6 Ways We’re Putting Nature into the Equation

If you’ve been following any of the media coverage leading up to Rio+20, you’ve probably seen terms like “natural capital,” “green economy,” and “green accounting” being thrown around a lot. We’re guilty of getting immersed in this language too — but what does it all mean? What will a nation — or indeed, an entire planet — with a “green economy” actually look like?

The good news is we don’t have to guess; many regions, states and countries have already taken steps to protect their natural capital the benefits and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems — in order to pursue more sustainable economic growth. Here are just a few of the ways they’re doing it.

man in canoe in Indonesia's Bird's Head Seascape

A man paddles a canoe over a coral reef in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape. A top dive tourism destination, these waters are also an important source of food and livelihoods for local communities. (© CI/Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

1. Supporting traditional fishing practices in Indonesia.

You can’t always make big changes overnight — sometimes you have to start small. In the Bird’s Head Seascape, CI-Indonesia has been working with local communities to adopt more sustainable fishing practices.

One successful method has been through revitalizing the sasi system, a traditional mechanism in which specific restrictions on fishing are determined by community agreement. For example, the village of Teluk Mayalibit has chosen to limit fishing on certain coral reefs to only two weeks every other year — and even then, only a few species can be collected. In addition, dynamite fishing is outlawed everywhere, at all times.

The implementation of sasi has resulted not only in the near elimination of illegal fishing in several marine protected areas, but also boosted income for locals during the brief fishing season. The scheme has been so popular that communities are now moving to apply it to more areas, and to revive other similar traditions.

2. Swapping debt for nature in Colombia.

Debt-for-nature swaps allow developing countries to exchange debt for commitments to conserve local ecosystems. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury agreed to cancel US$ 10 million of Colombia’s debt if the country invested at least that amount over the next 12 years in a fund that will protect critical ecosystems in 5.5 million eligible hectares (nearly 13.6 million acres) of its tropical forests, which play an important role in global climate change mitigation.

The areas protected included key areas of the Andes and the plains along the Orinoco River, one of South America’s largest river systems. CI’s Global Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and WWF also contributed US$ 1.4 million to the fund, and continue to provide technical support.

3. Building a low-carbon economy in Liberia.

Emerging from a struggling post-conflict economy, Liberia’s 3.2 million people continue to be plagued by poverty. Yet, partially as a result of past political instability that prevented economic development, much of the country’s natural resources remain intact. Forty-five percent of Liberia remains forested — among the highest rates in Africa.

Under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia has taken bold steps toward developing a low-carbon economy. In 2009, CI worked with the government to conduct an economic analysis of the country, concluding that activities like improving agricultural efficiency, establishing more protected areas and participating in the international carbon market could provide substantial financial benefits for Liberia. Last month at the Summit for Sustainability in Africa, Johnson Sirleaf reaffirmed her commitment to promote sustainable development in her country.

4. Restoring freshwater ecosystems in China.

Payment-for-ecosystem-services schemes compensate communities for conserving resources that others depend on. For example, in 2010 CI and Marriott International began working together in the mountains of southwest China to help rural communities start sustainable businesses that reduce strains on natural resources, especially fresh water and forests.

The project provides villagers with the resources and training needed to start bee farming in exchange for cleaning local waterways, refraining from illegal logging and conducting wildlife patrols. This not only protects the valuable freshwater catchments in the upstream Yangtze basin, but also ensures that bees will have regular access to flowering plants and clean water, improving honey quality and quantity. The honey produced by these farms is now available for purchase in most Marriott International hotels in China.

5. Committing to protect the world’s forests in Norway.

Although Norway is far from the equator, the country has been a pioneer among developed nations investing in tropical forest countries. In 2009, Norway committed to support Guyana’s low-carbon development strategy, pledging to give up to US$ 250 million by 2015 to fund REDD+ activities in the highly forested but impoverished country. This historic agreement marked the first time a country would be financially rewarded for its climate change mitigation efforts through forest protection. In 2010, Norway also pledged to give up to US$ 1 billion each to Brazil and Indonesia to support their REDD+ efforts.

6. Measuring marine health in oceans worldwide.

Humans have always been deeply interconnected with the oceans and the services they provide — through our jobs and livelihoods, diets, tourism, and even religious and cultural practices. However, until now there has been no consensus on what determines ocean health and no common metric to measure it.

Set to launch later this summer, the Ocean Health Index aims to provide a common metric for sustainable activity. Founded by CI, the National Geographic Society and the New England Aquarium — with the Pacific Life Foundation as a founding sponsor — the Index compiles data from leading ocean and research institutions to provide an annual report on the health of the oceans, examining factors like tourism and recreation, clean water and biodiversity.

Molly Bergen

Molly Bergen

By measuring these trends, the Ocean Health Index will serve as a tool to help countries, businesses and other stakeholders make responsible choices to improve the health of one of our planet’s most valuable resources.

Molly Bergen is managing editor on CI’s communications team.

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