Time for business to respect nature

The World Wildlife fund has set up an office in Abu Dhabi following the increasing awareness of how businesses affect the environment

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By  Charlotte McDonald Published  March 8, 2001

For a long time, the Arabian Peninsula may not have paid much attention to conservation issues, but now they’re moving to the top of the agenda and business had better beware. A sign of the changing times is a decision by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to open an office in Abu Dhabi – a venture not considered a priority before now.

“Most NGOs [Non-Governmental Organisations] don’t have the resources to cover everything – they have to make choices and put priority on certain issues,” says Dr Frederick Launay, acting director of the WWF UAE project office. “So for a very long time the Arabian Peninsula was not on the list. More recently, [however,] WWF International decided to focus its activities on global eco-regions which, if conserved, will preserve 80% of the overall world biodiversity.”

Because there is no real legal framework on which local or international NGOs can act, a challenge in itself, WWF has had to work with local environmental organisation ERWDA (Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency). In 1999 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to allow ERWDA to provide the legal framework on which WWF started its operation. Now, WWF will be striving hard to establish a Middle Eastern presence and eventually become an independent body.

Among priority projects to concentrate on are the marine environment and the protection of endangered species. But WWF will also concentrate on working closely with businesses to help maximise their awareness of conservation issues.

“After conservation, there is then the question of how to implement action. 30 years ago, this country was not at the stage it is now,” explains Dr Launay. “The understanding of conservation issues was not there. The economic and the infrastructure backgrounds were not there either. Now all of these factors are here together – it’s a good opportunity to start something here in the UAE.”

Several factors need to be thought about regarding the impact of environmental legislation on businesses, be they established or new ventures. For starters, Dr Launay says that development will in future be closely regulated.

“Take for example the development of a new beach resort,” he says. “This has an impact on the coastal area. As a company, if you are to go through an environmental impact assessment process, there are a completely different set of rules that actually have to be applied. Emerging businesses here need to take into consideration the environmental impact of their project. It will take a couple of years to be implemented but it is coming. By law, businesses will have to go through this process.”

But even before legislation is implemented, WWF intends to start doing all it can to grow businesses’ awareness of conservation issues. “WWF has always been an organisation that has a link with businesses and industry in its conservation activity,” says Dr Launay. “All businesses and industries have an impact on nature conservation. We really believe that by talking to business partners we can have an impact on conservation issues.”

Generally speaking, WWF is surprised by the positive response from businesses and its willingness to embrace environmental legislation. “They have a good understanding and are quite responsible in the way that they want to combat the issues,” says Dr Launay. “There are businesses that are very much aware of the need for conservation. There are some that are a little bit behind. We are the key component to make more people aware of their responsibilities, [and] of the consequences of their actions.” he added.

However, can developing economies realistically be expected to pursue decent environmental standards? Dr Launay seems to believe so, but he believes that it’s up to the big players to take the lead. “A big corporation or business can show the way for other businesses,” he says. “Only then is it more likely to have a quicker effect and set an example to the local decision maker here to address the critical issues.”

Establishing its presence in the UAE and creating mindshare amongst businesses is paramount for WWF’s success. A game plan must be executed. “We are just starting in the UAE, so we have to establish a presence of mutual confidence and we have to demonstrate very clearly that we are adding value to the UAE in terms of conservation,” says Dr Launay.

He is confident, however, that anything is possible. Things have started moving extremely fast on the environmental front in the last six months. “We have gathered a lot of support from businesses and from the government,” says Dr Launay. “High ranking people here openly welcome us and say that there is room for us to play a role here. We are here to invest in the long term.”

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