Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Joining the global transparency revolution - written by Inga Petersen

How can environmental transparency help make mining more sustainable?

Sierra Rutile - Sierra Leone 2011 ©Caroline Thomas/UN Environment
At first sight, ‘sustainable mining’ is the very definition of a contradiction in terms. How can an industry that digs holes in the ground, extracts mineral resources and often leaves significant environmental damage in its wake possibly be associated with sustainable development? And why would an agency like UN Environment, charged with the task of protecting the global environment, associate with the mining sector in the first place?

I work as a senior extractives adviser in UN Environment’s Disasters and Conflicts branch in Geneva. The branch works on disaster risk reduction, carries out strategic assessments of post-conflict environments and conducts research into the role natural resources play as a driver of conflict and opportunity for sustaining peace. During my Masters in International Security I had studied the latter, in particular ‘blood diamonds’ fueling civil war in West Africa and other ‘conflict minerals’ financing armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Artisanal gold mining is impacting landscapes in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2016 ©UN Environment
I first started working in extractive industries governance for Adam Smith International, a development consultancy, followed by a fellowship with the mining and metals team at the World Economic Forum. I managed projects to reform the legislative, regulatory and institutional frameworks governing the mining sector and to facilitate public private cooperation. The aim was to help governments maximize the benefits of resource wealth for their citizens and future generations. I quickly realized that whereas a poorly managed mining sector is a recipe for conflict and environmental disasters, well-managed mining projects can be an important catalyst for sustainable development.

Development considerations aside, mining also plays a critical role in the global transition to a green economy. From the lithium in electric car batteries to the steel needed to build wind turbines to the gold in mobile phones, we depend on mining to provide many of the resources which enable technological progress. Coupled with a circular economy and improved resource efficiency, the sector can help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. So if the global economy and modern human wellbeing depends on mining, how do we make sure local communities and ecosystems don’t pay the price?

UN Environment conducts a community consultation process amongst local men in Umm al Jawasir, Northern state. Community hearings and consultations have been critical components of UN Environment’s assessment work, Sudan 2010 ©UN Environment
At UN Environment, we took a closer look at what drives conflict in the mining sector and noticed that a lack of dialogue and access to information about environmental impacts often contributes to misperceptions, a breakdown of trust and social conflict. One of the largest environmental drivers of conflict relates to water. The International Finance Corporation and the International Council of Mining and Metals have found that 70% of operations of the world’s biggest mining companies are located in water stressed areas. The impacts of climate change, including increasing water scarcity, will only make matters worse. Getting it right is more important than ever before. Whereas a number of global initiatives are already promoting greater transparency in the sector (e.g. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative), environmental transparency is often neglected.

In addition to access to information, local communities are also asking for more inclusive decision making and a meaningful role in monitoring the environmental performance of mining operations. In order to address these needs and enhance development outcomes we started looking towards innovations in communication technologies and the idea of digital disruption. Together with experts at the University of Geneva, the Global Resource Information Database (GRID-Geneva), and the World Bank, UN Environment has developed an online mapping platform to collect the best available data about the impacts of the extractive sector, independently assess the integrity of the data and help analyze and visualize the information to make it accessible to the broader public.

The head of Kasai Occidental’s Mining Division lays out a concession map showing the whole province demarcated into mining blocks, 2010 ©UN Environment
The MAP-X platform can be tailored to address a broad range of issues: We have pilot-tested it in the Democratic Republic of Congo to link payment and production data with the development and environmental performance of the mining sector; in Afghanistan to map and assess drivers of conflict at the project level; and in Nigeria to serve as a platform for environmental monitoring of the oil spill clean-up in Ogoniland. Going forward, we are looking to support countries in monitoring mercury reduction in the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector, enable territorial planning in post-conflict countries and support participatory monitoring by integrating community data. We hope to deploy MAP-X as part of our planned work in Colombia.

Large scale industrial mining dredge near Condoto, Colombia (abandoned) 2017 ©David Jensen/UN Environment
So far, we have had extremely positive feedback on the prototype platform. Over 100 World Bank staff and partners turned up for a live demonstration back in October. We also published our first blog posts on GOXI and the EITI websites that together received over 1000 views.

The potential of the mining sector to be a positive agent for change is substantial but more transparency about its impacts is needed to allow for evidence-based policy and decision making. Building on UN Environment’s impartiality and the organization’s vast experience in environmental stewardship, we have a unique chance to make a difference on the ground and I am inspired by the opportunities that lie ahead.

If you’d like to learn more about our work you can either visit the www.mapx.org or view our demo videos.  

