In a move with potentially substantial ramifications for future sustainable development, 10 African nations have agreed to begin assigning monetary value to the benefits provided by non-commodity natural resources, including ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, and coral reefs.
Coming just prior to the Rio+20 conference, the signatories said they hoped assigning calculable costs to resource usage would encourage more sustainable development by bringing hitherto “invisible” costs and externalities into the open and onto the balance sheet.
Though the challenges of properly assessing the values of various ecosystem services are understandably many, the potential benefits of natural capital accounting are substantial.
According to SciDev.Net, the World Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte spoke in support of the declaration at the summit. She pointed out, for example, the advantage of knowing that a hectare of mangrove trees in a certain region of Thailand has been calculated to provide approximately $16,000 of flood protection when considering whether to clear-cut and sell the raw wood (worth about $850), convert the region into a shrimp farm ($9,000), or preserve it.
Such accounting may be particularly beneficial to the Gaborone signatories and other African nations, given growing concern among experts about foreign investment in land, natural resources, and even water on the continent.
But the declaration – and the very idea of natural capital accounting – is not without controversy.
Some argue that commodifying such resources will actually encourage their destruction rather than protect them by ascribing monetary values to previously free and shared resources, thus advantaging richer stakeholders and nations at the expense of poorer ones. As Hannah Griffiths of the UK-based World Development Movement recently wrote in The Guardian, “the result [of natural resource accounting] would be the further privatisation of essential elements of our planet to which we all share rights and have responsibilities.”
Along these lines, Nigerian environmental activist and chair of Friends of the Earth International, Nnimmo Bassey, has voiced his strenuous opposition to the plan made at the summit. “This declaration is blind to the fact that the bait of revenue from natural capital is simply a cover for continued rape of African natural resources,” he said in SciDev.
However, the signatories of the Gaborone Declaration dismissed these concerns and pointed to the value of natural resource accounting for sustainable development.
“Africa is where sustained and sustainable economic growth and stewardship of natural wealth become one and the same thing,” said Kyte at the summit. “By endorsing natural capital accounting as a tool for delivering on more inclusive green growth, Africa is showing the way for the rest of the world.”
Conservation International CEO and Chairman Peter Seligmann agreed, calling the declaration “a very big deal, a very big moment, and a big step forward.” He connected it to the imminent Rio+20 conference as well, saying the pledge is “truly a beacon on the hill for the rest of societies” and that “it will be held up on top of that hill in Rio de Janeiro.”
WAVES and the Gaborone Declaration show that natural capital accounting is gaining momentum as a means to incentivize more sustainable development. The international news media is beginning to take notice as well. The results of the Rio+20 conference will be a good opportunity to gauge just how far the idea has come and what the extent of its future application might be.
Sources: Conservation International, The Guardian, SciDev.Net, World Bank.