We cherish and protect what we value

we cherish and protect what we value_646x231_scaled_cropp

Anand Chandrasekhar, Geneva, 24 September 2013

Wetlands are a fundamental part of local and global water cycles and are thus at the heart of this nexus. It should come as no surprise that wetlands have diverse values and are also valued differently.

Wetlands are complex and diverse ecosystems. A myriad of life forms exist in the space between their muddy bottoms and shimmering surfaces. Wetlands themselves change their form and appearance with the seasons and this further accentuates their complexity. For example, the 150,000 km2 Pantanal wetland in Brazil owes much of its rich biodiversity to seasonal flooding that results in many parts changing from an aquatic to terrestrial habitat and vice versa. Wetlands are also a critical component of the water-food-energy nexus as the agricultural sector depends on water for crop and livestock production as does the energy sector for hydro power generation and for cooling thermal power plants. Wetlands are a fundamental part of local and global water cycles and are thus at the heart of this nexus.

Thus in the face of such diversity and complexity it should come as no surprise that wetlands have diverse values and are also valued differently. A fisherman or farmer values wetlands as a source of subsistence and livelihood, an engineer or planner values them as a power source and natural water infrastructure, a birdwatcher or water-sports enthusiast values them as a place for leisure activities, and so on. Hence assuming that everyone values wetlands in the same way when it is not the case in reality can lead to unexpected trade-offs and conflicts. TEEB for Water and Wetlands  advocates that “In order to unlock the potential of wetlands, it is necessary to recognize who benefits, by how much, from which ecosystem services and how this might improve with positive restoration and management activities – or risk being negatively affected by any ecosystem degradation.”

Asking questions and raising concerns are a natural response to new ideas. They offer the opportunity for discourse and are a form of peer review. Some of the most commonly asked questions concerning the process of valuing the benefits of nature are as follows:

Isn’t placing a value on nature reducing it to the status of a commodity?

Placing a value on ecosystems doesn’t mean putting a price on nature. It is the act of making the invisible benefits of nature visible to those who are ignorant of them or take them for granted. The most highly-valued ecosystem services provided by wetlands are the ones that do not command a market value. It is these “non-tradable public benefits” that make wetlands one of the most valuable ecosystems on our planet. These benefits include water-related services such as maintaining water flow and supplies, regulating water quality and minimizing water-related disasters. These services are extremely valuable and yet wetlands continue to be degraded because these values remain invisible to most. Hence recognition of value helps transform the perception of wetland conservation as a luxury for the rich to something that is fundamental to the well-being of everyone.

Can’t we just accept that nature is valuable without trying to measure the value?

It is no longer enough to know that nature is valuable. Knowing why it is valuable, how valuable it is, and to whom helps give context and is helpful for comparisons with alternative uses. The Changwon Declaration on human well being and wetlands states that “Better knowledge and understanding of the costs and benefits of changes to wetland ecosystems lead to better decision-making. Decisions on land use change must integrate adequate knowledge of the range of benefits, and their values, that wetlands provide for people and biodiversity.”

Thus demonstrating value in cost-benefit terms is often useful for policymakers in weighing the real consequences of a proposed use of a wetland. For example, the flood control and weather regulation services of wetlands are often overlooked in favour of more established and marketable services such as agriculture and fisheries. This type of valuation helps correct the bias that is typical of much decision-making today, which tends to favour private wealth and physical capital above public wealth and natural capital.

What about the non-economic values of nature that are so important to us but are not easily measured?

Capturing value in the form of economic benefits is not the final destination of all valuation studies. Valuation is a human act that can be carried out without any reference to economic activity. For example, one of the criteria for designating World Heritage Sites is that it has “to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”. The value in this case is the desire to preserve something beautiful for future generations.

Making values visible can sometimes even help in reviving traditional practices that have died out. For example, the traditional management of reed beds through buffalo grazing was re-introduced as a means of encouraging wet meadows in the Prespa Lakes of Albania. This practice had died out in the 1980s leading to a decline in biodiversity-supporting wet meadows. Hence, by understanding the value of wet meadows for wetland biodiversity, a cultural practice was revived to drive wetlands restoration efforts.

Thus framing nature in terms of natural capital does not unbind it from social, cultural, religious or ecological values. No valuation study can make a sacred river less holy or a picturesque lake any less beautiful. Nature is too vast, too complex and too magical to be represented by a single value system. Even a monoculture of ideas is an unnatural concept. Therefore the right approach to ecosystem valuation is one that acknowledges the limits, risks and complexities involved, covers different types of value appreciation, and includes various categories of response at the level of public policies, voluntary mechanisms and markets. A diversity of values is a good thing. It means that a lot of people have a stake in wetlands. This in turn provides a starting point to examine the choices available for the management of wetlands and consequences that big and small decisions are likely to have. This is surely good value for wetlands in the long run.

About the author

anandAnand Chandrasekhar, is based in Switzerland and has a Masters in Conservation Biology from the University of Kent, UK and a Bachelors in Forestry from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. His experience extends to a wide range of environment issues including species conservation, environmental law and policy, natural resources governance, climate change and carbon markets. He now specializes in science and environment communications.


The views expressed in this blog are purely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of TEEB and should not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of TEEB.

Picture credits: Peter Prokosh

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