World Heritage

Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rainforest Among Outstanding Natural Sites Under Threat from French Multinationals

Half of World Heritage sites are currently threatened by industrial development, and the oil and mining sectors pose a particular threat. So many invaluable sites and biodiversity sanctuaries face being wiped off the map just because we are unable to do anything about our voracious model of development. Several French transnational corporations are among those involved in projects that could herald the end of these exceptional sites. Some of the sites facing destruction include national parks in Africa, the Arctic islands, virgin forests in Asia, and the Amazon Basin.

This article was originally published in French on 17 May, 2016. Translated by Susanna Gendall.

It seems that there is no limit to the industrial exploitation of the world’s resources. Even areas of the world that have so far been spared – either due to their remoteness or because they have been protected in recognition of their outstanding cultural or ecological value – are now in danger. It appears that these protective measures are no longer enough. According to the environmental organisation WWF, half of World Heritage sites are jeopardized by industrial development, especially activities that include oil and gas exploration and mining.

Unesco’s 229 World Heritage sites represent only five percent of the Earth’s surface, yet their symbolic importance is immense. One has only to call to mind the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon or the Galapagos Islands. They are home to some of the most endangered animals in the world including mountain gorillas and Sumatran tigers. And yet, despite what one might think, industrial activities are permitted in these areas with varying restrictions depending on the legislation in force. According to the WWF, about a third of World Heritages sites are threatened by extractives. This figure is even higher in Africa where 61% of designated sites are subject to mining or oil concessions. Many of these sites are on the official “World Heritage in Danger’” list compiled by Unesco each year.

Natural heritage in danger

Equally disturbing is the fact that the number of protected areas in the world is decreasing, or being downgraded or delisted. According to a recent study, no less than half a million square kilometres across fifty-seven countries have been lost, sacrificed to industrial development. [1] The threats hanging over these invaluable natural sites illustrate the degree to which we are incapable of breaking out of our destructive, rapacious development model. Damage caused by local communities (poaching, deforestation, etc.) is another factor jeopardising some sites, but there is still hope that these communities will return to economic activities that are compatible with conserving their natural environment. However, mineral and hydrocarbon concessions – as well as deforestation, large-scale infrastructure projects and intensive agriculture and fish farming – are fundamentally incompatible with the status of World Heritage. Some sites face being wiped off the map altogether.

And this is not just speculation: in 2007, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman was removed from the World Heritage List due to increased oil exploration concessions in the area. This was the very first time that a World Heritage site was delisted. [2] Shell, the main partner of the Omani government (Total being a minority shareholder with 4% of shares), had agreed not to drill in World Heritage sites – but the country’s authorities found an easy way around that obstacle and just reduced the size of the protected area by 90%! Needless to say, the site now only has a handful of Oryx left, a bovid similar to antelope.

The role of French corporations

A number of transnational corporations have solemnly undertaken not to conduct their operations in World Heritage sites. However, as commendable as these commitments may be, they are not always as heartfelt as they seem. The French corporation Total, for example, promised not to drill in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but did allow itself to drill in the vicinity of the protected area and in the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda (see below). And the indirect effects of activities in the surrounding area are almost as harmful as those that take place on the actual World Heritage site itself.

The non-exhaustive list below is intended to illustrate the severity of the threats hanging over these invaluable natural sites (some of which don’t feature on the World Heritage list) – as well as over those that live in these areas. It also highlights the role played by French transnational corporations. Oil and mining companies are the main culprits as these are the corporations that operate directly in the areas concerned. Other sectors such as the agri-business industry and large retailers also play a negative if indirect role on large protected areas due to the nature of their supply chains. World Heritage sites such as the Sumatran forests and the Banc d’Arguin National Park are as threatened by palm oil plantations and industrial fish farming as they are by extractive industries.

