At last year’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a motion declaring that all protected areas and the sacred natural sites of indigenous peoples should be 'No-Go Areas' for destructive industrial activities like mining, dam-building and logging. While this is a step forward, this begs the question: what exactly protected areas are supposed to be “protected” from in the first place, if not from destructive industrial exploitation?
Research by the Rainforest Foundation UK into conservation areas in Central Africa’s tropical forests has shown that extractive industries are very often tolerated, if not incentivised, inside and around protected areas.
Out of the 34 protected areas we have looked at in the Congo Basin, two thirds had logging concessions directly bordering the park. Over 60 per cent had mining concessions inside and 40 per cent overlapped oil concessions. In the Tumba Lediima Reserve, in north western DRC, as shown in the video above, as many as three logging concessions were granted inside the Reserve.
The wrong scapegoats
The impacts of extractive industries on biodiversity are well documented, and their effect on protected areas in particular should be self-evident. Swaths of valuable forest are destroyed, roads are built, and migrant workers flow in – all increasing the risk of illegal logging and poaching.
But while these destructive industries are allowed in, local forest communities are often forced out. Or else they face severe restrictions on their access to (and use of) natural resources that they have depended on for generations. They are told that their subsistence activities are a threat to biodiversity.
Caught between state-backed industries and internationally-funded protected areas, local communities see their livelihoods squeezed on two fronts. Doubly victimised, they often have little choice but to live on ever smaller areas of land where they struggle just to feed their families.
Accepting the status quo
While large conservation organisations in the Congo Basin recognise the enormous threats that extractive activities pose to biodiversity, and do sometimes oppose specific projects, they do not challenge this model head-on. Instead they choose to work around it by accommodating extractive industries.
Rather than challenge the status quo, they try and improve private sector practices within the existing system. This involves trying to "green" the practices of industrial logging companies in particular. Major conservation NGOs therefore often partner up with logging companies – some with poor environmental and human rights track records – around the protected areas they work in with a view to promoting so-called "sustainable forest management".
But in a context of weak governance and high levels of corruption, certifying extractive activities as “sustainable” or “green” often doesn’t mean much in practice. There is mounting evidence on the flaws of certification, with some studies pointing to certified logging concessions having the same or even greater negative impacts than non-certified ones.
By marginalising forest communities and embracing cozy relationships with extractive industries, conservation programmes are not only taking the risk of turning local people against conservation, but also diverting attention away from the real drivers of forest destruction. The alternative should be obvious: work with local communities from the bottom up to resist destructive development and protect biodiversity.