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18 November 2014

Cement company blows up limestone hill and renders snail extinct - Guardian

Cement company blows up limestone hill and renders snail extinct

Malaysian snail among hundreds of species to become extinct as a result of fishing, logging, mining, agriculture and other activities to satisfy our growing appetite for resources.

Humble snails are no match for the might and indifference of the global cement industry. So it has proved for the now extinct Plectostoma sciaphilum, a rather beautiful snail that lived only on a single limestone hill in Peninsular Malaysia. A cement company blew up the entire hill and all remaining molluscs with it. All that is left of its former habitat is a big hole in the ground filled with water.

Its extinction was highlighted by the global environment network IUCN when it launched a major new study showing that 22,413 out of its 76,199 assessed species are threatened with extinction.

The neighbouring isolated hills are being quarried by Malaysian multinational YTL, owner of Wessex Water, where snails such as the bizarrely-shaped Hypselostoma elephas are in critical danger.

While attention is often drawn to iconic species threatened with extinction – the IUCN report highlights the vulnerability of the Pacific bluefin tuna among others – it also chose the demise of the tiny snail as an example of the damage being done by the extractive industry.

According to the IUCN: “The future of several other species in the region is uncertain for similar reasons. Whilst some mining companies are starting to take the necessary steps to reduce impact, IUCN is urging stronger commitment to prevent further extinctions.”

IUCN’s intervention comes just weeks after Guardian Sustainable Business revealed that another snail was at risk in Malaysia. The mollusc, recently discovered living on an isolated limestone hill called Gunung Kanthan in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia, was named Charopa lafargei after Lafarge in a bid to prevent the global and aggregates giant from decimating it. The IUCN says this snail is critically endangered and that the “continued existence of the species will depend in large part on the actions of the company.”

Tony Whitten, Fauna & Flora International’s Asia regional director, says the humble snail should not be seen as any less important than iconic species. “Snails have a marketing problem because they are small and in general are considered joke animals because they are slow and slimy,” he says.

“But they have beautiful shapes and colours and on a personal level I abhor the idea of extinctions when it results from deliberate ignorance. A species is a species and we are morally bound to protect them. When I ask people why they think snails are less worthy, they don’t really have an answer.

“Some people may see species such as the bluefin tuna as being more important but that is only because we can identify with them because of their size and the fact we like to eat them.”

Whitten says the reason the cement industry has been able to escape scrutiny until now is because limestone is not considered a strategic mineral so regulation tends to be governed at a local level, and because the companies rarely need international financing. Cement is a basic commodity and margins are razor thin. Whitten says because companies focus on volume to maintain profits, they are unhappy to set aside protected areas within quarrying sites.

It is not only in Malaysia where snails and other species are at risk from the cement industry. “This is a global issue,” he says. “Wherever in the world limestone occurs it has a special fauna and flora but the problems are especially acute in countries such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the US where you get isolated limestone hills.”

A common problem among cement mining companies, according to Whitten, is that environmental impact assessments they carry out are often of a poor quality and focus on birds and mammals and don’t give enough attention to limestone-associated species. The reports are not made public and cannot be scrutinised independently.

Worse still, Whitten says the cement industry has become fixated with trumpeting the restoration of sites they destroy, rather than taking a rational, proactive landscape approach which would include sustainable management and protection.

“No cement business has ever admitted the scale of the problem,” he says. “They tout their biodiversity pages in their websites and sustainability reports with pictures of ducks and frogs and children enjoying the wetlands created from the hills they remove. They give and receive prizes for their restoration work – but do not acknowledge what is being lost.”

The snail at Lafarge’s quarry was named after the company to make it pay attention to inconspicuous animals. “They would never have taken note of the snail unless the scientists had named it after them,” Whitten says. “Lafarge did not like it ... But the reality is I had been talking with them for 15 years and you get to the point where that discussion gets nowhere. This led Fauna & Flora International to resign from their international biodiversity panel. We are, though, having positive discussions with the local senior management.”

The IUCN’s Red List, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant, animal and fungi species, shows that Plectostoma sciaphilum is one of 901 species of the 76,199 assessed to have become extinct through fishing, logging, mining and agriculture.


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