New project on nature's 'capital'

Two papers in PLoS map ecosystem services

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and Stanford University today announced the launch of an innovative partnership that aims to change the way governments and policy makers think about nature worldwide.

The program, called the Natural Capital Project, is an unprecedented effort to calculate the economic and other benefits nature provides to people – so-called "ecosystem services" such as clean water, flood control, and climate regulation. By answering the question, "What is nature worth to people?" the Natural Capital Project highlights the many ways in which the world's forests, grasslands, arid lands, freshwater systems and oceans, support our daily lives.

"This exciting project brings together the expertise of leading field conservationists and a world-class university," said Steve McCormick, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. "Recognizing that ecosystems should be protected for their intrinsic values as well as their economic values will help us prioritize the conservation of the world's natural systems. This, in turn, can help improve the quality of life for people throughout the world."

Ecosystem services can include everything from soil fertility to clean air to pest control. These services are essential to human health. As the world's natural resources are depleted through unsustainable land-use practices, important ecosystem services are being lost at an alarming rate. The impact is greatest felt by the world's poorest people, who cannot afford to buy or replace the resources they are losing from nature.

Two groundbreaking scientific papers, authored by scientists from Natural Capital Project partner organizations, were published in PLoS Biology today. These papers are the first to show how ecosystem services can influence the outcomes of conservation planning efforts. Research led by Kai Chan at University of British Columbia and Rebecca Shaw of The Nature Conservancy suggests that in California biodiversity conservation is highly compatible with the protection of ecosystem services upon which Californians depend, and should be included in systematic conservation planning. And research led by Robin Naidoo at WWF revealed that based on a study of a landscape in Paraguay the economic benefits of conserving forests exceed the benefits of farming the same land in many areas. Dr. Chan's paper can be found at (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040379) and Dr. Naidoo's paper can be found at (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040360).

"Learning to map the economic values of nature will give us the information we need to conserve ecosystems for the benefit of biodiversity and people. That's what these papers, and the Natural Capital Project, are about," said Taylor Ricketts, director of WWF's Conservation Science Program and co-author of one of the papers. "Our early results indicate that the benefits of conservation can far outweigh costs, and that if land owners could capture the value of ecosystem services, like carbon storage, conservation can be a profitable use of land."

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The Natural Capital Project will begin working with local partners in three pilot areas – the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, the upper Yangtze River Basin in China, and the Sierra Nevada region in California – to assess the value of the ecosystem services and to then help incorporate those values into policies and resource decisions.


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