NEWS on the issuance of a Clearance Certificate by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) to Namibia Marine Phosphate (NMP) got the country talking. The subsequent press conference by the Minister and Environment commissioner meant to provide clarity on the subject matter produced opposite effect as it generated more critique. The discussion kept many glued to news sources as commentators, expert and members of the public flung technical and emotions around the phosphate issue. The interesting topic did not spare me, who is usually a spectator of public discourse from getting involved the discussion.
It is documented that we live the world dominated by one view, which is an economic worldview. The demand for economic development and its associated benefits veers governments to pursuit economic development on the expense of Mother Nature. In addition to the phosphate issue, the Namibian Government position on trade of Rhino horns and Ivories at Cop 17 held recently in Johannesburg placed more weight on economic advantage than consequences on the environment. The timing and frequency of these events comes at the time the country is facing economic downturn. One may think that there is a link between the two. This is difficult to substantiate and it is not focus for this discussion.
Recent decades saw the world’s people adjusting with the deeper understanding that will alternately determine how we may live and survive. It is not a surprise that this topic is receiving overwhelming response. A major source of adjustment in our thinking is the ecological understanding. The German scientist Ernst Haeckel first introduced the term ecology in 1866. The word and the conceptual view it represent, came to be recognised as having a crucial importance in the most recent decades.
Edward Wilsons once said about ants, “We need ants in order to survive but ants don’t need us at all”. The same can be said to insects in multiple forms of life that we ignore for granted or worse, simply destroy. It is the latter destruction that is causing increasing environment calamities. As we damage or change habitats and associated ecosystems, the loss of bio-diversity is increasingly disappearing and it’s irreversible. Unfortunately, we do not understand the consequences of human life and supporting environment of such destruction. Ultimately, we may indeed be threatening destruction of ourselves.
What caused the loss of biodiversity? Obviously there are many factors but the chief contributing factor is the exploitation of resources of economic value by human harvesting. Others include habitat changes, climate changes, and introduction of invasive species that compete successfully against natural species. The root cause of the problem includes damaging national and international economic incentives, inadequate specifications of property rights and the failure for the market place to provide sound incentives in the sense of protecting environment.
Whereas it is easy to estimate benefits associated with mineral exploration, economic (monetary) valuation approaches to environmental assets are more or less imperfect given the particular asset together with its environmental valuation context. This is so because the vast majority of environmental goods and services are not traded in the markets. Even worse, the uncertainties that may come with adverse effect that comes with such activities in this case of the mining phosphate. These uncertainties are associated with the damage to the environment, loss of biodiversity and possible effects to human life. It is interesting to find out how the NMP application fulfilled the Environment Management Act and potential impacts are mitigated.
Argument on the Mining of Diamonds and how it differs from the phosphate mining was properly Sioni Aluta Ileka in article, ‘Phosphate mining a weapon of mass destruction’. Although very informative, I must admit it is very technical and many, with limited knowledge in subject matter may fail to draw the line. However, MET’s argument gives the impression that the clearance certificate considered economics benefits and ignored uncertainties facing the environment. Approving the phosphate mining on the basis of diamond mining with similar or minimal adverse effect on the environment is not a good justification for decision-making. Even if it’s true that diamond mining disturbs the sea ground, it does not make Phosphate Mining a clean activity.
In the case whereby the national instruments fails to address the issue, and in the face of conflicting economic and environmental objectives, we could seek general principles of International Environmental Law. International instrument requires states to adopt approach to prevent, reduce and control damage to environment, in particular the precautionary principle and the duty of care to prevent harm. Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration describes the precautionary principle as follows, ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation’.
To amplify the above, Article 11(b) of the 1982 World Charter for Nature directed that ‘Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature to be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed.’ The planned marine mining has produced the EIA, which seems to have satisfied MET. However, there is some legitimate concern of the potential damage to nature and on that basis preventive principle should prevail.
In conclusion, the environmental concern and developmental challenges are issues of never-ending debate. It must be noted that developed countries made it through reliance on not so environmentally friendly economic activities. Developing countries too shall follow same path to achieve development, which means more environmental damage. Rejections of some projects on environmental grounds may limit countries toward development they desired. It is obvious that the proposed activity could steer Namibia steps toward economic fortune. The question is, is the risking worth taking? If you ask me, the answer is no as long as MET fails to provide clarity on the potential damage to nature.
Immanuel Kauluma Shipanga works at University of Namibia and studied Environmental Economics from University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He writes in his own capacity.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015