1. The Great Barrier Reef (Total and French banks)

Stretching hundreds of kilometres off the west coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, and has been designated a World Heritage site since 1981. Its crystal clear waters are home to hundreds of species of fish, shellfish, turtles and dugongs. Already suffering the impacts of climate change, the Great Barrier Reef is now also threatened by expansions in the coal and gas industry. The protected area is directly affected by the construction of huge export terminals, ship traffic and the resulting risk of accidents and spills. And the risks will be even greater if the Galilee Basin mega-mines and the Abbot Point export terminal go ahead. Unesco had intended to include the Great Barrier Reef on the list of World Heritage sites in danger, but decided against it following diplomatic pressure from the Australian government.

Under pressure from civil society, a number of financial institutions including the French banks BNP Paribas, La Société générale and Crédit agricole – have agreed not to fund the Abbot Point coal terminal. French banks are, however, involved in similar projects near the protected area, [3] such as the big Gladstone LNG export terminal on Curtis Island, in which Total is involved (see article by the Multinationals’ Observatory on this project). In 2011 and 2012, dumping of toxic waste from harbour developments in Gladstone Bay resulted in the deaths of a large number of sea animals – a disaster regarded by many as a harbinger of the threats to the future of Great Barrier Reef. [4]

2. The Tapajós basin in the Amazon Rainforest (EDF and Engie)

The Tapajós River is a tributary of the Amazon. Its basin, which is has been relatively well-preserved up until now, is considered to be extremely rich in biodiversity. Its rivers host hundreds of different species of fish, manatees, caimans, turtles and giant otters, and its forests are home to thousands of jaguars, monkeys and birds. But after the mega-dams on the Xingu river in the East (Belo Monte dam) and the Madeira River in the west (Jirau and Santo Antonio dams), the Tapajós river is the latest target for massive hydroelectric developments. The indigenous people that live in this area, the Munduruku in particular, are pitted against these plans and have even stated that they are prepared to go to “war” against the Brazilian government in order to protect their land. Although these dams are touted as green, they would flood thousands of hectares of virgin forest, including those in national parks –– not to mention the indirect deforestation caused by building sites, roads and the influx of people. According to its objectors, the electricity generated by the dams will be used primarily to fuel the expansion of mines and smelting plants in the region.

Engie (formerly GDF Suez) has a long history of being involved in large dams in the Amazon, particularly with its Jirau project. EDF, France’s largely state-owned electricity company, recently acquired the consortium to build the Sinop dam in the upper basin of Tapajós. The two French companies participated in the extremely controversial “Tapajós study group” (Grupo de Estudos Tapajós, or GET), which is supposed to examine the feasibility of dams in the lower basin. It has been accused of confronting local communities with the army, essentially giving them no choice in the matter. The two companies are in line to build the biggest dam yet in the area – São Luiz do Tapajós (8000 megawatts), although the authorization process is poised to be an intense legal and political battle. Engie has not yet made a definitive decision. EDF declined to comment. [5]

(Update: The license for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam was cancelled in August, 2016. It is not clear whether a new license will be sought. Other dams in the basin are still being built.)

3. National Parks in the African Great Lakes region (Total)

The African Great Lakes region has emerged as one of the new frontiers of the oil industry. In a region already suffering from endemic violence and the exploitation of “conflict minerals”, its eco-systems are now at risk of further degradation, and its local communities risk being deprived of their livelihoods.

The Virunga National Park, lying to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, between lakes Edward and Albert, is Africa’s oldest National Park. It has been designated a World Heritage site since 1979. It is home to somewhere between a third and a half of the remaining mountain gorillas, a species that is critically endangered. The British oil company Soco raised quite a stir several years ago with its plans to drill in the National Park, but has since temporarily given up its plans, bowing down to public pressure. Total also holds an oil concession that partially overlaps the National Park’s boundaries, but has pledged not to drill in the National Park. There is, however, the question of the indirect impact of oil operations in the immediate vicinity of Virunga, especially given that neighbouring Uganda has opened its part of Lake Edward to offshore exploration.

