Sometimes it seems that all it takes to strike gold or discover oil is to declare a place a protected area. Looking around the world, a surprising number of protected areas have attracted the interest of oil, gas, and mineral companies. The same applies to unprotected natural forests of high value for conservation and forests where indigenous people live. This creates major dilemmas. Often there are no "win-win" solutions. Oil and minerals may provide a lot of income, but at the expense of natural habitats and the well being of certain local groups. You can minimize the negative environmental and social impacts of extracting these products in forest areas, but you cannot eliminate them. That leaves governments with hard decisions about whether to allow these activities to go forward; and they generally have few practical tools to help them in that process. That is why WWF asked Nigel Dudley and Sue Stolton to write "To Dig or Not to Dig, Criteria for Determining the Suitability or Acceptability of Mineral Exploration, Extraction, and Transport from Ecological and Social Perspectives". The paper gives governments and companies clear guidance about when to prohibit extractive activities, when to sharply restrict them, and when to apply only standard operating rules. This follows on an earlier set of more general recommendations approved at the IUCN world congress in Amman Jordan two years ago.
The authors say no mining or drilling should take place in highly protected areas or in sites outside protected areas that either have high conservation value and a serious risk that such activities will cause major permanent losses to biodiversity or where social assessments have identified that human welfare is likely to suffer. In locations that have "significant", as opposed to "high", protection status and conservation values, governments should only allow mineral activities if critical ecological and social issues can be adequately addressed. In other areas it should be enough to get companies to follow normal best practices. The paper provides concrete indicators that allow governments and companies to assess specific cases and decide how to proceed.
No one can really say if the authors are right or wrong. Cost – benefit analysis and similar economic techniques typically provide surprisingly few useful insights when it comes to decisions like this. Ultimately, it comes down to each person or group’s individual preferences. At least with this new document WWF has provided a clear, coherent and practical set of guidelines that governments and companies can follow if they chose to do so.
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To request free electronic copies of the paper or to send comments to the authors you can write Maria Boulos at: mailto:MBoulos@wwfint.org.