Global call to arms for scientists as bad infrastructure booms

An international expert on development says fellow scientists are not doing enough to challenge trillions of dollars-worth of infrastructure projects that benefit only a few and seriously harm the environment.

An editorial by Distinguished Professor William Laurance on global infrastructure was published today in the prestigious journal Nature.

Professor Laurance, from James Cook University in Australia, said nine-tenths of all new infrastructure is slated for developing nations, where projects such as new roads and dams often lead to massive deforestation, fires, poaching and illegal logging, while seriously harming biodiversity and the climate.

He said scientists need to do more to tell the world about bad and corrupt infrastructure planning.

“Too often scientists are just tweaking projects to make them seem a bit less harmful to wildlife and people. But it’s mostly superficial — like fighting cancer with a Band-Aid,” he said.

“We all want to believe most development is good, that it’s helping people, and it’s well-planned and organised. But that’s just not reality. I’ve been working in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America for forty years, and I frankly can’t believe how bad it is now.

“The last thing in the world I am is anti-development. I’m pro-smart development. We desperately need smart, fair, sustainable projects in developing nations.”

Professor Laurance said far too much of what’s happening is benefiting only big investors, big corporations and big nations with aggressive development agendas.

“Every country in the world has a sovereign right to decide its own development goals, and there’s nothing even faintly undemocratic about experts giving people an opportunity to understand the real risks involved,” he said.

“We as scientists must stop rubber-stamping big development projects and look at them much more critically.”

Professor Laurance said the strongest arguments against many infrastructure projects are actually economic, financial and political.

“Many proposed or ongoing projects wouldn’t survive a transparent cost-benefit analysis, they shouldn’t have been approved in the first place. The world of infrastructure is being hugely distorted by corruption. Project proponents are paying off government decision-makers to get just what they want.

“Ill-advised projects are being approved every day. And the people being hurt the worst are the poor in developing nations. The rich fat cats are getting fatter and the poor are only getting poorer,” he said.

Professor Laurance said too many scientists are ceding responsibility to government and public-interest groups, or putting too much trust in regulations and safeguards. He said others are unsure if it’s appropriate to advise a country as a foreigner or are wary of the stresses – up to and including death threats – that come from speaking out.

“But if scientists simply shine a bright light we’ll find lots of unseemly things in the shadows, and a lot of the worst projects will collapse and fade away,” he said.

Reference available:

William F. Laurance. 2018. “If you can’t build well, then build nothing at all”. Nature, volume 563, page 295.

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