An Overture to Offsetting in the Environmental Era: Should We be Cautious?

A recent Bangor University study claims Madagascar’s Ambatovy mine is on course to fully offset its destruction of nearby rainforest, with ‘no net loss’ (NNL). On the east coast of the island, the operation’s extraction of cobalt and nickel has come at a severe environmental cost.

The mine and its 140-mile-long pipeline has required the clearance of 2,000 hectares of the Madagascan rainforest. This is a habitat where 90 to 95% of the flora and fauna is endemic to the island and where 1,300 species are now threatened.

Mining and deforestation have ravaged a unique biosphere over centuries of development. Now, only 10% of Madagascar’s original forests remain. In the Ambatovy mine region, thousands of species including the endangered indri lemur are in peril.

From its Canadian ‘Dynatec’ beginnings in 2007, the vast operation has continued to grow under the ownership of Japanese company Sumitomo and Korean firm Komir. The mine is now an economic titan on the island, in turn, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Accounting for approximately 32% of Madagascar’s foreign earnings, and providing 9,000 jobs to Malagasies, the multibillion-dollar venture’s far-felt benefits have ensured that the ceasing of its far-reaching destruction is off the table, at least directly.

Instead, as participants of the Bangor University study explained in the Nature Sustainability journal: ‘Ambatovy promoted itself as a world-leader in sustainable mining […] committed to ensure NNL.’ The mine’s offset strategy led the way as a pilot for the now influential Business and Biodiversity Offset Programme (2004). At its core, the prevention of similar losses elsewhere through company-sponsored conservation efforts.

For the Ambatovy mine, company community service has included ecological monitoring, the creation of forest protection groups, and environmental education programmes in four selected locations. The recent study estimates deforestation in these locations has been reduced by 58%.

In a world where, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 502,000 square miles of forest were lost between 1990 and 2016 to development, offsetting perhaps provides an answer. It’s difficult to tell. As co-author of the Bangor University study Sébastien Desbureaux noted, of 12,000 offsets worldwide, ‘less than 0.05% have been evaluated’.

Offsetting also falls short of addressing issues beyond the ecological. Ambatovy faces long-standing accusations of pollution-related health problems, whilst also complicit in a nationwide issue of ‘land grabbing’, involving displacement, cultural dislocation, and uncertainty for many. Is ecology everything?

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Hamish Davis

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August 2022
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