Less than a year after it helped to create one of the planet’s most important chimpanzee sanctuaries, the World Bank is accused of backing a dam project that could flood the newly protected habitat.
The 6,426 square-kilomet re Moyen-Bafing national park was established by the government of Guinea last November with the support of the International Finance Corporation , the private sector lending arm of the World Bank.
The nature reserve was intended as a “chimpanzee offset” and funded by two mining companies – Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée and Guinea Alumina Corporation – in return for permission to open mineral excavation sites inside other territory of the critically endangered primate .
Conservationists initially celebrated the creation of a refuge for humanity’s closest living relative. “Success – 4,000 chimps safe,” declared one wildlife organisation at the time.
But this jubilation has turned to concern in the past few weeks after the government approved plans for China’s Sinohydro to build the 294MW Koukoutamba dam inside the park, which could wipe out up to 1,500 western chimpanzees.
“This is really tragic,” said Rebecca Kormos , a primatologist who has been researching the animal in Guinea for decades. “If the plan goes ahead, it would have the biggest impact a development project has had on chimpanzees, ever.”
The World Bank funded the feasibility study for the dam and an environmental impact assessment that predicted only 200-300 chimpanzees were likely to be affected.
Kormos, who helped to conduct Guinea’s first nationwide survey of western chimpanzee numbers, believes this underestimates the population and fails to account for the deadly territorial conflicts that would ensue if the primates are driven into surrounding areas.
Although the World Bank is now calling for a moratorium on the project, she said the institution and the government of Guinea had effectively given the national park with one hand and were now on the brink of taking part of it away with the other.
“It’s shocking that the World Bank should approve such a badly done study and now they are going to wash their hands of this,” she said.
The World Bank said it was not providing finance or technical advice for the dam, and its role in the environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) was still ongoing: “The World Bank Group, and other partners, have made specific recommendations to address social and environmental mitigation measures that ensure protection of people, wildlife and biodiversity. Once we are satisfied that our recommendations have been adequately considered, we will proceed with the validation of the final ESIAs,” said a spokesperson.
After an 80% decline in the past 20 years, western chimpanzees are considered critically endangered – the highest level of risk – by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
In many countries the subspecies is now almost extinct. The healthiest remaining population of about 16,500 is in Guinea, but it is under threat from multiple sources, including hunting, mining and hydroprojects.
The planned Koukoutamba dam would flood an area twice that of San Francisco within the park, forcing the displacement of 8,700 people and causing irreparable damage to species that cannot easily be relocated.
Supporters of the project say it is necessary to generate power for one of the world’s poorest nations. Guinea is sixth from the bottom of the world development index, with only 3% of rural homes having electricity.
Critics counter that the benefits of the dam are unlikely to flow to local people. Three-quarters of the generated power will be exported and a sizeable proportion of the remaining energy will be channelled to foreign-owned mining operations. The unequal access to electricity has previously led to riots.
The conflicting economic and environmental pressures have revealed contradictions among international institutions and conservation groups.
The Jane Goodall Institute – perhaps the world’s most famous chimpanzee protection organisation – said it hoped the proposed Koukoutamba dam “will be carried out to minimise threats to the endangered chimpanzees and other animals living in the area”.
Sinohydro, which has previously been accused of destroying the habitat of orangutan in northern Sumatra, and the energy ministry of Guinea did not respond to requests for a comment.