinder bushveld (scrubby woodland).

I recently visited the Erongo Region of Namibia with other Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Business & Biodiversity extractive team members Helen Nyul, Angela Hawdon, David Wright and Associate Michelle Pfaffenthaler.

Our goal was to explore the region’s unique biodiversity – bursting from the desert in supreme abundance following record-breaking fresh rains – as well as focus on FFI’s approach to working with the mining sector.

Global rush for Namibia’s valuable resource

Namibia is one of the world’s major producers of uranium.  Due to the rise in global consumption of uranium, the country is experiencing a “Uranium Rush” with specific development opportunities pre-empting a preferred strategic approach to landscape-scale planning.

Currently four mining licenses have been awarded, namely Rio Tinto’s Rössing Uranium (operating for the past 30 years), Paladin Energy’s Langer Heinrich Uranium (operating for the past four years), the Forester Group’s Valencia (not progress) and Areva Resources Namibia’s Trekopje (in advanced construction phase).

Operators come from all corners of the globe – from China and Russia, to France, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Over 80 exploration licenses have been granted.

Threats to an ancient ecosystem

However, unchecked mining could put fragile environments at risk. Socio-economic impacts are forecast to be significant.  Many of the mining concessions lie within 100-year old Namib Naukluft National Park, which is recognised by BirdLife International as a globally Important Bird Area.

The Central Namib also hosts a significant number of endemic and globally threatened species from a range of taxa: plant, invertebrate, reptile and mammal.

Both the Welwitschia Plains and the Brandberg National Monument (potential World Heritage sites) fall within the area under exploration and may be threatened by the development of uranium mines.

Reconciling vision and reality

While gazing out at the mines, the team and I contemplated sustainable development and the dilemma we have as conservation scientists when high impact development clashes with our core values. This is raw and obvious in an otherwise un-tarnished environment.

Gentle early sunrise walks fuelled our workdays, which were long and intense and productive. We explored the life cycle of mining, impact and risk assessment, workplans for our programmes and next steps. We honed our understanding further by visiting existing mine sites, to see first hand how it can work on the ground.

Controversial but necessary

Mining inherently impacts on the environment. Getting hung up on the mineral being mined is in many senses secondary to the act of mining itself.

This is not shirking the dilemmas and controversies of the associated nuclear industry – it is simply focusing on what we are best at, and what FFI’s fundamental mission is: collaboration with local stakeholders to protect biodiversity in the face of multiple pressures.

We have long worked with the extractive sector. With the increasing demand for uranium, and the sensitive areas where uranium deposits lie, it makes sense for FFI to engage with companies and governments to find ways to minimise the sector’s impact on biodiversity.

‘No net loss’

The concept of no net loss of biodiversity is one which is of critical importance. FFI believes in offsetting any residual impacts once all the stages of the mitigation hierarchy have been completed (Avoid; Reduce; Relocation; Restore).

The idea of developing an aggregated offset for the uranium province is entirely appealing and possible – but needs the full commitment from decision makers in government, and the withdrawal of uranium prospecting concessions from the pool to set aside land for conservation.

Some steps have already been taken by the government. In early 2009, the Ministry of Mines and Energy commissioned a landmark Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of Uranium Mining in the Central Namib, with the aim of developing a strategic environmental management plan to guide both the uranium industry and decision makers towards responsible mining of this natural resource.

Much has been achieved through this SEA, but there are fundamental gaps critical to the sustainable development of this region. FFI believes more needs to be done to encourage landscape-level planning based on sound data and land-use assessment in order to guide future development and potential biodiversity and ecosystem offsets.

Learn more about FFI’s Business & Biodiversity Programme.

Editor’s Note: FFI has just initiated a UNDP-supported project to carry out a landscape-level assessment of key biodiversity vulnerability and land use within the uranium province of Central Namibia. We will create vital maps and data sets that can help to predict impacts of uranium mining development and potential biodiversity offsets of those impacts.