A group of authors from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute explore the idea of science-informed nature action in more depth. Jessica L. Deichmann et al. use compelling case studies from the cutting edge of the Smithsonian’s conservation research to show how problems that impact nature across the lifecycle of a development project can be solved.
As a result of new international standards and increased interest from stakeholders in infrastructure development projects, requirements for companies to disclose and mitigate their nature-related impacts are increasing. With biodiversity in crisis and many companies aiming to deliver net-positive biodiversity impacts, it is more and more important to identify the biodiversity challenges businesses face and design efficient management actions to address them. The Smithsonian Institute (SI) has been collaborating with the private sector for more than two decades, using a scientific approach to identify impacts and provide solutions for supporting biodiversity throughout the cycle of operations for projects in the energy and agricultural development sectors.
A scientific approach to devising solutions to mitigate impacts on nature can benefit business in many ways, such as through the following:
Quantifiable results that support environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting and alignment with national and international frameworks
Transparency and credibility conferred by peer-reviewed publications
Measurable co-benefits of biodiversity actions that support other aspects of corporate social responsibility (CSR), namely climate and social commitments
Collecting data that provides a basis for adaptive management to address new or changing challenges
Examples that shape policy through innovation and experimentation, allowing companies to become a model for their sector
In this article, we present five case studies demonstrating the scientific approach to solutions for business biodiversity challenges, with additional examples listed in Table 1 at the end of the article. Each case study is associated with one of four phases of development projects (scoping/exploration, construction, operations, restoration/closing). The examples highlight how the resulting evidence has been channeled into nature positive management actions.
Scoping/Exploration: A Science-Based Web-Mapping Tool to Support Strategic Landscape Planning
Scoping/exploration is the first phase of development projects. Project scoping should identify potential impacts on biodiversity, determine likelihood or risk of negative impacts, and identify alternatives for avoiding impacts. A scientific and systematic scoping or screening assessment may involve additional time and effort but ultimately reduces costs by identifying strategies for avoiding impacts, assessing potential offsetting opportunities, and prioritizing fieldwork to better manage biodiversity risks during project implementation.
In 2019, SI began collaborating with International Finance Corporation (IFC) to address concerns related to environmental risks of development in the Paraguayan Chaco. The Paraguayan Chaco represents a region of biodiversity and economic importance that urgently needs a landscape-planning approach to minimize further deforestation and ensure conservation of its remaining natural habitats (see Figure 1).
SI and IFC are co-developing an innovative web-mapping tool, grounded in IFC’s Performance Standard 6 (PS6), to support informed decision making for sustainable investment and development.1,2 The scientific data incorporated in the decision-support tool aligns with the key variables identified in the PS6 framework. These include natural and modified habitats, number of Priority Biodiversity Values, three levels of critical habitats based on their likelihood of occurrence, legally protected areas and internationally recognized areas, and environmental risk ranks based on the biodiversity conservation importance of the area.
Using a participatory stakeholder approach, this web-mapping platform, known as ASIST-Chaco, is the first to upscale key PS6 variables from the project to the landscape level for a specific region. The methodology applied was defined during technical meetings with SI scientists and IFC biodiversity experts, and specific data is being gathered through consultations with local and international experts. This process ensures transparency and reliability of spatial information, alignment with PS6, and accuracy of spatial analyses performed.
ASIST-Chaco will inform transparent, nature positive, evidence-based decision making for sustainable development investments by identifying environmental risk areas based on ecological and environmental variables customized for the Paraguayan Chaco, providing science-based, up-to-date spatial data to support environmental criteria widely used among financial institutions. It also allows for compilation of environmental and ecological spatial data for an area of interest provided by the user. The platform will launch in 2023. It will require regular data updates, and it will be possible to extrapolate the model to other regions.
Construction: Reducing Forest Fragmentation Through Evidence-Based Mitigation
Infrastructure construction can damage ecosystems and disrupt wildlife movement, especially in forested habitats. As part of a conservation-business collaboration that began in 2010,3 SI proposed natural canopy bridges (tree branch connections above linear infrastructure) as a way to mitigate fragmentation caused by pipeline construction in the Peruvian Amazon. With our collaborators, we designed a study to evaluate whether natural canopy bridges mitigate the fragmentation impacts of a pipeline right-of-way for arboreal mammals.
