Valuation of ecosystem benefits is key to making firms and the masses know that conservation is critical to their survival. For a large component of the business and civil society in India and the developing world, the concerns of growth and short-term profits are so large that very often the policy-making machinery becomes oblivious to the broader ecological concerns of biodiversity conservation.
Businesses inextricably depend on biodiversity through a well-defined supply-chain, whose recognition is obscure in the public domain. Rather, a large component of policy making, business, and citizenry look at biological conservation as an “ethical” and a “value judgmental” concern.
Till a point in time, many big conservation NGOs put across an ecological argument to justify conservation goals. But in most cases, the argument moved asymptotically with the human interface of the biological system. That is why the communications from these NGOs have always been taken as something external to the fundamental human existence. Therefore, the societal approach is: as conscientious human beings, committed to value systems that teach us to respect life on earth, we should think of conservation.
This implies that conservation is not thought of being the core of business. The accrual of knowledge and scientific understanding at the interface of nature, economy and society, ever since the 1980s and 1990s, started changing this perception in the developed world. Since the Club of Rome’s prediction of “apocalypse” in its ‘The Limits to Growth’ thesis, the human response to the “approaching doomsday” has been characterised by extensive research, gradual knowledge accrual through global assessments, and conventions.
The Earth Summit of 1992 adopted the Brundtland Commission Report’s definition of “sustainable development”, and the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) became effective from December 1993. With CBD, for the first time, the framework of international law recognised conservation of biological diversity as an integral part of the development process.
On the scientific front, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) of 2005 enhanced human understanding of the fact that the ecosystem functions in its own inimitable ways to provide ecosystem services (benefits) to society in the form of provisioning services (food, raw materials, genetic resources, water, etc), regulating services (carbon sequestration and climate regulation), cultural services (tourism and religion), and above all, supporting services that are necessary for production of all other ecosystem services (nutrient recycling and soil formation, among others).
The proper delineation of “ecosystem services” helped in understanding the direct linkage between human society and biodiversity: for every bit of existence of human society, there is a critical need for the biodiversity as a “stock” to exist, to ensure the “flow” of these ecosystem services. Lately, the recognition of biodiversity conservation has become extremely important from the perspective of treating the biodiversity as “natural capital”.
While new investment can lead to addition in capital stock thereby raising production, investment in “natural capital” can help in sustaining the good health of the ecosystem and its services.
Central to appreciating the role of ecosystem services is through their monetary valuation.
Fifth, valuation can help revise investment decisions: example, infrastructure development, that might otherwise ignore the related harm expected to be caused to the natural environment and consequent loss to the ecosystem services.
In a recent research on the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) in Uttarakhand conducted by WWF India, the aggregate values of seven ecosystem services were found to be around $6 billion in 2017-18; the implication being, ruining this landscape tantamounts to destroying a value of $6 billion.
On the other hand, more than half the population in TAL-Uttarakhand is living below poverty levels and an earning member of a household gets as little as $1.9/day. The ecosystem dependency of these households is higher than those earning average per capita incomes, as they earn more from ecosystem services than incomes from various sources. That is precisely why the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), published in 2010, recognised that these ecosystem services are “GDP of the poor”, as the poor’s incomes and survival are dependent on the ecosystem.
This implies that any policy towards land-use change in the landscape and ground actions leading to land-use change in the wildlife habitats and corridors should be considered very carefully. One needs to take into account the economic value loss with ecosystem service loss, as it is the poor who suffer the most from the loss in ecosystem services.
In this context, the Natural Capital Protocol, initiated by the Natural Capital Coalition, a collaboration of the world’s leading institutions from, among others, business, science and academia, and conservation, entails a standardised framework for identification, measurement, and valuation of the ecosystem services, thereby helping the firms understand their dependencies on nature and also the impact of their initiatives on the ambient environment and the biodiversity.
The problem with conservation NGOs and MoEF in India has so far been with the communication component of this inextricable linkage between conservation and development. Despite the best intentions, somehow there is a gap in planting the idea in the minds of business and hoi polloi that conservation is everybody’s business. Though it is fashionable for businesses these days to come up with sustainability reports, there is hardly the recognition that their bottomlines are dependent on the ecosystem services.
As such, from the age-old ecological messages of “conservation for the sake of conservation”, the communication has to change to “Conservation for Development” for the masses and the businesses to really think that conservation is core to their survival. This makes conservation everybody’s business: a selfish human need, rather than an ethical statement. Valuation of ecosystem services and natural capital assessments become very important here.