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Connecting with the environment - written by Lis Bernhardt

My passions have always naturally revolved around conflict resolution, human rights and international relations, not the environment per se. I cared about human development, and when I was going to high school and university in the Great Lakes region of the Midwestern United States, the stereotype about people who studied the environment was that they were the “science nerds” who cared more about plants and animals than about people.

There were a couple of incidents early on, however, which opened my eyes to how interrelated human development and the environment are. First, as an undergrad at university in Chicago, I was involved in a community action to help a high school in an underprivileged area write a proposal to the city alderman to get more funding for their school. The school wanted more resources to help its students, who were behind in test scores. Then we dug a bit deeper and realized where the school was located – on the grounds of a former paint factory. There was lead contamination, which obviously can affect health and concentration; they got funding to test and clean up the soil in addition to other resources. That was one of the first moments where I realized that environmental issues often underlie development issues. 

Another defining moment for me came later, as a graduate student in Geneva, when I was doing research for my Masters thesis on human rights and development issues of an indigenous population in the US. I spent time on their reservation in the Four Corners region. I had gone into the research thinking the issues were about the right to access to education, development, practice their religion and culture. But after witnessing their ties to the land, which was facing environmental and land degradation including severe water scarcity, I realized once again that development problems often have environmental issues at their base – especially in the case of indigenous peoples. I realized you can’t just move these people to a new part of the country, you have to help them solve their problems where they are. In the same way, on a bigger scale, we only have one Earth to live on. I was fascinated, frustrated but also galvanized by this experience.

Shortly thereafter I started work at my first “real job”, for an environmental science organization. This was the early 2000s, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had just been passed. While inspirational and hugely influential, I felt that they had two major drawbacks which I had noticed during my Masters work: first, they didn’t cover people in “rich” countries who were living in developing country conditions (e.g. many indigenous populations), and secondly, they kept environmental and traditional human development issues, wrongly, on separate tracks.

In 2009 I moved from environmental issues in general to freshwater in particular, a topic I find fascinating because it cuts across and ties together all areas of development, including also my traditional loves of conflict resolution and human rights. I was hugely privileged to have been able to be in New York throughout 2015 and 2016, as part of UN-Water’s work to coordinate the UN input to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water and sanitation. It was a crazy but very exciting time.

Now, with the SDGs, we have finally brought together the environment with social and economic development, and acknowledged their interdependence. It is a wonderful opportunity for UN Environment, and I came to Nairobi in 2016 because I wanted to be part of helping this organization implement these ambitious new goals. In a way, the environment has a lot of work to do to “catch up” with the other areas of sustainable development, which got a 15 year head start with the MDGs. We have to better make the case to show how the environment underpins (or undermines) human development, peace and security.

Looking towards 2030, in the Freshwater Unit we’d like to see UN Environment help countries to monitor and report on targets related to freshwater quality, water resources management and healthy freshwater ecosystems. I’m excited about how technology is likely to help us get a much better understanding of what is happening in the world over the coming years, including the role of small gadgets and citizen scientists. We’ve also been talking to NASA and the European Space Agency. We have UNEP Live, which can show patterns and pictures using Big Data. With maps and time series you can see the changes; you can map where conflicts are and may occur in the future. There is growing understanding of the role that water can play in conflicts (or their prevention) - many believe, for example, that the conflict in Syria leading to mass migrations of people has water at its base. It would be great to bring all this information together to help policymakers understand these connections, help people better manage their water and perhaps even prevent conflicts from flaring up in the first place. 

Monday, 27 March 2017

What’s law got to do with it? Cleaning up the holy Ganga - written by Anjana Varma

My mother is nearly 62 years old. But if you meet her, you will see that she’s got the fiery nature of a young backpacking traveler whose restless strides have taken her the world over. On a recent phone call I had with her, I asked her ‘so where next? Paris? Singapore? What do you want to see?’ She replied, ‘Closer to home, I want to go to Varanasi and do Ganga darshan’. In Hinduism, darshan literally means to have an auspicious sight of a deity or a holy person. It was heartwarming to see that after nearly 30 years of having lived all over the world, nothing held more meaning to her than to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, which stands on the banks of perhaps the most sacred river for Hindus, the Ganga (or Ganges).

Aside from the fact that it is a lifeline for nearly 500 million people living along its banks, most Hindus pay homage to the river by taking a dip in the water as a means of atonement, paying respect to their ancestors whose ashes have been released into the water, offering it flowers and clay oil lamps. Small quantities of water from the river are used in rituals, and offered to loved ones for purification. Its ecological, symbolic, and religious importance is undeniable.

Yet today, it flows through the veins of the country as one of the five most polluted rivers of the world.