Total is also active in the north of Lake Albert, in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest protected natural area. The Natural Park, which includes both equatorial forests and savannah ecosystems is home to the major site of Murchison Falls. Its vast wildlife include elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and hippos. It is located on either side of the White Nile, meaning that any accident or contamination could have consequences a long way downstream. [6]

4. Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (ArcelorMittal)

Hit hard by global warming, the Arctic is also prey to the mining and oil industries, eager to get their hands on the resources previously hidden under ice (see our article on this issue). ArcelorMittal is behind one of the biggest mining projects in the area. The steel company has just opened an iron ore mega-mine north of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This the area where many of the most emblematic species of the Far North live – polar bears, arctic foxes, caribou, seals and walruses – but are suffering the consequences of climate change. In just a few years the number of caribou on Baffin Island dropped from 180,000 to 16,000.

Although ArcelorMittal’s mine may not be directly located in the protected area, transporting the ore by train or truck, and then by boat, will have an impact on important sites, especially the Sirmilik National Park, just to the north of the mine. These activities are also likely hamper the movement or scare away the traditional prey of the Inuit people – caribou, whales and narwhals. The main threat, given that climate change has already taken its toll on sea ice – critical habitat to polar bears and other species, is the use of heavy-tonnage icebreaker ships to export the ore. ArcelorMittal is currently seeking to increase both the number of months its ships can operate per year and its maximum authorized tonnage. The company declined to answer our questions.

5. The Peace-Athabasca Delta in Canada (Total)

The Peace-Athabasca in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, is one of the largest freshwater inland deltas in the world. Its ecosystems and unique biodiversity has made it a World Heritage site since 1983. Its buffalo are a particular feature, giving the park its name. The delta is now in a critical situation due to the gradual melting of glaciers, which flow into the Peace and Athabasca rivers. Another contributing factor are industrial developments upstream such as hydroelectric dams, fracking for shale gas and oil, and especially exploitation of Alberta oil sands. As the Canadian journalist Edward Struzik explains, the industry is extremely water intensive, and also generates a lot of pollution, affecting not only animals but also communities residing downstream. An accidental oil spill would not only destroy the delta, but its effects would ripple downstream as far as the Arctic Ocean.

Total is a major player in the oil sands industry in Canada with 50% interest in the Surmont project, as well its involvement in the Fort Hills venture, set to produce oil in 2017. Total’s other projects in the region have been postponed due to the drop in oil prices. In response to our questions, Total stated that its production sites meet Canadian environmental regulations and were a fair distance from Wood Buffalo National Park. This, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that their sites play a role in the cumulative impact of the oil sands industry on the national park.

6. Obo Natural Park on São Tomé Island and the tropical forests of Central Africa (Socfin / Bolloré)

Obo Natural Park covers about a third of São Tomé Island, located off the coast of Equatorial Africa. Its forests, among the richest in Africa in terms of biodiversity, are home to many of the world’s unique plant and animal species: birds, reptiles, amphibians, orchids and giant begonias. The Luxembourg-based company Socfin (38.7% owned by the Bolloré group) owns a palm oil plantation right on the park’s border, encroaching into its “buffer zone”, intended to enhance the park’s protection. According to Greenpeace, developments made by Socfin as part of its concession has forced many farmers, stripped of their land, to use land located in the natural park. Greenpeace has also denounced the fact that there has been no biodiversity or environmental impact assessment.

Other than the island of São Tomé, Socfin’s forest concessions in Equatorial Africa amount to some 325,000 hectares, of which only a small amount is currently being farmed (80,000 hectares of palm oil plantations et 50,000 of rubber tree plantations). According to Greenpeace, Socfin and the Bolloré Group, a major shareholder in the company, constitute a threat to the rainforest in the Congo basin, where several World Heritage sites are located. After more restrictive policies were adopted in Malaysia and Indonesia following pressure from ecologists and the public, this area is now being dubbed as the next frontier of palm oil. Greenpeace has mapped Socfin’s concessions in DRC, Cameroon, Liberia and São Tomé, and it would appear that these concessions all cover dense forest areas, which play an invaluable role as a carbon reservoir and biodiversity haven (elephants, gorillas, okapi, bonobos, to name just a few) as well as ensuring the livelihood of local communities. [7]