We installed camera traps in natural bridges and on the ground, both where bridges were present and absent, and monitored right-of-way crossings for a year (see Figure 2). In the canopy bridges, we recorded more than 200 times as many crossings and four times as many arboreal species versus the ground.
The results demonstrated that canopy bridges are used frequently and that arboreal mammals avoid crossing on the ground.4 The study serves as a verifiable, permanent record that can be used to support tree branch preservation as a mitigation measure. Additional data can be used to report on species-level business biodiversity impact metrics, such as the numbers of threatened, protected, or endemic species recorded.
The primary recommendation for the company was to leave as much natural canopy connectivity as possible along the right-of-way to allow arboreal mammals to cross. Natural bridges are a virtually no-cost solution, requiring only careful clearing to prevent branch and trunk damage. Natural canopy bridges may have add-on effects, including facilitation of forest regrowth near the right-of-way by reducing evapotranspiration relative to bare areas and providing habitat for animals that disperse seeds.
To provide the technical and logistical information necessary to replicate and scale up the incorporation of natural canopy bridges into other projects, we have communicated the results to diverse audiences via seven academic and industry publications, several blogs and videos, more than a dozen conference presentations, and more than 20 presentations to government officials and the public.5,6 The project has also won scientific and industry awards.
Since the conclusion and dissemination of this project, the Peruvian government has requested that new pipeline projects in the country include natural canopy bridges, and the method has served as an example for several other projects across the globe. Researchers are extending this study to understand how the installation of artificial bridges (made of rope and cable) can increase connectivity for arboreal mammals in places where companies must retrofit older projects.
Operations: Minimizing Negative Interactions Between Seabirds & Port Infrastructure
Large ports support coastal communities through fishing as well as shipping/storing energy, mineral, and agricultural products. However, the resulting modification of the seascape can introduce multiple environmental challenges, including decreased water quality, increased sedimentation, and the need to coexist with wildlife.
In 2010, South America’s first international port terminal to export liquified natural gas was built along the central coast of Peru, a marine area that’s part of the highly productive Humboldt Current Large Ecosystem (HCLE). The port includes a 1.5 kilometer main pier and two breakwaters that were built with concrete and natural rock from a nearby quarry. The site was selected because of its distance from natural protected areas and urban areas and for its lower levels of biodiversity, among other factors.
The new infrastructure provided a new habitat for seabirds. The HCLE sustains one of the largest populations of seabirds on the planet, and the pier and breakwater provided new perching and nesting spaces for several species. The metal cages along the pier that hold gas, water, and outfall pipes were quickly occupied, primarily by the threatened Inca tern (Larosterna inca).
Although providing a refuge for a threatened species is a positive outcome in a sense, the presence of thousands of terns and their guano quickly became a problem for the company, threatening the structure’s integrity and increasing maintenance costs. The company’s attempts to dissuade the seabirds from using the area included mesh nets, nylon thread grids, trained raptors, loud sounds, and visual cues (bright orange buoys thrown into the air). These strategies had mixed results.
Through trial and error, Smithsonian scientists learned that scaring the birds from their perching areas was not cost-effective. About half the seabirds returned to perch in the same area minutes after being driven away. An initial attempt to dissuade birds from using the infrastructure using mesh covers was promising but required further study. For 18 months, we investigated seabird-perching behavior in areas with mesh nets, without mesh nets, with nylon thread grids, and after the use of bright orange buoy deterrents. We found that mesh net covers and a diffuse network of nylon threads reduced the number of birds on the port by about 98%, with many birds safely moving to the breakwaters (see Figure 3).7 Visual cues had no long-term effect on the seabirds.
