Biodiversity conservation gets a business edge

Mining and energy operations have some of the most transformative impacts on the planet, with the power to strip landscapes, alter ecosystems and forever change societies. In this interview, Fauna & Flora International’s Business & Biodiversity Director, Pippa Howard, explains how working with business can create large-scale conservation benefits and how to join this emerging field.

Watching seals on St Kilda’s beach in New Zealand. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Watching seals on St Kilda’s beach in New Zealand. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

What is your background and what got you involved with business?

I did a double major in marine biology and environmental and geographical sciences at the University of Cape Town. I then went to the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute to work with marine mammals. As a woman, I wasn’t allowed to go into the South Atlantic and Arctic programmes where the marine mammal studies took place. I waited for four years doing an honours degree in biogeography, then followed it with a sociobiology and evolutionary theory Master’s degree both on mongoosesso became a terrestrial mammologist instead!

My first real job was as an Environmental Officer for a Waste Management company an absolute eye opener and the beginning of a long association with waste. I then worked as an environmental management consultant with mining, chemical plants, oil and gas projects and big development projects. I realised that companies didn’t really understand what sustainability meansnot in ecological or earth system boundaries at least. It seemed they thought the whole concept was more about having a viable business around in ten years’ time. None of them looked at the natural resource base on which most of them profit.

I left consultancy and joined the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (then the Cambridge Programme for Industry) where I managed organisational change with programmes like the BP Future Leaders and Women in Leadership Programmes, the Prince of Wales’s Business and Environment Programme, Sustainability Networks Programme and Cross Sectoral Partnerships. This exposed me to the idea that you need a combination of sectors to create change around big issues like climate change, poverty and biodiversity loss. I’ve spent the last 8 years with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), helping companies develop policies and practices to manage their environmental and social impacts.

Watching harriers in the South Gobi Desert, Mongolia while developing biodiversity action plans for the Rio Tinto mine, Oyu Tolgoi. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Watching harriers in the South Gobi Desert, Mongolia while developing biodiversity action plans for the Rio Tinto mine, Oyu Tolgoi. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

What does working with business involve?

It’s helping companies understand the consequences of the impacts of operating in an area for nature, local communities and their own operational security and how to work with stakeholders – local communities, authorities, regulators and peer industries to avoid or minimise those impacts and contribute to a positive outcome. The aim is to embed biodiversity within decision-making, risk management and financial planning in acquisitions, divestment and mergers, terminology which might be terrifying to conservationists because we don’t understand it.

You use everything from developing and implementing baseline studies and risk assessments, to impact assessments, stakeholder engagement, partnership management, conservation management plans, biodiversity action plans and long-term monitoring and evaluation. There’s also work generating sustainable funding models and creating governance, institutional and policy frameworks which help to guide all those things.

You might look at impacts at a site level or ecosystem level, all the way up to how it fits into a national strategy to protect a particular species or ecosystem.

Trucks transporting coal from the world’s largest coal mine, Tavan Tolgoi, in Mongolia – an example of the large-scale impacts of mining. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Trucks transporting coal from the world’s largest coal mine, Tavan Tolgoi, in Mongolia – an example of the large-scale impacts of mining. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

How do you form the right relationships within a company to drive change?

You need someone on the inside who’s a champion of environmental issues, who understands them and has influence. We’ve had most success when we’ve had strong people who are able to reach the right levels to bind biodiversity into the DNA of an organisation. It may take a CEO who’s had an enlightened moment or hard, dogged people who will force the issue again and again. Some relationships can take 5 or 10 years to build; others happen overnight.

What skills do young business practitioners need?

People wanting to get into this niche of conservation would do well to understand what makes companies tick. If you can understand the worlds of business, biodiversity, international development and more, you’ll be able to help navigate through them.

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There are two main angles of entry into this field: consultancy in environmental impact assessment and management or traditional conservation with a sound background in biology, geography or ecology.

Geographers make excellent conservation scientists – they have a good understanding of systems thinking, often see the world spatially and understand the interdependencies of human, physical and biological environments better than many ecologists do. Our team looks for a combination of all those

things, but especially malleability and people who are prepared to stick their necks out.

How much comes down to people skills?

A lot. I’ve often visited mine sites with female colleagues particularly in South Africa or Australia where the mining sector tends to be conservative and male-dominated and walked into rooms full of mining professionals who would think, “Here come the bunny-huggers.

How do you get a room full of people to start thinking around biodiversity issues? We look at impacts and dependencies on nature bringing issues and opportunities to a local level. We sometimes discuss what people enjoy doing in their personal capacity – for their holidays or hobbies and this makes a really personal connection. Someone might say, I like to go to Kruger National Park orI like to go fishing in this river because it’s beautiful. A penny drops when they realise that their favourite activities are entirely dependent on nature. Conservative-minded engineers would admit, “You know, I think we could and should do this stuff!”

What’s the most fascinating corner of the planet that your work has taken you to?

Western Mongolia is like going into a time warp. It’s this extraordinary blend of ancient history and culture a nexus of the Kazakh, Russian and Mongol empires alongside cultures that have been there for thousands of years. Nature is extraordinarily bare and very rawsnow leopards, Przewalski’s horse and saiga antelope – on a landscape so huge it’s beyond imagination.

The only comparison is northern Alaska which is vast but incredibly delicate and vulnerable. I was taken to Alaska because of the oil and the North Slope and to Mongolia to look at offsetting the impacts of coal mining. You realize that these places have been occupied by people for tens of thousands of years and they’ve managed to live in balance with nature.

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The Alaska North Slope is a region rich in oil and natural gas, as well as biodiversity. “You just can’t imagine why anyone would want to destroy this environment.” Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

The minute you start to change governance systems or put in infrastructure to extract natural resources, it creates the potential for enormous problems that could destroy those cultures’ traditional lives and access to resources. It has such enormous societal impacts too – alcohol, drugs and people who get lost because of the way we impose our consumerism on their society. This is why we need integrated approaches to understanding and managing development so that conservation of biodiversity takes into account the full range of issues and influencers.

There is always hope that we will change an outcome. I think that’s where the appeal is – if we work with policy or sectoral guidance that helps companies en masse change their behavior, we can get a lot of traction and broad-reaching biodiversity conservation gains.

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