Greenpeace has also pointed out the impact of Socfin’s plantations in Liberia “located at the heart of what remains of the ancient Upper Guinean forest, which stretched from Togo to the east of Sierra Leone, and which is considered to be ‘one of the highest global conservation priorities’ ”. Both Socifin and the Bolloré Group declined to answer our questions. They did, however, reply to Greenpeace (see their press release here), although they failed to address the specific issue of protected areas. [8]

7. The Laguna del Tigre in Guatemala (Perenco)

The Laguna del Tigre, located in Northern Guatemala, is the largest wetland in Central America. It is located in a national park that forms part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a massive protected area that covers one-fifth of the country. The area is home to a number of species, some of which are endangered, as well as Mayan archaeological sites.

The Laguna del Tigre has been affected for decades by the direct and indirect effects of oil extraction, which the French company Perenco has had a monopoly over since 2001. Local communities have denounced the appalling health effects of their operations as well as the repressive measures carried out against them (read our article). After a massive lobbying effort, Perenco managed to get its concession renewed, despite the pollution and the fact that its drilling sites are located in a protected area. A legal and political battle is currently underway in Guatemala in an attempt to annul the authorisation. Incidentally, it has also emerged that the authorities “lost” the environmental impact assessment that the French company submitted in order have its concession renewed. In response to our questions, Perenco only referred us its web page, where we have been unable to find any specific information on the potential impacts of its operations on the protected sites.

8. The Wadden Sea (Engie)

The Wadden Sea extends 450 kilometres along the coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Designated a World Heritage site since 2009, it features a network of sandbanks, salt marshes, channels and lagoons between the mainland and the sea (Wadden means “foreshore” in Dutch). It thus hosts fragile and complex ecosystems in an area that is heavily populated with humans. Several million birds fly to the area every year for the winter and it is also home to many seals and porpoises.

The Wadden Sea is subject not only to pollution swept in by major rivers that flow into the North Sea, but also to a number of offshore oil and gas operations off the coast of the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Engie is one of the most active companies in the area. The French energy company holds exploration and production licenses in the immediate vicinity of the World Heritage area, off the coast of the Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland islands. Engie also owns shares in a pipeline network that crosses the protected area. [9]

9. The Kakadu National Park in Australia (Areva)

The Kakadu National Park, an area equivalent to half of Switzerland, is located in the far north of Australia. It is an area extremely rich in flora and fauna as well as home to a number of Aboriginal cultural and archaeological sites, including thousands of rock paintings. It is also the setting for a huge uranium mine run by Rio Tinto, a company which has already caused significant environmental damage. [10]

The French group Areva was hoping to exploit a deposit in Koongarra, which would be just as lucrative but met with unexpected resistance from an Aboriginal leader Jeffrey Lee, the traditional owner of the land, who refused to sell it. After a lengthy political battle, the Australian authorities finally agreed to Lee’s request to entrust his land to the government so that it be incorporated into the National Park. In 2014 Areva threatened to take legal action against the Australian government in order to obtain financial compensation for the loss of its “investment” and profits (read the article by the Multinationals Observatory). It seems that the company has not yet put its threats into action. Kakadu’s future may be safe for now, but a rise in uranium prices could potentially turn the tables. Areva declined to answer our questions.

10. Halmahera in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands (Eramet)

In Indonesia, Halmahera is Maluku’s largest island, located at the heart of the area known as the “Coral Triangle”, renowned for its marine and coastal biodiversity. Located on the ecological and cultural border between South East Asia and Oceania, Halmahera’s lagoons and forests are home to many unique species, including endangered birds and amphibians. The inhabitants of the island (both indigenous and migrants) have long suffered the environmental and social devastation caused by the mining industry. And the French company Eramet now wants to exploit an enormous nickel deposit on the island and build a processing plant. Its concession, which covers 55,000 hectares of land, includes areas of virgin forest that are supposed to be protected, and is located between two natural areas (there had once been plans for the site to be a national park).

