Linking People’s Needs to Nature’s
May 25, 2012, 8:18 amBy FELICITY BARRINGER
Bloomberg News-Miners using a mix of mercury and water to find gold particles in discarded rock in Tanzania. The North Mara mine near the border with Kenya disgorges millions of pounds of waste rock each week, piled high around communities where many people live on less than 40 cents a day.
It has been a generation since the rise of environmental economics. Yet even after years of groundbreaking research and support from governmental agencies and nonprofits, the work of such economists has tended to be tangential to the aims of most large conservation organizations. But in the last few years Peter Seligmann, the founder and chairman of Conservation International, has made a major strategic change in his $250 million organization.
After two decades of emphasizing the preservation of “hot spots,” or areas with a high level of biodiversity that are threatened with development, the group refocused on efforts to link environmental conservation to the economic self-interest of surrounding communities and countries. The move cost the 25-year-old organization some members, he acknowledges.
In a recent interview on the eve of the group’s current sustainability conference in Botswana, Mr. Seligmann discussed his conviction that attending to the needs of people is crucial to meeting the needs of nature. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.
Why is that a group that is worried about the human impact on the environment and biodiversity should also worry about humans?
We had focused on these biodiversity hot spots – found them and looked at countries that were particularly important in terms of the concentration of species and looked at big wilderness areas. By all measures we had set up, we were very successful, identifying hot spots, generating revenue, protecting important places.
At the same time, it became extremely clear that extinction rates had increased. Global fisheries were collapsing. Our climate was changing. And I started thinking: humanity is threatened by the decline of ecosystem health. We are not going to have a stable source of food. We are not going to have stable sources of water.
We are not going to have predictable, stable climates. We are not going to have biodiversity for medicines. We are basically cooking ourselves.We need to turn this around so that the forces of development actually understand that societies will not thrive if ecosystem health deteriorates.
That meant we had to redefine our mission. That meant revisiting our science, our base of knowledge, the decision-support tools that leaders have.
What do you mean — refocus your science?
Instead of asking the question “Where do you have concentrations of biodiversity?” you ask the question “What do ecosystems provide for people? What does biodiversity provide for people? Where does their water come from?”
We ask a question: “What is a forest?” Traditionally you look at a forest as a source of timber. It’s a building material. What we began to say is, actually, a forest is a water factory. It produces water. It produces pollinators, which are essential for crop production. It produces soil. Instead of asking “Where are the concentrations of biodiversity?” we should have been asking “How are we dependent upon what nature provides us? How do you measure it? And how do you assure that it continues to flow?
You have said that we put these areas aside “in the pantry,” but that when people need food, they go to the pantry?
“Instead of asking, where are the concentrations of biodiversity? we should have been asking, how are we dependent upon what nature provides us? How do you measure it? And how do you assure that it continues to flow?”
I’m just saying that people will do whatever they need to survive. Having lived through endless arguments about “You’ve got to choose between jobs and the environment,” “You’ve got to choose between energy security and the environment,” “We need to choose between water supply and the environment,” it became very clear that whenever we deal with issues that are pressing social needs – water, energy food, jobs, health – environment is always the piece that you discount. But when you do that, you sabotage the sustainability of a society.
Can you give examples in line with your approach?
If you go to South America, there are 1,200 planned hydroelectric projects. What we analyzed is, where is the sources of the water coming from for those hydroelectric dams? Half of the water comes from cloud forests. All of a sudden it’s in the enlightened self-interest of the energy industry to make sure that those cloud forests are protected.
Did you find that some of your long-term members were uncomfortable with the shift in direction?
We did have fallout. We had some people that were just so committed to the protection of the biodiversity of species and they just could not understand why are we saying: This is about humanity. And it wasn’t just the members that were reluctant and worried. It was also many of the staff at C.I.
But if we cannot demonstrate to societies that they need nature, we are going to see a destruction of ecosystems that will have a devastating impact. If we didn’t do this, we would see development forces put up against environment forces, and development would always win.
We spent time thinking – what are the organizations that we have to engage with? One was the Gates Foundation. The biggest foundation in the world, completely devoted to the well-being of people yet reluctant to engage on issues related to the environment. We had a conversation with the leadership of their agricultural program about their commitment to improving the quality of life of poor farming families in Africa. The commitment focuses on the quality of seeds, on farming practices and how do you get a product to market.
Every one of those strategies is smart and essential. But I said to them, the source of water, pollinators and soil for every one of those farmers are goods and services that come from healthy ecosystems. And those ecosystems are being destroyed. So your investment in these farms and farmers is high-risk. They said, can you prove that? So we did a demonstration project in Tanzania.
What did you demonstrate?
We showed that the productivity of a small farm depended upon the water that came from an aquifer or a forest that was outside that farm, and those hillsides had to be protected. We showed that production depended on the health or the organic content of the soil. That also came from outside the farm. The production of crops came from pollinators that were outside the farm. But those ecosystems were being destroyed as more farmland was being cleared.
Bill Gates and the foundation announced a $10 million grant to Conservation International [and to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and Columbia University’s Earth Institute — Ed.] to create a global monitoring network –- we call it Vital Signs — focused on the direct connections between ecosystem health and agricultural productivity.
You have said that your work in China exemplified C.I.’s earlier focus? What species were concentrated in your hot spots?
We were working in Sichuan Province on pandas. And we were working on primates and we were working on amphibians and reptiles and everything else, sharks, a whose range of things. Turtles. It was really the traditional C.I. It was focusing on biodiversity.
“Whenever we deal with issues that are pressing social needs – water, energy food, jobs, health – environment is always the piece that you discount. But when you do that, you sabotage the sustainability of a society.”
And we took a step back and said, actually, there are two major issues we are facing in China right now. One is the source of fresh water. The Tibetan plateau is basically a water tower — the source of all the rivers from the Mekong to the Brahmaputra to the Yellow to the Yangtze.
We said, if you look at the amount being spent on water treatment in Shanghai, at the bottom of the Yangtze drainage – billions of dollars a year – you begin to think about how we maintain the flow of that water. So we began with the simple concept of payment for ecosystem services – that the downstream beneficiaries should compensate the upstream users, whether it’s an individual paying, or a community, or a government, so that the management of upstream is smarter.
We then began to work on marine issues in China. We have a concept we will launch in June, an Ocean Health Index. It’s a scientific tool that measures maybe a hundred different variables.
There are lots of conferences in lots of places that bring conservationists together. How is your conference in Botswana going to be different?
We have designed this so it brings a group of heads of state and political leaders from key countries in central and southern Africa together so we can collaborate on a plan to create healthy and sustainable economies. We have the key development agencies from the World Bank to the Norwegians to the French. We have the key businesses that are a market for products, whether it’s a Wal-Mart or Woolworth’s or Coca-Cola.
A nation needs to recognize, when it looks at its assets, not just to look at G.D.P. but its natural assets. So we need to do an inventory and put a value on it. The World Bank has come up with a mechanism for doing accounting and valuing ecosystems. A certain number of nations are going to make certain commitments to redesign their accounting. It’s like looking at an index on the health of the ocean. If you don’t know what your benchmark is, you don’t know whether you’re getting better or worse. That’s number one.
Number two, we’re looking at how do you accomplish sustainability. If we can identify what is the natural capital and where it is located, we can come up with a plan to protect it.
Number three, how do you grow or produce essential goods and services like your food, or minerals, or energy, without undermining that natural capital? We’re going to come out of this with a specific set of actions agreed on by every participant that will be an increase in scale from what they are doing. For some it will absolutely revolutionary.