Second in a series leading up to and coinciding with the September Katoomba Meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
27 August 2008 | If anyone knows the value of the Eastern Arc Mountain ecosystem, it’s George Jambiya and Neil Burgess.
Together, they’ve spent more than three decades helping WWF and the Tanzanian government document thousands of rare plant and animal species that populate the Arc, not to mention the ecosystems they support and the animals and economies that depend on them.
Neither of them, however, can tell you with scientific certainty the value of the ecosystem services that flow from those plants and animals.
“On the one hand, you can say, ‘Look, we all depend on these services, so the value is inherent,'” says Burgess. “But we can’t go to Coca Cola and say, ‘This catchment delivers this amount of clean water, and has this value to you.'”
The ability to make that statement with confidence, however, would help save life-supporting ecosystem services that support – and, in our economic system, compete with – tangible hard commodities like timber and food.
“Right now, a lot of the values that are being applied to forestry management and water management are only taking into account things like timber prices and logging prices,” says Jambiya. “Things such as carbon sequestration and hydrological services don’t come into play, and the value of water is not determined by the market or even by supply and demand – but by an arbitrarily-set figure, which is probably very much on the low side. The values of biodiversity are even worse.”
The two are among a handful of experts spearheading a five-year research and policy project called
“Valuing the Arc”, which began in January, 2007, and runs until December, 2011. Its mission is to quantify the economic value of specific ecosystem services in the Eastern Arc Mountains, and it harvests expertise from five UK-based universities (Cambridge, East Anglia, York, Leeds, and Cranfield), two Tanzanian universities (University of Dar es Salaam and Sokoine University of Agriculture), the WWF Tanzania Programme Office, and the Natural Capital Project.
Along the way, they’ve begun to identify and educate potential buyers and sellers of ecosystem services and provide fodder for a CARE-WWF partnership called “Equitable Payments for Watershed Services (EPWS)”, which is the subject of a later installment in this series).
Katoomba in Uganda
Burgess got the idea for Valuing the Arc after attending a 2005 Katoomba Meeting in Kampala, Uganda (Katoomba VIII) on behalf of Tanzania’s Department of Natural Resources, for whom he was working at the time.
“We knew the forest was storing a lot of carbon, and the whole payments for ecosystem services thing was beginning to emerge,” he says. “The Katoomba Meeting catalyzed a lot of things, and brought a lot of people together.”
Among those people were PES project developers from Mexico, South America, and South Africa.
“I saw what they were doing and thought, ‘Well, that all looks similar to the beginnings of what has happened in Tanzania,'” Burgess recalls. “I figured maybe we could start to go more in the ecosystem service direction here.”
First the Price, then the Payment
“Neil basically realized that he needed to get beyond general statements about the value of nature and show decision-makers where the value lies within their actual landscapes,” says Taylor Ricketts, co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, which is itself a joint project of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and WWF.
Over the years, Burgess and scores of other researchers had taken a shot at mapping the ecosystems of the Eastern Arc Mountains, and several facts were clear:
First, they knew that foliage in the fog-enshrouded, moss-laden “cloud forests” that capture and store moisture high in the mountains was declining. Second, they knew that farmers were both tapping the mountain streams for agriculture and letting their fertilizer run into the waters.
They also knew that downstream rivers were running faster in the wet season and slower in the dry season – and muddier all year long.
But they didn’t know the extent to which each problem could be attributed to specific practices, and they couldn’t determine how much maintaining the upper catchments was worth to end-users such as breweries and water filtration plants.
Building the Team
Once back home in the UK, Burgess mentioned his dilemma to Cambridge Professor Andrew Balmford, who told him about a grant available from the Leverhulme Trust. Balmford applied for and won that grant, while Burgess lined up the University of Dar es Salaam and the Sokoine University of Agriculture, each of which unleashed scores of staff and PhD students to ramp up the mapping process.
“That’s where we come in,” says Ricketts, whose Natural Capital Project (NatCap) supplied a tool called InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) – a software package that that maps ecosystem services and their economic values.
As NatCap was joining the project, Ricketts applied for and won a grant from the Packard Foundation that complemented the Leverhulme grant – and set to work delivering their piece of the puzzle.
“We’ve basically built a program that plugs into the industry-standard GIS tool,” he explains. “You can map how much carbon is being stored in forests and woodlands, for example, or where people harvest products like medicinal plants directly from ecosystems.”
InVEST also offers modules that map important areas for water supply, flood control, timber harvest, crop pollination, and other ecosystem services.
“You can use only the modules you care about, and customize those to your situation,” he says.
Laying the Groundwork and Priming the Pump
The tedious task of lining up the partners and identifying their responsibilities consumed much of the first phase of Valuing the Arc. After that came identifying the gaps.
“We spent quite a lot of the end of the first year putting together all available data on water flows, timber, carbon etc,” says Burgess. “A lot of the data was from previous work, including the previous project that I’d worked on. We basically compiled all available data that we knew of from the past 20 years.”
Keeping It Real
The project has grabbed plenty of attention within the ecosystem payments community, but Burgess says it has a long way to go before it begins to yield tangible fruit.
“We’re still heavily collecting data and building models,” he says. “So, we can’t say these are really definitive results. We can only say, these are preliminary results, but they’re quite nice aren’t they?”
As the measurements become more concrete and targeted, however, he believes their numbers will persuade potential buyers of ecosystem services to lay down their money – and for economic reasons, and not just for philanthropy.
“We’ve got a lot of information coming together on habitat quality and on the amount of timber and non-timber resources coming out of the forest, as well as how much forest there is,” he says. “This will all be pretty fundamental stuff for the carbon baseline work in the near term, and should be valuable to the whole payments for ecosystem services arena that’s going to be there in five or 10 years time.”
Jambiya agrees, but says the near-term damage control can best be handled by government.
“The whole intention of Valuing the Arc is to try to establish the true values of these resources and the services that they offer, and through that make arguments for greater investment on the government side for conservation efforts,” he says, adding that private sector investors will still be needed to make the system viable over the long haul.
Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of the Ecosystem Marketplace. He can be reached at SZwick@nullecosystemmarketplace.com.
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