Prompted by ecologists, Eramet has taken a more active role in regards to its social and environmental responsibility, making a number of commitments and promising to have a positive impact on biodiversity through compensatory measures . . . But this still leaves pollution risks as well as those associated with deforestation. And there is also controversy over the way in which local populations are being consulted and compensated. Hydrometallurgical processing, chosen by Eramet to minimize its direct environmental impact, involves the use of toxic chemicals that will end up in the marine environment, as happened in Southern New Caledonia when a chemical spill occurred in the nickel plant owned by the Brazilian group Vale.

The Weda Bay mining project – once considered by the French diplomacy to be the most strategic in Southeast Asia in terms of “national interests” is on hold until mid-2017 due to depressed nickel prices. [11]

11. Gunung Kanthan Hill in Malaysia (Lafarge)

Gunung Kanthan is a limestone hill in the province of Perak, in Peninsular Malaysia. The French cement and aggregates giant Lafarge, which recently merged with the Holcim Group, domiciled in Switzerland, operates a quarry on a concession covering a total of 150 hectares. The region boasts some of the world’s most unique biodiversity and is home to a number of endangered animal and plant species, as well as certain remarkable sites such as the spectacular “cathedral cave”. Two years ago, scientists working in the area even went so far as to name a newly discovered tiny snail after the company that is threatening its extinction – Charopa lafargei – (read the article by the Multinationals Observatory).

Lafarge claims to have taken measures to safeguard the biodiversity of the site and, potentially, protect certain parts of the hill from mining altogether, but it is still highly likely that these areas will be at least indirectly affected. The limestone caves of Gunung Kanthan are also home to Hindu temples and Buddhists who will be forced to leave. In response to our questions, Lafarge reiterated its commitment to do everything necessary to protect the endangered species of Gunung Kanthan, and to “manage sensitive biodiversity”.

12. The Peruvian Amazon (Maurel & Prom and Perenco)

The Peruvian government has not been shy about opening its country’s doors to the oil industry. Nearly 80% of the country’s Amazon Rainforest – home to many indigenous communities, some of which are living in voluntary isolation – are already subject to concessions. Two French companies, Perenco and Maurel & Prom (read our articles here and there) are among those operating in the area. Perenco operates “Lot 67” right next to the famous Yasuni Park, located on the border of Peru and Ecuador, and is building an enormous pipeline that will pass through a protected area. Perenco also holds shares in “Lot 39”, bought from the Spanish company Repsol, which viewed the area to be too compromising from an ethical point of view! Maurel & Prom is present further south in “Lot 117”, an indigenous territory inhabited by tens of thousands of Indians. The company left the area in late 2015, but, unfortunately, did not solve the pollution problems. All these concession contracts partially encroach upon protected natural areas. [12]

13. Mount Nimba in Guinea (ArcelorMittal and Areva)

Mount Nimba is located in eastern Guinea, close to the border of Côte d’Ivoire. Despite the fact that its vast ecological richness has made it a World Heritage site, the Guinean government decided to embark upon an exploration of underground iron-ore deposits, going so far as to claim that it had made a mistake in the documents sent to Unesco for the purpose of registering the area as a World Heritage site. Although the mining permit has been granted, the mine – which is set to be one of the biggest in the world – is not yet in operation after changing hands several times. The ArcelorMittal group (which owns another mine close to Liberia) planned to acquire it, but changed its mind in 2015. The concession contract is currently the property of the Euronimba consortium, in which Areva has a 13% stake [13].

