The untold environmental costs of the Brexit vote

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ALERT member Pierre-Michel Forget is a leading tropical ecologist and former President of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation.  Here he tells us about some surprising implications of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

On 22 June 2016, hundreds of participants attended a photo slideshow during the Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Montpellier, France.

There was no talk, only pictures showcasing the beauty of nature in the tropics.  It was a quiet moment, a relaxing break for those who are dedicating their lives to knowledge and conservation of tropical biodiversity.

SUDDEN CHANGE

When the clock woke me early on 24 June, everything had changed.  While ATBC delegates were still sleeping, investors were already awake, expecting a gold price increase after anticipating the Brexit vote outcome.

It happened when markets opened — gold prices spiked.  I immediately thought of the tropical ecosystems we are studying and hoping to protect from human misuse, because as Alert’s Director Bill Laurance recently wrote: “The world will be a far poorer place if we fail to try.”

My thoughts then turned to the Guianan rainforests, especially those belonging to France, and countries that have been terribly ravaged by long-term mercury and cyanide pollution from mining activities.  It was not difficult to envision the consequences of the Brexit vote for rainforest diversity and communities.

This new economic crisis will generate high demand for gold, as we already experienced in the early 2000s.  The aftermath of the Brexit vote will be ecologically devastating, not just politically or economically.

These untold, hidden consequences will not be mentioned in reports for the UK, EU, or the global market.  Those who invest in gold are blind to its origins.

A moonscape of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance).

A moonscape of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance).

BLOOD GOLD

Likewise, investors ignore the ecological and social consequences of increased demand, though these are well known.  Climate change will worsen and global carbon stocks and water quality will be directly impacted by deforestation due to gold mining.

And all this only six months after the historic COP21 agreement in Paris — where the world agreed to strong measures to limit harmful climate change.  What can we do now, as conservationists?

After the increase of gold prices and the subsequent gold rush in Amazonian countries in 2004-2008, the Conservation Committee of the ATBC released resolutions calling for the halt of gold mining in the Guianas and the Amazon, and opposing industrial mining in nature reserves and protected areas — issues that were addressed during the ATBC 2008 meeting in Suriname.

What has happened since 2008?  Are ATBC resolutions and declarations successful in countries suffering from rampant mining in protected areas?  Yes and no, might be the response.

RETURN TO FRENCH GUIANA

I recently returned to Nouragues, a nature reserve in French Guiana, more than three decades after my first expeditions there.  Contrary to my first observation in late 2003, I did not see a single gareimperos village or canoe along the Approuage and Arataye rivers this time.

However, the gold rush still persists in other locations, and the Brexit vote will make it worse.

The scars of illegal gold mining in Suriname, South America (photo by William Laurance)

The scars of illegal gold mining in Suriname, South America (photo by William Laurance)

study showed that 41% of deforestation in the Amazon occurred between 2001-2013 in the Guianas, with 2007–2013 being the worst due to the economic crisis and an increased demand for gold.  It is difficult to stay optimistic.

In 2008, the French government rejected the Iamgold-Cambior project’s application to open a large-scale gold mine at Kaw Mountain after NGOs and experts warned that these activities in the core zone of a protected area would be detrimental to nature and people.

NEW THREAT

Now, a new project has been proposed in western French Guiana by the Canadian-Russian joint venture Columbus Gold-Nordgold, which is now under scrutiny by various local media and environmentalists.

The proposed mining site is within the biologically rich area of Montagne d’Or, squeezed between the two mountains of the Integral Biological Reserve of Lucifer Dékou-Dékou.

The devil is in the details of the project.  There is no need for another resolution or declaration about the consequences of a new gold rush; all this has been said before.

It is now the responsibility of stakeholders, policy-makers, and politicians to act and vote NO or YES, against or for destroying the Amazon forest to extract more gold in response to investors who demand more — the untold consequences of the Brexit vote.  For me, the risks of a project like this is just too high to contemplate.

This referendum is crucial for all citizens on the planet, not only for Europeans.