This past March, two high profile articles were published that make somber reading for those interested in the natural world. The first, in Current Biology, was led by Bill Laurance and described the risks of rapid infrastructure expansion for habitats and biodiversity and the second, in Science, was led by Nick Haddad and described the pernicious, and now global, effects of habitat fragmentation in forests.
Roads, dams, pipelines, and transmission lines often have negative impacts on habitats and biodiversity. The two papers are not new in describing these impacts, but draw attention to the magnitude of the problem and cogently argue that there is an urgent need to address the risks of global expansion of infrastructure.
Infrastructure has already driven substantial global change as roads have opened up relatively pristine habitats for development, dams have broken river connectivity, and transmission lines and pipelines have fragmented landscapes. Still, when considering the vulnerability of habitats and biodiversity, the greatest determinant of the level of impact is where a road, dam, pipeline, or transmission line is situated.
The main driver behind decisions about infrastructure is the need to develop and deliver services (energy, water, transport, and communications) that meet the growing demands of people. An infrastructure project’s location will largely depend on technical and financial feasibility and proximity to the users of services. Environmental and social impacts will be considered, but as part of a secondary environmental and social assessment process that occurs often after the key decision on location has been taken.
Non-government organizations and academics have consistently called for change in this process of how we decide where to put infrastructure. Clearly, the target audience for this call for change would be those institutions that decide on which projects are developed, and where to locate the project. In most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, these institutions are within, or associated with, the Ministries of Transport and Energy; in the case of mega-projects, the decisions may be taken at the highest levels of government.
Inherent in deciding which infrastructure to build, and where, are the values placed on different criteria – the service itself, cost efficiency of its delivery, and environmental and social impacts. The valuation of these criteria depends on the institutions of the country in which the infrastructure is planned and built. Not surprisingly, academia, civil society, and local communities insist on full engagement in decisions about infrastructure – and can influence decisions. Social media plays an increasingly important role in public discussions about infrastructure projects – an example being the use of social media by indigenous communities raising concerns about the Belo Monte dam in Brazil.
Responding to the challenges raised in the papers will require fundamental changes – not only in the ways in which decisions about infrastructure are made, but also in the values we ascribe to the natural world. Global agreement on approaches and financing for climate change mitigation in Paris this year could be a game changer in this discussion. In addition, the impact of infrastructure on habitats and biodiversity is just one issue driving the need to change how we plan, build, and operate infrastructure. We need to ensure resilience to climate and natural disaster risk, improve stakeholder engagement, ensure resource efficiency, and provide quality services to growing urban populations. New infrastructure will be built, it is in our hands to determine if that infrastructure will be planned, built, and maintained to provide services of adequate quality and to promote sustainable and inclusive development. The question now is whether or not evolving national decision making frameworks will take into account impacts on global biodiversity and habitats in a way that is sufficient to address the urgent and substantive concerns raised by the Current Biology and Science papers.
This article was originaly published on Viva Sustainability
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