SarWatch Writer
Protecting Nature against Extractivism Amidst COVID-19

On 5 June the world celebrates World Environment Day, and the theme for 2020 is “Time for Nature.”
This year’s commemoration is unique, as the world is fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Demand for Africa’s mineral resources is projected to rise as the world recovers from Covid-19, driven mainly by the current wave of industrialisation dominated by electronic cars and batteries. This demand for large quantities of strategic minerals is driving extractive companies to widen their exploration activities into biodiversity-rich areas and environmentally sensitive (protected) areas across the continent. Many biodiversity-rich areas are under threat from widespread mining exploration and extraction activities, particularly in countries with weak state capacities to regulate and enforce environmental legislation.
For years, the extractive industry has fuelled conflict with indigenous and local communities over destruction of biodiversity. The expected expansion of extractive industries will exacerbate existing conflicts with indigenous and local communities whose livelihoods are directly dependent on the biodiversity and natural resources in these areas. Reports across the continent continue to expose the bad record of extractive companies in environmental management, especially in relation to deforestation and the pollution of water, land and air.

The anticipated mining boom after Covid-19, if not properly managed, will result in the rapid expansion of extractive activities and associated secondary effects on biodiversity and local people. What is more worrying in the context of Covid-19 is that environmental inequities (such as exposure to toxic hazards released into the environment by extractive companies) are systemic; they are contributing to climate change, and they have the potential to amplify and reinforce climate catastrophe, particularly among vulnerable and poor communities. The extractive sector has been characterised by unsustainable extractive processes in terms of deforestation and energy-use, and is an important source of carbon emission which contributes to global warming.

This year’s theme of “Time for Nature” fits well with the challenges and efforts being made to promote sustainable development in the extractive industries. It is certainly clear that traditional indigenous knowledge systems and site-based conservation approaches are not being properly applied. As a result, there has been limited effect in preventing biodiversity loss against increasing extractive activities and their impact on society. It is, therefore, becoming clearer that there is a need to develop and improve indicators, metrics and other tools relevant for measuring and understanding the interdependencies between biodiversity and extractive activities, and the only way to achieve this is by firstly disclosing the damage already being done to biodiversity and its related impact on communities.

A concerted effort is needed, especially from industry, to dispel perceptions of the extractive industry as economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. World Environment Day reaffirms the importance of ensuring that any development projects must contribute towards biodiversity conservation for the purposes of sustaining the lives of local communities.

This year’s commemoration presents an opportunity for initiating serious dialogue between extractive companies, policymakers, conservation organisations and vulnerable host communities. It is clear that holistic responses are required to address the challenge to promote sustainable and responsible extraction of minerals, oil and gas, and timber, facilitated by the active participation of local communities empowered by effective grievance mechanisms to request reparation when their rights to a clean environment and the protection of their biodiversity have been violated. African governments must do what others are doing to protect their environment by introducing tough laws against extractive companies’ negligence. Across the continent, communities are growing increasingly concerned about air thick with smog, rivers and land being polluted, wildlife and forests disappearing, and a frightening rise in deadly diseases and climate change.

African governments must crackdown on pollution and deforestation by extractive industries, and force them to clean up, and if need be close, recalcitrant companies. The polluter pays principle must apply. The quest for development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. SARW calls on African governments to put environmental protection and biodiversity conservation at the forefront of the battle for development.

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