Dispatch from World Environment Day in Rwanda: Looking at the Biodiversity Balance Sheet


Photo:Meaghan O'Neill.

Think about everything you love about nature, and why you believe its worth preserving. Maybe the smell of the ocean breeze, say, or the beauty of your favorite flower in bloom reminds you of your mom. Maybe you love bird watching or camping with your family. Perhaps the extinction of a even single animal makes your heart despair. Whatever it is, it probably has some emotion attached to it. Well, it's time to drop the nostalgia. Because if their was one message from the United Nation World Environment Day conference in Kigali, Rwanda, it was that ecosystems have financial value. We need them to save us, and if we are to save them, we must translate their worth into dollars and cents. Stat."We have constructed a world that has separated us from nature," said Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UNEP, at a press conference on the opening day of the conference, "because our reliance on nature traditionally meant uncertainty--droughts, floods, storms." In that man-against-nature world, we've built up our infrastructure and our societies to defy -- and at the expense of -- nature. Now, we must be willing to pay for the massive losses that have made our natural resources ever more precious, and the status of our planet more precarious. "That is the beauty of economics," said Steiner. "Short-term economics has driven misallocations of money and ideas. It has been easy in the past to say 'We'll move on to the next hectare when the times comes.' But now, that hectare is gone. That nature is free and can be replaced with synthetic substitutes no longer holds."

In 2001, UNEP began its concerted its effort to monitor and stop loss of biodiversity, with the promise to check in on that goal in 2010. And so, it is the U.N's the International Year of Biodiversity, and, as such, UNEP's theme for WED this year follows suit, with the tagline "One Planet, Many Species, On Future." Biodiversity (or perhaps more accurately loss of biodiversity), the short- and long-term fiscal worth of ecosystems, costs and benefits of restoration and conservation, and translating this information for both the public and government (but mostly government) was the underpinning of most every presentation, press conference, and conversation throughout the first day of the conference, which began June 3.

But What If the Same Person Was in Charge of Energy and the Environment?
"I was always well respected when I said I was Minister of Energy," says Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, "but not when I said I was Minister of the Environment." Here's a surprise: Rodriguez was both at the same. In 1985, Costa Rica created the position of Minister of Environment, Mining, and Energy. It's a novel (if at once both unlikely and sensible) idea: Combine the responsibilities for both national parks and the mining and protecting of natural resources, resulting in policy that ideally keeps both in balance instead of creating tension between them.

Great idea, But a small problem arose when Rodrigues, who now works for Conservation International, met with the finance minister to ask for money to help save the nation's forests. The minister asked what was the value of the forests Rodriguez so wanted to spare. Speaking from the heart -- instead of the spreadsheet -- Rodriguez described their rich flora and fauna and endless beuaty. He left empty-handed. But it was also his a-ha moment. He realized that he needed to assign a monetary value to the ecosystems of Costa Rica.

Rodrigues soon came up with the numbers that reflected the "goods and services" of the watersheds, the fisheries, the rain forests, and so on. He determined that National Parks were worth 5% of GNP, agriculture, 7.7%. Furthermore, Rodrigues redefined the benefits of healthy ecosystems. Good food, clean water and air, and healthy fisheries are not just nice things we should take for granted. They are, in fact, commodities. And so rivers became water factories, shoreline ecosystems became flood control centers, forests became pollinators, coastal waters became fish production facilities, etc. "I learned that we cannot speak a different language than the economists," said Rodriguez told the crowd. "These are more than resources, they are systems. It's not just bugs and plants in the forest, these are services that have economic value, and deserve payment for their economic services."

The government began subsidizing farmers to leave forest intact instead of chopping it down for agriculture, restoring ecosystems, and soon had a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, as well as improved biodiversity and a new outlook on how they would approach their natural resources. They also improved life expectancy, agriculture, and environmental and human rights. Today, the country generates 92% of energy from renewable energy (it banned oil drilling eight years ago) and ranks among the world's top countries for environmental action. "You can protect the environment and at the same time grow economically and socially," says Rodriguez, a lovely storyteller who made the whole process sound exceedingly simple. Let's hope some smart government delegates were taking good notes.

Is Our Planet Living or Dying?
Roughly two-thirds the world's forests are gone, and with them thousands of species, millions of tons of stored carbon dioxide, and trillions of dollars in financial value. So do we have a chance at recovery, or we beyond the point of no return? UNEP's Dead Planet: Living Planet: Biodiversity and and Ecosystem Restoration for Sustainable Development takes a sort of half-full and half-empty approach to its response. It features case studies of amazing restoration projects, such as how working to protect the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda has resulted in large tourism revenue; another tells how a restored costal ecosystem in Biscayne Bay, Florida is generating $1.7 million annually. The bad news is that only about 44% of the services that damaged ecosystems once provided can be recovered (in the short- medium-term). Put another way, "We are trying for a message that is hopeful, positive, and economically viable," said Achim Steiner at the opening of the press conference about the report, "while 60% of our ecosystems are compromised."

Like Steiner's keynote address, delivered earlier in the day, Dead Planet: Living Planet makes two key points: Sustainably managing ecosystems must be our top priority and investing in the restoration of lost or damaged ecosystems is both crucial and provides a significant rate of return ($3--7 return for each dollar spent, according to the UN). In his address, Steiner proclaimed, "We need to make clear not just to the environmental and scientific community, but to presidents, prime ministers, and other responsible leaders the extraordinary losses the world is sustaining as a result of the mismanagement of nature's goods and services." Scientists have been referring to the benefits of ecosystems in these terms for a decade. It seems that now, the new economics of environmentalism has finally begun.

Author's note: I'm blogging from Rwanda during World Environment Day, though contrary to what our graphics say on this site, it's not exactly "live blogging." Connectivity has been a bit spotty. Sorry about that, but stay tuned for more stories.

Tags: Biodiversity | Global Climate Change

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