Does it matter why we do restoration? Volunteers, offset markets and the need for full disclosure
Date: 26, Mar, 2019
Volunteers are behind much of the ecological restoration work done in Australia. Private landholders, environmental nongovernment organisations (ENGOs) and community groups all donate time and money to much‐needed restoration and revegetation efforts. Biodiversity offsetting has emerged as a potential source of financial support for such work. We consider the question: should it matter to practitioners of restoration, particularly landholders and volunteers, how it is financed? We argue it should, because when offsets fund restoration work, the net environmental outcome is usually intended to be neutral – not an environmental gain. This is often not clear, because only the localised environmental gain is seen by the restoration practitioner, not the associated loss. For mandated offsets, the restoration work is required to occur regardless of whether the volunteer contributes to it or not, so their contribution only replaces work that would otherwise be done by a commercial provider. We contend that informed involvement in offset provision requires full disclosure, particularly to volunteers and landholders. Unfortunately, however, such transparency does not always occur. We acknowledge that there are valid reasons why well‐informed practitioners might willingly subsidise offset provision, but they might equally choose not to. Furthermore, offsets are intended to cover the full cost of biodiversity damage, creating a disincentive for damage by developers. Yet, subsidies from offset providers work against sending market signals that reflect the true replacement cost of biodiversity. We recommend that all ENGOs, developers, offset funders and brokers commit to transparency, particularly to landholders, donors and volunteers, about the environmental impact that is to be offset and the fact that their involvement generates no additional environmental benefit, as the offset is a condition of approval for a permitted loss, much like the rehabilitation of a mine site. Providing restoration services in partnership with industry may be something that landholders, volunteers and ENGOs are happy to support. But this must be decided consciously, not through unnoticed incremental changes that contradict some volunteers’ values or donors’ understanding of an organisation's mission.