Over the last two weeks i’ve been studying the concept of valuing ecosystems with the University of Exeter (1). It may seem something of a strange concept that we should try and assign a monetary value to an ecosystem, yet we spend money on flood defences, water filtration, preserving biodiversity in national parks, and even perhaps trying to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But nature and the ecosystems around the world already perform these services for us.
So why put a Money Value on an ecosystem at all?
From our visit to Madagasacar in 2016 it became painfully obvious to us that the environment is all connected.
We have one world with finite resources and whenever we increase our production of one thing, we usually reduce our production of something else.
For example, we might use land to grow more food rather than timber, in which case we may make a conscious decision to reduce the number of trees. The downside is we might increase the amount of water pollution and increase the amount of greenhouse gases being produced.
In order to compare the benefits of one against the other we need to put them into some form of common units, and generally this is money.
Clearly valuing an ecosystem is no easy thing and there has been a huge amount of research in this area including that by Professor Ian Bateman director of the Land, Environment, Economics, and Policy Institute at the University of Exeter (1).
But Should we really value Ecosystems?
There are many good arguments as to why valuing ecosystems isn’t a good idea…
Can we really place value on human life, aesthetics or biodiversity?
Should we preserve nature and biodiversity regardless of its value towards humanity?
Why should only certain areas be protected and others degraded?
It’s not a clearcut argument.
The REDD+ Makira Project
The Makira forest region represents one of the largest expanses of humid forest left in the biologically rich eastern rainforest of Madagascar. The World Conservation Society (WCS) estimate it contains a staggering 1% of all global biodiversity. It became a protected National Park in 2012 and is managed by the WCS on behalf of the Madagascan government.
In the early stages the REDD scheme was not popular with villagers…
“Neither the information nor the money reaches us here, everything stays with the WWF [Madagascar]. There is no compensation, only penalties to pay.”
“We protect our environment but we don’t get anything back. We have had nothing in exchange.”
Cutting open the pods shows the different bean varieties. Trinitario is a hybrid variety. The violet beans here are the hardier Forastero variety and the white centre beans are the more delicate and desirable Criollo. Through cross pollination both beans can exist in the same pod. Through selective breeding high yield trees with fine flavour varieties can be produced.
In the Raisetrade model of making in the country of origin the picture changes considerably…
The REDD+ project in Madagascar has highlighted some of the challenges of putting a monetary value on an ecosystem.
To be of real benefit the project needed to provide an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture and this has been particularly successful with cacao where the trees’ natural requirement for shade dovetails neatly with the preservation of the natural forest landscape.
Another important factor in choosing cacao was the already established market for Madagascan cacao beans currently established in the geographically limited area of the Sambirano valley in the North-West of the island.
If you couple this with the fledgling export industry of Chocolat Madagscar there is a chance to meet more of the UN sustainability goals (Decent Work and Economic Growth for example) creating added value employment and retaining tax revenues in Madagascar.
So this project has succeeded on many levels, combating climate change by locking in carbon, protecting an area of biodiversity that could be lost for ever and providing meaningful employment.
There will be challenges ahead. But let us celebrate this success story.
(1) Valuing Nature – University of Exeter – Future Learn
(4) Raisetrade – www.raisetrade.com