Fire ants and pipelines: How business can partner for biodiversity

While assessing biodiversity in an oil development area in Gabon, Central Africa, a Smithsonian biologist found an unexpected species: the invasive fire ant Wasmania, originally from South America. The ants probably entered West and Central Africa decades ago with cargo from overseas, and then followed infrastructure development throughout the region.

This wasn't good news. Wasmania ants are very aggressive and severely can affect native ecosystems by displacing and harming other species. For example, a leopard photographed in Gabon had cornea lacerations from Wasmania stings.

This small ant represents one of many conservation and development challenges that have led us to conduct conservation research and identify best practices for oil and gas projects in sensitive areas.

The U.S. Smithsonian, my home institution, is the world's largest museum complex and research organization. Researchers at the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute study conservation challenges -- how best to manage the natural environment. For nearly 20 years, my colleagues and I have worked on conservation and development projects with energy companies in Peru, Gabon, Ecuador and Canada.

Business benefits of partnerships

Collaboration between businesses and conservation scientists can help business as well as the environment. These partnerships reduce long-term project risks, uncertainty and cost. Companies can better document and manage environmental, regulatory and reputational risk. Costs are outweighed by the dangers of not addressing these issues, such as project delays, liabilities, reputational damage, litigation and community concerns.

Business and biodiversity partnerships have increased trust and accountability among companies, lenders, government, NGOs and communities. Host governments welcome these efforts because they provide strong baseline biological information while enhancing national biodiversity knowledge, supporting conservation priorities and building capacity. For example, in Gabon, biodiversity research in the buffer area of a national park permitted the design of a national road that will avoid biodiversity value areas.

How partnerships work

Our partnerships integrate biodiversity conservation into energy projects' construction and operation. With company professionals and other stakeholders, we develop biodiversity action plans that respond to project development priorities and conservation needs. These plans have:

• implemented biodiversity monitoring and assessment programs

• identified key biodiversity value areas to avoid

• identified the best areas for sitting major infrastructure

• identified ways to understand and manage conflicts between humans and forest elephants in Gabon

• tested canopy bridges in an Amazon rainforest pipeline development to understand mammal movement and landscape connectivity

Making biodiversity partnerships effective

Business and biodiversity partnerships resemble other well-run business partnerships. Key steps include:

1. Identify whether you need a biodiversity partnership. Partnerships are particularly valuable for mega-projects operating in biologically sensitive areas. They're also important in countries with evolving regulations and when there's complex benefit sharing among investors, operating companies and government.

2. Find a partner. Define your project's biodiversity and conservation needs. Identify a qualified expert (or experts) or organization that can address those needs, using a consultative process.

3. Gain commitment. Partnerships require clear commitment from senior management at the company and conservation organization.

4. Identify project research and conservation questions. Scientists, company professionals and other stakeholders work together to identify relevant questions; scientists then develop and implement research experiments to answer these questions. We often address biodiversity and conservation issues at the landscape scale for maximum conservation impact. For example, forest elephants in Gabon move in and out of oil concessions and need to be managed at the landscape level.

5. Design and implement the biodiversity strategy. Acting on research findings and putting a biodiversity strategy in place require shared vision and trust that develop over time. We've found it's useful to:

• Regularly communicate the partnership vision, roles, goals and results to stakeholders and all levels of the companies. Regular communication increases buy-in and builds trust and commitment.

• Respect and support the scientific process. Agree that conservation scientists independently can conduct the research, report on the results and publish the findings and recommendations. This freedom builds trust, produces science-based results and allows the company to effectively address the research recommendations.

• Budget for the full process. This requires data collection, analysis, interpretation and publication.

• Coordinate company operations and researcher activities. Coordination increases efficiency and reduces cost and conflict. For example, company field camps also supported researchers' fieldwork in Peru and Gabon.

A view from the rainforest

As our research team reviews thousands of camera trap images to identify the tree mammal species crossing canopy bridges in the Amazon of Peru, we unveil habits of rare and elusive species: porcupines, night monkeys, anteaters, kinkajous, rare birds and lizards. We see potentially new species and new populations.

Canopy bridges, made out of connecting tree branches in areas separated by energy project infrastructure such as roads and pipelines, allow arboreal species to move across their home range rather than becoming isolated. Working with an energy company, scientists are evaluating for the first time the effectiveness of such bridges in Amazon linear mega-projects. The long-term implications of this science-based partnership for regional policy and large-scale conservation are huge.

Reprinted from Network for Business Sustainability. Fire ant image by DigitalCanvas72 via Flickr.