Election Issues 16: Why destroy mangroves for development?
Election Issues 16: Why destroy mangroves for development?
(appeared in The Fiji Times, 21 June 2014 as “Development at what environmental cost?”)
Professor Wadan Narsey
A letter writer to The Fiji Times recently argued that some destruction of the environment was necessary if Fiji was to develop, and this justified the reclamation of two large areas of mangroves in Suva (see Google Earth picture).
While such a view makes many environmentalists furious, there is a point in the argument probably shared by many others: all physical developments, such as roads or farm extensions, involve the destruction of the original environment, so why not these two mangrove areas?
This article tries to explain why these two areas of mangroves should be left alone, and why there are other less destructive alternatives.
Changing attitudes to the environment
Once upon a time, there were few concerns raised about the impact of investment projects on the environment.
In the last three decades, scientists have realized the enormity of the long-term destruction that they had unwittingly unleashed on Nature, with the extinction of species, destructive changes in the physical geography of rivers and soils, etc. and severe long term costs expressing themselves as “climate change”.
Some of these changes, such as the negative effects of the Aswan Dam in Egypt are irreversible, while other attempts to turn back the environmental damage, such as returning the farmland to the original state in the Murray River Basin in Australia or reducing the levels of carbon emissions globally, are extremely difficult and costly.
This is why an entire field in economics, “environmental economics” and what are called “environmental impact assessments” (EIAs) have been developed to enable societies to make sensible decisions about development projects, with a full understanding of the environmental impacts, BEFORE the projects are initiated.
But most countries in the world now completely ban the destruction of mangroves and fight hard to regenerate mangroves.
How EIAs work
A good EIA tries to examine all the impacts (environmental, economic, and social) that the development project will have on the lives of the affected people, the current and future generations, and all the natural species, known and unknown.
The benefits of the projects are usually obvious and easy to quantify: the jobs, incomes, convenience to shoppers or residents, profits of project owners, taxes to government, etc.
But the EIA also has to put a monetary value on all the environmental costs of the project, often requiring a “market valuation” such as the value of lost timber, incomes, medicines, marine resources, not just in the immediate area, but through the food chain, to other geographic areas.
Often, to determine monetary values of environmental benefits, economists will often ask “what would you pay to enjoy this environment benefit?” Of course, the answer usually depends on how rich the respondent is.
A good EIA is a difficult exercise full of disagreements between environmentalists and economists, between environmentalists themselves, and between economists themselves.
Developed countries usually have a better understanding of the species that are in particular environments, from birds to butterflies, to all kinds of species of plants and living organisms, and also some idea of their economic value.
But they also lack basic knowledge and base data about species they know to exist, and knowledge nightmares about species they have yet to discover, but which they know are there, simply because of the past history of discovering new species in such areas.
Of course, it is impossible to know the economic value of species into the future given that it all depends on the development of science and technology.
The difficulties are greater in tropical coastal regions, mangroves, reefs and oceans where there is an absolute dearth of scientific knowledge, but which are the new frontiers for the pharmaceuticals and other industries.
EIAs also suffer from a fundamental weakness that all future values and costs have to be converted to “present values” through the use of discount rates on future flows.
This effectively reduces the future values, and impact on future generations, even though the benefits to and costs for the future generations are no less real, and might even become higher as natural resources become scarcer globally.
In sum, the development project is approved if the total value of the benefits (jobs, incomes, profits, taxes, foreign exchange etc) are higher than environment costs and there is a net positive benefit for the economy.
Losers don’t have to be actually compensated to have a “an improvement in the economy”. (Bad luck, losers!)
All these difficulties are far more difficult in Fiji where there is an absolute dearth of scientific knowledge about what exists in our mangroves.
But ultimately, enlightened people will argue that it is vital to preserve our environments and bio-diversity, and every unique species, regardless of their so called “economic value” or lack of economic value, as perceived by the current generation.
EIAs for the Suva mangroves
The public might want to ask, was there ever any EIAs done for the two reclamation projects in Suva, between Grantham Road and Fletcher Road, and at Nasese?
But that would be the wrong question.
Far more important is to ask: why is there any need to reclaim these mangrove areas in the first place?
One reclamation (at Nasese) is to build a housing sub-division and the other reclamation is to apparently build a 20+ story commercial and residential complex with other amenities.
BUT the fact is that while gold mines can only be developed where the raw materials are, these two projects did not require that they be situated were the mangroves are.
There is more than ample land all over Suva, much belonging to Fijian landowners, whose incomes would be considerably enhanced by the use of their land for these investment projects.
So why destroy these two areas of mangroves?
The likely answer is that the investors in these two reclamations have probably made the calculation that there is far more profit to be made by reclaiming at these ideal central locations in Suva, than building elsewhere and paying more for the land.
But at what cost?
We have not even gone into the possibility that both these mangrove areas are the flood plains for two rivers, and reclamation is likely to cause flooding to the surrounding low-lying areas, especially after heavy rain, and high tides.
But is private profit to these investors enough reason to destroy permanently these two mangrove areas and cause much damage to nature and other private interests?
What exactly will the EIAs show?
If the EIAs show a net loss, will the authorities ensure that the development is stopped, mangrove regeneration encouraged and the investment moved to another location?
Or will government simply go ahead and approve the project anyway regardless of what the EIA reveals?
Mahatma Gandi is supposed to have said:
“The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us”.
I am sure that is at the heart of the sentiments on Green Sustainable Growth Strategy articulated by Brig. General (ret) Bainimarama last week, except that mangroves are not being handed over as we received them.
What do political parties and candidates think of these two projects where mangroves are being destroyed for no good reason?
Remember that there are many such mangrove reclamations taking place all over Fiji, often through dubious approval processes.
Is the preservation of our environment a valid and worthy election issue?