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Conserving Guinea’s biodiversity

Sebastien Regnaut works for Guinea Alumina Corporation, developing one of the world’s largest biodiversity offsets

Living in the small city of Labé in the highlands of Guinea, Sebastien Regnaut and his family are surrounded by breathtaking landscapes, plants, and animals.

Sebastien and his wife have two children, a 10-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. The children are homeschooled and, while French, have always lived in West Africa.

The Regnaut clan lead a vibrant natural life, with daily activities including gathering water from the well, identifying frogs at the nearby stream and looking for species new to science, sustained by a seasonal food diet that is largely homegrown.

“We eat avocadoes every day for two or three months, and then we switch to mangoes when they are in season,” says Sebastien. “We also get huge, delicious pineapples that you can’t find anywhere else. My daughter even took a little traineeship with a local baker who makes everything by hand. She learned how to mix the dough and make fresh, hot baguettes.”

Sebastien, who is hugely well travelled and has worked in countries as diverse as Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and in 25 African nations, says stepping outside of his front door in Guinea is like “stepping into the past”.

Labé is a cultural and religious centre. Conserving traditions and the natural essence of what makes Guinea special, is hugely important to Sebastien and drives his work. The activities of the project he leads will be integrated to a territory of forests and savannas rich in biodiversity and already constrained by multiple usage from pastoralism to agriculture.

Although Sebastien and his family live an arduous 10 hour drive from Guinea Alumina Corporation’s mining site in Boké province, he is hard at work for the company.

Sebastien’s role as Biodiversity Offset Director is to lead the development of a 6,767 square kilometre national park called Moyen-Bafing, in which the Labé region’s West African chimpanzees can thrive and multiply.

The Moyen-Bafing biodiversity offset project is one of the largest and most ambitious in the world. It is a significant step both in chimpanzee conservation and biodiversity offset design and implementation. GAC is cooperating on the project with Compagnie des bauxites de Guinée (CBG), which has a neighbouring concession in Boké.

The challenge Sebastien and his team are facing is to build a nature reserve with enhanced protection measures for flora and fauna and which benefits the more than 20,000 people who live within its boundaries. Moyen-Bafing is a unique park in Africa in many respects, from the involvement of the mining industry in its establishment, to the focus on chimpanzees, to the prioritisation of the communities who live on and use the land.

“The chimpanzee is an important and charismatic species on GAC’s mining site,” says Sebastien. “We want our mining activity in Guinea to quite simply result in more chimpanzees in this country, not fewer. That is our choice as a responsible company as well as our responsibility to the people we live with and under the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standard 6 for biodiversity.”

“Chimpanzees in the Boké region have lived alongside people for centuries, sharing the territory and resources,” adds Sebastien.

GAC takes extensive measures to protect and extend the chimpanzee habitat – from working with local farmers to develop more efficient techniques that require less land and so replacing slash and burn agriculture, to maintaining aquifers on mining sites to preserve gallery forests, as well as rehabilitating mined areas with native plant species chimpanzees need. However, the increase in human population and activity overall could decrease the capacity of the area to support chimpanzees.

“We monitor the chimpanzee population in both Boké and Moyen-Bafing very carefully,” Sebastien says. “With more competition from people on the mining concession – not just people working in the mining industry, but many others attracted by the economic opportunity - the chimpanzee population may not be able to reproduce as well as if we were not there. That is why we are working to make Moyen-Bafing National Park an ideal environment for chimpanzees.”

“Offsetting can be perceived as contradictory or even unethical from a local perspective. It can be interpreted as a license for industrial operations to harm individual animals or to remove their natural habitats. However, we have developed rigorous practices involving everyone working at GAC to ensure that these impacts are minimised. Offsetting is about restoring or improving the broader balance of interests between the human population and the chimpanzee population overall. Both species have a right to thrive.”

Sebastien’s team is now working at changing the farming and other economic practices of the people living in both Boké and Moyen-Bafing to improve their well-being while decreasing the negative impacts of some of their activities on wildlife and natural areas. An international NGO is responsible for the operational guidelines Sebastien oversees and monitors. The measures include surveillance patrols to combat poaching and prevent illegal tree felling. They also include helping communities make best use of natural resources, such as honey production and shea butter processing. Additionally, they promote the adoption of new vegetable production methods and effective livestock management.

The programme has also established a new legal framework governing the operation of the national park to secure its future in the long term. Sebastien works closely with the International Finance Corporation and various ministers to complete the necessary administrative agreements to improve the way Guinea manages its network of national parks in the long run.

Sebastien has held his role since September 2022, but has worked on-and-off on the project for much longer. “Fifteen years ago, I was involved in the team who designed the offset plan, and identified the site that is now Moyen-Bafing National Park. I led the chimpanzee population baseline study for the GAC concession” says Sebastien.

While he works for a mining company, Sebastien is a dedicated conservationist. He earned an MSc in Molecular Biology from the University of Lund in Sweden in 1997; his PhD from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland in 2004; and an MBA from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 2008.   

“Moyen-Bafing is unique in that it is mining companies investing together in a national park, and it is the only chimpanzee biodiversity offset of its kind anywhere.”

GAC is committed to spending $28 million to support the development of the Moyen-Bafing National Park. GAC has been involved in the project since 2007 working alongside the Government of Guinea, CBG, IFC and the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation.