Could this really be the "coolest thing in conservation"?
A new partnership has recently been announced, designed to tackle the age-old problem of how to attach 'value' to the environment, or to 'ecosystem services', however posh you want to make it sound. Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) are collaborators in what's become known as the Natural Capital Project.
Described by Carter Roberts - President and CEO of WWF - as quite possibly the coolest thing in conservation today, the Natural Capital Project, in its own words, aims to "make nature a regular column in our spreadsheets and cost-benefit analyses". It may not sound that cool, but attaching value to a forest, river, mountain range, savannah, swamp, insect or whatever will take some doing.
Take the humble honey bee, for example. Their value to a bee keeper in Tanzania is undisputed - without the bee there's no honey. But for a coffee farmer who relies on the same bees for pollination, a shift in population might instead 'just' effect his crop. It might not destroy it, but 25% less yield could be the difference between feeding or not feeding his family. So, using bees as our example, a healthy bee population, supported by a healthy forest home, is a key issue. For the bee keeper or the coffee grower, it's in their interests for the forests to remain intact. What the Natural Capital Project hopes to do is attach some financial 'value' to this forest. As they readily admit, however, "putting a price tag on ecosystem services won't be easy". Clearly, if it was then someone would have probably managed to do it already.
It's worth remembering at this point that we already have monetary values for the very services that this project seeks to value. A mahogany tree, for example, is worth several tens of thousands of dollars; a chimpanzee as a pet perhaps a couple of hundred dollars. But these are prices with the 'ecosystem service' removed from the ecosystem - not the price to keep it there. This is the key difference.
The problem will be, of course, in convincing as many parties as possible that it's in their interests to keep forests, rivers, swamps or whatever intact, however many dollars or pounds appear in the financial columns. If the coffee grower owns the forest, then that should be relatively straightforward if you can present the sums, aided, of course, by that spreadsheet. But when external, third parties have vested or varied interests then the value could vary dramatically, down to quite literally zero. Attaching ecosystem value could well help at policy level - which is where the Natural Capital Project is pitching - but it won't stop illegal logging from outsiders, or 'travelling bushmeat traders', or unscrupulous companies or corrupt government officials. It's in some of these areas where the most pressing barriers to conservation perhaps lie.
This is a brave project which will be quite literally judged on its results. Success - however that is measured - needs to be turned into something tangible, with real results on the ground.
After all, this is where the actual conservation takes place.