Biodiversity offsetting at the Upper Hunter – Addressing communities’ solastalgia

Glenn Albrecht was examining the impact of open-cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter when he realised the locals were suffering from a form of chronic distress. Their relationship to their home environment had turned bad as the landscape had changed. In an attempt to explain this feeling of disempowerment, Albrecht coined the term ‘Solastalgia’, as an emplaced or existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation (desolation) of a once loved home environment. In other words, the homesickness you have when you are still at home.

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Allan Chawner, Upper Hunter region, Coal Mine

The once beloved home environment of the Upper Hunter’s communities remains bounded to Coal Mining

Mining activities keep negatively altering not only the communities’ surroundings, but also their emotional and internal peace and well-being.

Despite the predicted falling prices of coal and with billions in capital investment poured into mining companies in the Hunter Region over the past five years, there is no doubt that production will continue to grow. The expected expansion in coal mining activity over the next 20–30 years will imply new mining proposals that will continue to change the natural environment and compromising the ecosystem services it provides.

 

But, can the Hunter’s communities afford to reject mining?

The Hunter Valley Research Foundation’s latest Economic Indicators show a high level of dependence of the Upper Hunter’s regional economy on the fortunes of the coal industry.  This over-reliance on minerals has been argued to be a ‘resource curse’ that looms ominously over the economic future. Why? Not only because the communities’ most valuable asset – the natural environment and hence the ecosystem services it provides – is at stake, but also because what apparently seems good for decision-makers in the short-term has not always proved to be good for society as a whole in the long-term.

Then perhaps the value of coal for the Region’s economy is overrated, and perhaps it is time for the Hunter to ask the tough question. While it is true that the mining industry generate economic opportunities difficult to forego, how do we ensure that the cumulative impacts on the environment, and consequently on biodiversity values are considered along the development process? How do we ensure these developments will be sustainable and will not compromise the heritage of future generations? How do we address the solastalgia evoked with the unescapable so-called progress?

Projects need to be carefully evaluated to ensure environmental assets such as the nationally listed threatened species and ecological communities of the region will be protected. In this context, biodiversity offsets strategies, which refer to measurable conservation outcomes of actions designed to compensate for significant residual adverse biodiversity impacts arising from project development, are being considered by the Upper Hunter mining industry as a key tool to demonstrate good environmental stewardship, promote their corporate social responsibility and manage regulatory risks.

 

But, can biodiversity offsets recreate the landscape and ecosystem services that people aspire, long for, and miss since the advent of mining?

Several are the gains that can be achieved through biodiversity offsetting.  Local communities can benefit from them to ensure not only properly rehabilitated project sites, but also additional conservation outcomes outside the project’s borders to support livelihoods and amenity, securing functioning and productive ecosystems before, during and after mining activities.

 

So, can the coal mining companies destroy protected biodiversity values if they recreate the natural environment and its ecosystem services elsewhere?

It is not a licence to trash, it is the complete opposite. By putting a value on biodiversity, a financial incentive for developers not to trash it is placed. If the Hunter is ever to mainstream the value of the environment into its decision-making then there is a compelling need to introduce biodiversity offsetting on some mandatory basis.

Yet, this needs to be done in proper placement within the ‘mitigation hierarchy’, which means decision-makers should first seek to avoid, minimise and mitigate the harm the mining projects cause to biodiversity. Only then should companies offset the residual, unavoidable impact of the project. Thus, if offsets are firmly anchored within the context of this hierarchy, do not provide a ‘license to trash’ the environment, as it is commonly argued by opponents.

 

Are the community’s voices being heard?

The distress and homesickness (solastalgia) of local communities are still exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the offsetting process. The suspicion and distrust among the community, significantly reflected in the Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue – Report on the Stakeholder Survey for the NSW Minerals Council, calls for a higher and better community involvement. A more opened and informed debate is needed, but also, if progress is to be made and biodiversity offsets are to succeed, the mining industry, governments, environmental groups and local communities, all need to engage in a transparent and proactive process to ensure that the natural and cultural values and heritage are treated with respect and preserved for current and future generations.

Offsetting biodiversity has challenges, there are definitely pitfalls, but it is time to take action if we are going to build a natural capital on which the wealth of our communities depends.

 

… We need to give biodiversity offsets more thought! We need to give it a chance to compensate the environment as well as communities for all what they have lost in the process, enabling them to overcome the desolation and melancholia that the mining industry brought to the once loved home environment… curing them from their Solastalgia.

By Joshelyn Paredes

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jane Lambert says:

    Thanks Joshelyn for a thought-provoking piece.

    When it comes to biodiversity offsetting, I find myself sitting on the fence.

    On one hand, I’m not convinced that biodiversity and social values can be quantified. Also, I have problems with the “like for like” approach, and am concerned this results in no overall net gains.

    On the other hand, I agree that attributing some value to environmental stewardship could help recognise it’s importance; and help drive social change. The reality is society is driven by market forces – so we may as well use these to our advantage.

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