By its very nature, working in partnership with global players in the mining, oil & gas and agricultural sectors is always going to be controversial. When Fauna & Flora International (FFI) took the strategic decision back in the 1990s to actively engage with big business, we were well aware that we would be exposing ourselves to accusations of ‘greenwash’ and the occasional negative headline in the environmental press. So how does FFI justify this approach?
When a site is found to be rich in a resource such as valuable minerals or fossil fuels, the host government has to weigh up the environmental, economic and social pros and cons of allowing exploitation of that resource.
In essence, governments face a straightforward choice: leave the resource untapped, or grant permission for a company or companies to exploit it.
At this stage of the process, FFI strives wherever possible to ensure that government policy takes account of biodiversity, ecosystem services and local livelihoods, so that decisions are more likely to come down in favour of managing natural areas responsibly.
When we sense an opportunity to resist a proposed project, FFI will not hesitate to join forces with other NGOs and make the strongest possible case against such development. But FFI is not a campaigning organisation. Rather, its role is to conduct the baseline studies, risk assessments and impact assessments that furnish the decision makers with the relevant scientific information.
FFI does not support or endorse extraction in protected areas. But the reality is that government decisions are often based on economic necessity rather than biodiversity and environmental concerns.
To engage, or not to engage
In those circumstances where the host government grants a licence and development is inevitable, FFI has the opportunity – and arguably a moral obligation – to use its significant expertise in order to ensure that the company adheres to environmental best practice, so that damage is avoided, or minimised as far as possible.
So the question is: to engage, or not engage? Do we want decisions that affect biodiversity and local community livelihoods to be left solely in the hands of the companies themselves who – even if committed to environmental best practice – may lack the relevant expertise? Worse still, do we want to hound environmentally responsible industry leaders into walking away, leaving a vacuum that will inevitably be filled by smaller, less scrupulous operators for whom reputation is less important than profit.
FFI has taken a strategic decision not to throw stones at the boardroom windows but rather to engage in constructive dialogue, thus ensuring that biodiversity gets a seat at the boardroom table. There is nothing clandestine about this activity. We are open about our partnerships with business and proud of our track record in influencing corporate behaviour for the long-term benefit of biodiversity and local communities.
FFI works only with companies that are demonstrably committed to reducing their impact on the environment. Our absolute priority is to help them avoid any adverse impact. Where avoidance is unachievable, we aim to ensure ‘no net loss‘ for biodiversity. This requires rigorous application of best practice standards. We have no hesitation in walking away if we feel that commitment wavering at any stage.
Crucially, in situations where no net loss is deemed impossible to achieve, FFI will recommend that a project should not proceed. We can also point to examples where the companies themselves have walked away in light of our recommendations.
Perception and reality
Our willingness to engage may be seen by critics as an endorsement of projects that will have an adverse effect on biodiversity and local communities. In fact, our overriding concern is to minimise the environmental and social impact of those projects in situations where developments are inevitable. Damage limitation, in effect.
FFI’s ultimate aim is to conserve biodiversity. Working with the big beasts of industry is a crucial component of our strategy and a pragmatic means of achieving that overarching objective.