We recommended extending the area covered by mesh to include all the pipeline along the main pier and continuing the use of nylon thread grids. This strategy significantly reduced the density of seabirds along the main pier. The breakwaters, which are adjacent to the main pier, offered hospitable conditions for the displaced seabirds to settle and reproduce. Our findings have been presented as a thesis dissertation and are currently under review at a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Operations: Reducing Risk of Human-Wildlife Interactions in Biodiversity-Rich Industrial Concessions
Many extractive industries in the tropics are working in environments rich in biodiversity, including those with species that are potentially dangerous to humans but are on IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. The question for research is how to avoid or minimize risk to infrastructure, people, and wildlife while promoting cohabitation.
For example, forest elephants, a critically endangered and nationally protected species, have broad distribution in the 85% forested country of Gabon in Central Africa. Their movement corridors cross industrial concessions, and they can be attracted by exotic plants like mango trees in residential camps. In some areas, poor food waste management has allowed them to access potentially harmful waste and increases the likelihood of elephants and people coming into close proximity (see Figure 4).
Smithsonian scientists are collaborating with the hydrocarbon industry in Gabon to find solutions, including the design of elephant-proof waste enclosures (built using old oil pipes). It took a stepwise process to design a way to lock the enclosures. Elephants progressively learned to open initial designs with horizontal, and then vertical, bolts. A shackle with bolt and nut was then designed. It takes two hands to open, and an elephant has only one trunk, solving the problem.
When waste became inaccessible, elephant visits diminished over time, reducing risk to staffers disposing of waste and preventing elephants from ingesting toxic materials like plastic bags and aluminum foil.
However, physical solutions only work if people implement them. Wildlife information and risk-reduction behaviors were incorporated into mandatory site-specific safety inductions to increase operators’ knowledge about elephants and promote safety-conscious behaviors. Scientists provided input to supplement the company’s wildlife safety rules and conducted information sessions on elephant biology and human behaviors that minimize risk (maintaining a safe distance, not provoking elephants, etc.).
Ongoing monitoring of waste sites and elephants enables any necessary changes to be made quickly; awareness sessions ensure that rotational and new staff are reached. This approach has been adapted to other potentially dangerous and high conservation–value species (e.g., crocodiles near underwater infrastructure being worked on by divers, leopards attracted by feral dogs seeking poorly managed waste, and snakes in/near company infrastructure). Our recommendations for improved waste management to minimize human-wildlife conflict are being prepared as a white paper for industry in Gabon.
Restoration/Closing: Long-Term Monitoring Facilitates Restoration
Transportation, extraction, and energy production infrastructure are economic and social necessities, but they are one of the main causes of habitat fragmentation. Extraction and transport of natural gas from the Camisea deposits in Amazonia to the Pacific coast in Peru required building a 408-kilometer underground pipeline system crossing the Andes Mountains, a biodiversity hotspot.
Pipeline design and careful evaluation of route placement were important in avoiding sensitive areas and habitats, as were construction considerations like reducing the width of access roads and pipeline rights-of-way. A major advantage of burying the pipeline was that it allowed recovery of aboveground vegetation. The problem was how to accurately measure vegetation recovery along such an extensive, complex, heterogeneous, biodiverse area.
In the tropical high Andes, important ecosystems include streams, grasslands, and wetlands (bofedales). The latter plays a critical role in receiving, retaining, filtering, and regulating underground water, as well as carbon storage. Smithsonian scientists designed a vegetation-monitoring program based on a network of intensively surveyed permanent plot pairs. Each pair consisted of one plot directly above the buried pipeline (to assess recovery) and one plot in an adjacent representative undisturbed area (to control for regional environmental and local anthropogenic changes).
The control plots proved extremely valuable because climate change and local human impacts (e.g., overgrazing, land use changes) can alter the structure, composition, and dynamics of ecosystems. Moreover, characteristics of an ecosystem described 15 years ago in the environmental impact assessment may no longer be representative of its current or future condition because of climate change. Restoration efforts and objectives must adapt to these changes. Adaptive management measures included: (1) designing a rapid vegetation assessment system to provide information the company needed for decision making and (2) excluding livestock to protect recovering vegetation.
The project scientists developed a data visualization tool that allows managers to see the history of restoration across the monitored ecosystems through maps and charts. The tool helps managers identify areas with better-than-expected recovery so they can make more effective decisions about resource allocation. Ongoing monitoring has shown that areas above the pipeline are recovering their plant cover and diversity, providing the company with information to measure the success of restoration efforts (see Figure 5).
