Mining in Africa for renewable energy endangers great apes

Mining operations in Africa aimed at obtaining copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and other minerals of importance in new technologies and renewable energies have a negative impact on the survival of great apes much greater than calculated until now.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
03 April 2024 Wednesday 10:26
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Mining in Africa for renewable energy endangers great apes

Mining operations in Africa aimed at obtaining copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and other minerals of importance in new technologies and renewable energies have a negative impact on the survival of great apes much greater than calculated until now. This is evident in a study led by researchers from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and the non-profit conservation organization Re:wild. The results of this research have been published in the journal Science Advances.

The growing demand for copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earths, necessary for new technologies and renewable energies, is causing an increase in mining in Africa, where a large part of these mineral resources is still unexploited. This increasing activity is driving deforestation of tropical forests, which are home to many species, including great apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

The new study estimates that the threat posed by mining to great apes in Africa has been greatly underestimated and that more than a third of the entire population - almost 180,000 gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees - are at risk. The researchers also highlight that because mining companies are not required to make biodiversity data public, the true impact of mining on biodiversity and great apes in particular may be even greater.

The authors have only been able to use data on operational and pre-operational mining sites in 17 African nations, as well as defining 10 km buffer zones to account for direct impacts such as habitat destruction and light and noise pollution.

They also defined 50 km buffer zones for indirect impacts related to increased human activity near mining sites: new roads and infrastructure are built to access these once remote areas, and many people migrate to these areas. looking for employment. This, in turn, increases pressure on great apes and their habitat through increased hunting, habitat loss and increased risk of disease transmission. By integrating data on the density distribution of great apes, the researchers investigated how many African apes could potentially be negatively affected by mining and mapped areas where frequent mining and high ape densities overlapped.

In the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Guinea, the overlaps of mining and high-density ape zones (including 10 and 50 km buffer zones) were the largest. The most significant overlap between mining and chimpanzee density, both in terms of population proportion and overall numbers, was found in Guinea. Here, more than 23,000 chimpanzees, or up to 83% of Guinea's ape population, could be directly or indirectly affected by mining activities. In general, the most sensitive areas (those with relatively high densities of apes and mining) are not protected.

"Currently, studies on other species suggest that mining harms apes through pollution, habitat loss, increased hunting pressure and disease, but this is an incomplete picture," says the first. author, Dr. Jessica Junker, Re:wild researcher and former postdoctoral researcher at iDiv and MLU. "The lack of data sharing by mining projects hinders our scientific understanding of their true impact on great apes and their habitat."

The researchers also explored how mining areas intersect with what is considered "critical habitat" - regions crucial to their unique biodiversity, unrelated to apes. They found a notable 20% overlap between the two.

The Critical Habitat designation involves strict environmental regulations, especially for mining projects that seek financing from entities such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – a branch of the World Bank that lends funds to the private sector – or other lenders that adhere to similar standards and They aim to operate within these zones. Previous efforts to map 'critical habitat' in Africa have overlooked significant portions of ape habitats that would qualify under international benchmarks such as IFC Performance Standard 6.

“Companies operating in these areas must have adequate mitigation and compensation schemes in place to minimize their impact. , which seems unlikely given that most companies lack robust baseline data on the species required to inform these actions,” says Dr Tenekwetche Sop, Director of the IUCN SSC APES Database. at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History, a repository of data on all great ape populations.

“Encouraging these companies to share valuable data from their ape studies with our database serves as a critical step toward transparency in their operations. Only through such collaborative efforts will we be able to comprehensively assess the true extent of the effects of mining activities on great apes and their habitats.”

Although the indirect and long-term impacts of mining are difficult to quantify, they often extend far beyond the boundaries of the actual mining project. Currently, mining companies rarely consider and mitigate these risks. The compensation or compensation is then based on an approximation of the impacts, which, according to researchers, is often inaccurate and underestimated. Furthermore, current compensation schemes are designed to last as long as mining projects are active (generally around 20 years), while most impacts of mining on great apes are permanent.

"Mining companies should focus on avoiding their impacts on great apes as much as possible and use offsetting as a last resort, as there are currently no examples of successful offsetting for great apes," explains Dr. Genevieve Campbell, director of the IUCN. SSC PSG SGA/SSA ARRC working group and senior researcher at Re:wild. ''It is necessary to avoid it already during the exploration phase, but unfortunately, this phase is poorly regulated and companies collect 'baseline data' after many years of exploration and habitat destruction. "This data does not accurately reflect the original state of great ape populations in the area before the impact of mining."

“Moving away from fossil fuels is good for the climate, but it must be done in a way that does not endanger biodiversity. In its current version, it may even go against the environmental objectives we pursue,” says Jessica Junker. "Companies, financial institutions and nations must recognize that sometimes it may be more valuable to leave some regions intact to mitigate climate change and help prevent future epidemics," concludes Junker.