In the conservationist’s lexicon, development is by no means a dirty word, but decision-makers sometimes need to be reminded to take full account of its implications for people and wildlife, as Fauna & Flora International’s Tim Knight explains.

Given all the political turmoil and global conflict that characterised 2016, a year in which the unthinkable had a nasty habit of becoming reality overnight, it is no surprise that one or two surreal moments slipped by unnoticed.

Last June, news reached Fauna & Flora International (FFI) that a development bank was poised to fund the construction of a road in West Africa. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. Except that this particular road would have been illegal, and threatened the integrity of Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site straddling the shared border between Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

Forest and savannah, Mount Nimba Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Forest and savannah, Mount Nimba Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Road to ruin

This kind of decision may not have such far-reaching environmental consequences as, say, appointing the CEO of ExxonMobil as US Secretary of State, but it’s fair to say that a road running alongside a World Heritage site for a significant proportion of its length would have exposed this biologically rich and sensitive area to a dumper truckload of trouble. Think habitat fragmentation, impacts to threatened species, spontaneous settlement, alien invasive species and illegal incursions in a protected area (for purposes such as agriculture, forestry, harvesting of non-timber forest products and hunting). The adverse effects of dust, noise and run-off would also have been unavoidable.

The so-called environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) appeared to have been drafted by desk-bound individuals with minimal understanding of the local environmental and social context. They managed to disregard the fact that the project was in flagrant breach of the bank’s own policies, and rode roughshod over inconvenient legislation. The detrimental impact on local communities and on the nature reserve itself was barely addressed.

Pippa Howard, Director of FFI’s Business & Biodiversity Programme, wrote to the development bank and to the World Heritage Centre to express our concerns. The long list of shortcomings and violations enumerated in her email was a withering indictment of the bank’s apparently slapdash attitude to environmental protection.

Initially, these protestations were studiously ignored, but things changed when FFI joined forces with Agroforestry Resources Unlimited (ARU), a Guinean NGO, and the two organisations jointly submitted a formal complaint to the development bank.

Mount Nimba Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Mount Nimba Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

This communication prompted a high-level delegation – comprising officials from the bank and the government of Guinea – to visit the area. Viewed from this on-the-ground perspective, the lamentable inadequacy of the ESIA quickly became apparent, and a decision was made to re-route the road through less environmentally sensitive areas well away from the World Heritage site. Disaster averted, but only narrowly.

Whilst it is gratifying that the intervention of FFI and other concerned parties helped to rebuff a serious threat to one of West Africa’s most valuable havens of biodiversity, this whole episode is indicative of a wider problem.

Red light, green light

In itself, the decision to bypass Mount Nimba is very welcome news, but when a development bank needs to be reminded not to bypass its own lending criteria, it inevitably casts doubt on the robustness of the due diligence process that should precede such momentous decisions. It also begs another, more fundamental, question: why did the government of Guinea not veto the original proposal at an earlier stage? All too often, development projects are given the green light before the social and environmental implications have been comprehensively assessed.

On a positive note, the end result in this instance is definitely a step in the right direction, and hints that the development banks are slowly but surely becoming more attuned to the long-term environmental and social consequences of their funding support. Let’s hope it’s a sign of things to come.

Sunrise over Côte d'Ivoire from Mount Nimba. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Sunrise over Côte d’Ivoire from Mount Nimba. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.