The Scientific Approach Helps Solve Biodiversity Challenges
The scientific approach provides businesses with independent, quantifiable, credible assessments that allow companies to assess their performance with respect to biodiversity, facilitating ESG reporting. Involving scientists early in project development contributes to establishing robust baseline metrics against which changes throughout the process (from construction to decommissioning) can be evaluated. Moreover, peer review of scientific publications based on impact assessment and mitigation research provides transparency, credibility, and a verifiable data source, which may be required for some reporting frameworks.
Biodiversity-focused scientific studies can also produce measurable co-benefits of biodiversity actions that support other aspects of CSR, namely climate and social commitments. For example, the ASIST-Chaco platform provides data on themes related to social commitments, such as the location of protected indigenous reserves, which allows private companies to more broadly screen for CSR criteria. Similarly, the study in Gabon evolved into interventions that not only reduced food waste, but also increased local agricultural yields through experimentation with composting.
In the longer term, the scientific approach produces monitoring data to support adaptive management. Business operations do affect natural environments, but so do climate change, other anthropogenic changes, and natural variations. In Peru, high concentrations of cadmium detected in marine habitats were initially attributed to a company’s water discharge, but closer data examination revealed they were caused by natural erosion of rock higher up in the watershed. Being able to accurately distinguish causality with respect to biodiversity impacts is crucial for ESG reporting and project management.
Innovation is not only an integral component of a healthy business model, it’s also key to developing science-based solutions to conservation challenges. This makes science and business collaborations fertile ground for co-developing novel practices that can shape policy and change the way business is done. Straightforward nature-based solutions, such as leaving natural canopy bridges in place or enabling natural restoration, are often low cost and easily replicated. Where nature needs more of a helping hand, innovation through experimentation can be clearly documented to establish proven methodologies that can be shared and even become industry standards.
Science-based approaches, including question-driven experimentation and well-planned biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring, provide indispensable information to improve environmental risk management, identify practical and successful strategies for mitigating direct and indirect impacts, and restore affected habitats. They also provide key information to define potential offsetting strategies and additional conservation actions.
Science-based approaches have long-term benefits that are worth the time and costs incurred. As consensus on standardized metrics for reporting business impacts on nature continues to evolve (e.g., Science Based Targets Network, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, and the Global Reporting Initiative), companies can lead the way by using the best science-based approaches to identify the biodiversity challenges they face, address those challenges head on, and deliver high-quality reporting on the context-specific projects under their purview.
1 “Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources.” International Finance Corporation (IFC), 1 January 2012.
2 “International Finance Corporation’s Guidance Note 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources.” International Finance Corporation (IFC), 27 June 2019.
3 Deichmann, Jessica L., et al. “Nine Conservation Principles to Foster Collaborations for Nature Positive Outcomes.” Amplify, Vol. 35, No. 11, 2022.
4 Gregory, Tremaine, et al. “Natural Canopy Bridges Effectively Mitigate Tropical Forest Fragmentation for Arboreal Mammals.” Scientific Reports, Vol. 7, No. 3892, 20 June 2017.
5 Gregory, Tremaine, et al. “Methods to Establish Canopy Bridges to Increase Natural Connectivity in Linear Infrastructure Development.” Proceedings from the SPE Latin American and Caribbean Health, Safety, Social Responsibility, and Environment Conference, Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), Lima, Peru, 26 June 2013.
6 Gregory, Tremaine, et al. “Linear Infrastructure Impact Mitigation with Natural Canopy Bridges: A Case Study of Best Practice Evaluation Within a Partnership Between a Scientific Institution and a Hydrocarbon Company.” Technical paper, VIII International Seminar on Exploration, Exploitation, Processing and Transport of Hydrocarbons (INGEPET), March 2014.
7 Ponce-Garcia, L.A., and C.B. Zavalaga-Reyes. “Effectiveness of Deterrence Methods to Decrease the Number of Seabirds in the Dock of the Perú Lng Plant, Pampa Melchorita.” Ciencias Marinas, under review, 2022.