I spoke to my mother after her trip to Varanasi, which is also one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, and asked her how it went. She was overwhelmed by the beauty, the history, the devotion of people, and the sanctity of the place. However, she was devastated by the pollution she witnessed.

This is why coming across the news that a state court in India had given the Ganga River (and its largest tributary, Yamuna River) the legal status as the ‘first living entity of India’ a few days ago, made me – quite simply – hopeful.

Much like New Zealand court’s ruling giving the Whanganui River a legal status, this too is a landmark judgment with far reaching implications. Giving a river the legal status of a living entity means that, much like people and incorporated companies, it has a right to defend itself. Through court appointed individuals, the river’s ‘rights’ can be represented in court allowing for greater accountability for inaction.

What perhaps often goes unnoticed is the significant role that law plays in the realm of environment and development. As someone who works in the Law Division at UN Environment, I certainly see it, and I am one of its biggest advocates (pun very much intended), as are my colleagues (it’s akin to preaching to the choir).

I would like to give you an example of the power of law and institutions: last year, a 16-year-old student filed a request under the Right to Information Act – which requires the government to respond to a citizen’s query within 30 days – to know the status of a major cleaning programme for the Ganga River. Much to her dismay and many, many others, it became public knowledge that despite millions of rupees being allocated to the cleanup – in reality – very little has been done. Law enables that transparency and accountability of the government to its citizens. When it comes to the environment, now more than ever, this is vital.

I told my mother about the ruling soon after the news, and she said: ‘that’s really great – maybe in my next trip there, I may even take a dip in the water.’ 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Plastic - decidedly NOT fantastic! - written by Petter Malvik

I used to not care about the problem of marine plastic pollution. In fact, prior to joining UN Environment about 14 months ago, I was blissfully ignorant of the issue. Sure, I knew that so-called single use-plastic was bad and dutifully tried to bring my tote bag when I went grocery shopping, but the question of where our discarded plastic bags, straws and plastic soda bottles actually ended up was one which I had never really given much thought (this lead to a somewhat awkward job interview, but that is a different story).

This is no longer the case. Having been involved with UN Environment’s #CleanSeas campaign for almost a year (launching a campaign takes time), I now almost know more than I care to about what happens with the plastic items we throw away. I know that every year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans. I know that this river of plastic has devastating effects on our marine environment and the creatures that live in it. I am not going to bore you with too many numbers, but I need to give you a couple: in 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, and it is estimated that about 90 percent of sea birds have ingested plastic. One study found that almost 670 different marine species have already ingested or been entangled by plastic.  The fact that fish eat plastic means that we are as well. That is the price you pay for being at the top of the food chain, while also throwing away lots and lots of plastic. As if this was not bad enough, we know that the plastic that fish eat is typically microplastics. These are miniscule pieces of plastic that can absorb whatever toxins are already in the water. We do not know yet whether this can be harmful to us humans, but the thought of the fish we eat feasting on toxic plastic is not a comforting one.

In addition to working with governments and the private sector, an important part of the campaign is encouraging people to change their habits in a way that reduces their plastic footprints, and using their purchasing power to encourage companies to do the same. As a good campaign worker, and as someone who now knows all too well what plastic is doing to our oceans, I am trying to follow suit. This means I am still bringing my tote bag to the grocery store. I am also bringing my travel mug when I get coffee, I try to remember to ask waiters not to get me a straw when I order a drink, and I do my best to avoid buying products that come with a ridiculous amount of excessive packaging.  I sometimes slip up, though. A couple of times, I have impulsively decided to buy coffee on my way into the office only to discover that I left my coffee mug there. This has resulted in me getting a huge plastic cup for my iced coffee. Obviously, the cup comes with a straw. Entering the UN compound carrying this highly incriminating piece of evidence, I feel as if I were walking around with a bloody knife or a copy of Waterboarding for Dummies, and I try, with various degrees of luck, to hide from my colleagues until I have finished my guilt-tinged coffee.

I am getting better though, and that is important! The thing with marine plastic pollution is that no one can solve the problem alone, but we can all do something, and we should!  Here in Kenya, I am reminded of this every time I go to Lamu. Located in the Indian Ocean close to Somalia, this small island is a little piece of paradise and one of my favorite places to visit. But even there I cannot escape marine plastic; I see it on the otherwise pristine beaches when I go for a morning walk and in the ocean when I go for a swim afterwards. For me, although sad, it reminds me that what I do at work matters.

It matters what you do as well, even if you don’t work for UN Environment. That is why I urge you to go to www.cleanseas.org to join the campaign. Here, you can see what other people are doing to reduce their own plastic footprints. You can pledge to do the same, or you can come up with an action of your own. The time to act is now. Together we can turn the tide on plastic!