14. Anticosti Island in Quebec (Maurel & Prom)

Anticosti Island, which is about size of Corsica, is located in the Saint Lawrence estuary in the Canadian province of Quebec. It is dotted with forests, waterfalls, caves and canyons, and only has a few hundred inhabitants. Anticosti’s main activities have primarily been forestry, tourism, hunting and fishing. The oil industry has recently set its sights on the island, aware that potentially billions of barrels of shale gas and oil lie beneath the land. Despite strong opposition from residents and the Innu, the first exploratory drilling is planned in 2016. The junior French oil company Maurel & Prom, holds stakes in the consortium that grants exploration rights and potential exploitation of these deposits. According to an impact assessment released by the Quebec authorities, exploiting deposits on Anticosti island – if they indeed exist – would require drilling thousands of wells on the island and extracting water from rivers that flow through the Anitcosti National Park. In response to our questions, all Maurel & Prom had to say was that it only holds a 21.7% stake in the consortium . . .

Olivier Petitjean

Photos: Steve Parish / Lock the Gate Alliance CC; Stephen Hass CC (Great Barrier Reef protests); Valdemir Cunha / Greenpeace (Tapajós); Bernard Dupont CC (African Great Lakes); Ansgar Walk CC (Baffin Island); Angsar Walk CC (delta Peace-Athabasca); Maria Cartas CC (Obo); eLKayPics / Lutz Koch CC (Wadden Sea); Alberto Otero García CC (Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park); Muhammad Ector Prasetyo CC (Weda Bay on Halmahera island; Ong Poh Teck/Basteria (carrière de Gunung Kanthan en Malaisie); Archives CAAAP (Peruvian Amazon); Maarten van der Bent CC (Mount Nimba); mammouth48 CC (Anticosti Island).


[1See this article as well as the dedicated PADDDTracker site set up by WWF and Conservation international.

[2Only one other site has ever been delisted – the Elbe valley around Dresden, Germany in 2009 due the construction of a massive bridge over the river.

[3French banks BNP Paribas, Crédit agricole and Société Générale are involved in several coal mines in the Bowen Basin, where production is exported out of terminals located in the Great Barrier Reef area. Natixis and BNP are directly involved in two of these terminals – those of Dalrymple Bay and Wiggins Island respectively. BNP Paribas and La Société générale are involved in the Australia Pacific LNG terminal on Curtis Island. See information gathered by Australian NGO Market Forces here.

[4In response to our questions, Total stressed that Gladstone LNG operations are subject to regulations and very strict environmental supervision. Société Générale referred to their Environmental and Social Principles and the Cross-Sectorial Policy on Biodiversity Conservation that govern their investments. The principles and policy don’t exclude financing projects in protected areas or that affect them, but do refer to reinforced environmental protection measures. BNP Paribas declined to answer our questions.

[5In response to our questions, Engie stated that it had not yet made a decision regarding its bid for the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, and pointed out that it was required to participate in the Tapajós Study Group as operator in the country. EDF declined to answer our questions. See the report by the Multinationals Observatory on the role of French companies in financing mega-dams in the Amazon Rainforest and elsewhere.

[6In response to our questions, Total said to be fully aware of the issues related to the indirect effects of its operations in the vicinity of protected areas, and is taking them into account. Regarding Murchison Falls National Park, Total stated to have a “global biodiversity programme” as well as a biodiversity charter and scientific committee to work alongside the project.

[7See here and there.

[8The Bolloré Group has filed a defamation suit against Basta! for mentioning the company in a report on French corporations and land-grabbing, which refers to several Socfin plantations. The suit was dismissed at the initial trial, but Bolloré filed an appeal.

[9In response to our questions, Engie considered that the protected site did not concern the company, given that it is not currently directly operating in the protected area.

[10Although the mine is in theory not part of the National Park, it is located right in the middle of the protected area.

[11In response to our questions, Eramet sent us its 2015 Annual Report.

[12In response to our questions, Perenco referred to information published on its web site, where we were unable to find specific information on the potential impact of its operations on protected sites. Maurel & Prom sent us their Annual Report, which basically reiterates answers given to NGOs criticising their operations in Peru.

[13Both ArcelorMittal and Areva declined to answer our questions.