Conservation and development – how to resolve the dilemmas?

The discussion on the rights of developing countries to make use of natural resources to enhance development goes back many decades. Is it really right for countries who have already destroyed much of their forests and biodiversity to ask poorer nations to refrain from doing the same?

Papua in Indonesia is exactly such as example. The province lags significantly behind on almost every development indicator; immunization levels of less than half the national average; literacy at 65% vs 90%+ in all other provinces, a lower population-to-school ration than anywhere else, and income inequality levels soaring.

Yet Papua has tremendous riches in the form of an enormous, but sparsely populated land mass, covered in some of the world’s most unique and undisturbed forests. Although not known for flagship species like orang-utans or tigers, Papua is home to thousands of species endemic flora and fauna.

Using existing tools and frameworks to assess development opportunities creates a tremendous dilemma. A large proportion of the undeveloped parts of province contains high conservation values such as endemic and vulnerable wildlife, as well as high carbon stock areas such peat swamp forests and primary forest. For environmentalists, the destruction of such areas for agricultural, extractive and industrial development is a definite no-go, and by extension any company wishing to operate in the area are likely to come under activist pressure.

So what are the options for bringing improvements in livelihoods to the people of regions such as Papua? Initiatives such as the UN-led REDD+ have tried to address the need to incentivise forest protection by enhancing the financial value of conserving landscapes. Private sector actors are also identifying alternative means of non-timber-product business, such as identifying and collecting naturally occurring plants for medicinal usage, or growing small patches of bamboo and other grasses for furniture and basket-making.

However, critics say that such initiatives move too slowly and do not provide the scale necessary to significantly enhance access to schools, medical facilities and increased economic benefits. In the case of Papua, an estimated birthrate of 2.9 means a rapidly growing population, which in turn creates pressures on local resources, forest degradation, poaching and water pollution. In other words – without other economic options, the environment will suffer – even in the absence of planned development.

National and provincial governments will also question the rights of ‘outsiders’ to determine the sovereign prerogative of a nation to use its land as it sees fit, for the betterment of the people. Pointing to initiatives such as the Malaysian land settlement scheme FELDA, which lifted millions out of poverty in the 1960s, governments say that they too have a right to enhance opportunities for their people. The counter argument is that such schemes have often benefitted ‘outsiders’ by bringing poor populations from other parts of the region into the area, creating conflict and marginalising the original inhabitants who end up seeing little benefit but vast cultural disruption.

So what should responsible business do? The easiest option is to stay away from such problematic ‘high forest cover landscapes’. Indeed this is what most responsible businesses are now doing. However, this does not mean that the imperative goes away, and as responsible business turns their back, governments proceed with issuing concessions, but to less scrupulous companies with no commitment to Free, Prior, Informed Consent processes, high carbon stock assessment or conservation of HCV areas.

Several initiatives such as the High Carbon Stock Approach Steering Group as well as the High Carbon Stock Study are trying to grapple with the issue as an integrated part of forest protection and carbon reduction, attempting to provide better guidance for companies. For now, however, sustainability advocates have no answers, and in the South-east Asia sustainable development context (and in many parts of Africa), this is possibly the most burning issue standing between the ‘meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

The dilemmas explored here will be unpacked in greater detail at an interactive debate at the 2015 CSR Asia Summit held in Kuala Lumpur 7-8 October. Drawing on the experience of both the debate leaders and the delegates, the debate will seek to map the issues and possible solutions, taking one step towards fewer trade-offs and more benefits for forest communities.

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