21 January 2016

Reflection: Conservation is not just for tree huggers

Seven billion people live on the planet. As populations grow our increasing need for food, goods, and services leads to deforestation on a scale difficult to comprehend. What’s the cost?

In December, at the 2015 Global Landscapes Forum held in Paris alongside the UNFCCC COP 21, I attended a session entitled: industrial agriculture, ape conservation and climate change: more than a business case for reducing deforestation. Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

As the title of the session suggested, no one presented a market-based business case for forest conservation or reducing deforestation. Rather, speakers touched upon the meaning of value.

There is a glaring example in Southeast Asia that spent months of 2015 grabbing headlines. Aggressive land conversion for agriculture sent Indonesia’s forests up in flames. Satellite pictures of Earth show haze (toxic smoke) wafting from the country’s burning land.

“Some are calling it the environmental crime of the 21st century which will have a health impact we can’t even begin to imagine,” said Doug Cress, program coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

Who’s to blame? In short, we are—and the ease and extent to which we buy products containing unsustainable palm oil. If you wish to know more here are some great links to get you started: State of the Apes series; Donuts, deodorant & deforestation; and Greenpeace’s Licence to Launder.

Returning to value. I especially enjoyed Annette Lanjouw‘s contribution to the panel. Annette is the vice president of Arcus Foundation’s Great Ape Program – the largest global funder of great ape conservation. She’s had the enviable job of studying mountain gorillas in East Africa (reminding me that I studied the wrong subjects at university).

“We’ve been looking at the impact of industrial agriculture on landscapes. It’s an effort to look at the many issues we need to address holistically if we want to preserve landscapes to achieve economic development. Also not to degrade landscapes, habitats and species which exist there,” said Lanjouw.

“All species are equally important but some are more noticeable than others. Despite ape’s legal protection in every country where they live, numbers are declining. We cannot talk about climate change without looking at all the species which are required for viable ecosystems.”

It’s a question of articulating shared values. Finance and conservation aren’t likely bedfellows. Yet what’s the cost of perpetuating these two aims as mutually exclusive? How can you tweak financial rules? How do you include returns which aren’t financial in a worldwide pricing agenda?

On the other hand, how do you convince those concerned with the moral ties to conservation of the necessity of financial returns? After all, you don’t read bedtime stories to your children about euros, dollars, and interest rates.

Borrowing from Darrel Webber, secretary general of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO): “This is a good a time as any to start delivering wins.” Momentum from COP21 and the announcement of the SDGs are finally engaging private sector players.

One interesting idea that emerged from the discussion was whether it is possible to embed ‘natural capital’ into sovereign bond ratings.

“It might seem like a crazy idea but effectively at the moment, the cost of which countries can borrow money on international markets is predicated on systemic risk in financial systems. However, we know that a country’s ability to repay its creditors – in the medium and long-term – is based on its natural capital,” says Iain Henderson, head of the UNEP Finance Initiative’s work on REDD+ and Sustainable Land Use. If you can embed some of these natural value considerations into national debt and you’re destroying forests, for example, it suddenly becomes the concern of the finance minister: value to price.

Back to apes—how do we bring their conservation to the forefront?

“It’s a question of mainstreaming conservation,” said Lanjouw. “Conservation has been kept as this separate thing which is for the tree-huggers, or the bunny-huggers, or the people who like animals. And it’s sweet and it’s lovely but it’s not really important. It’s not financial, it’s not economic, it’s not politics – and that’s a huge mistake.”

“A lot of people are slowly starting to recognize that there is no economic development, there are no sustainable development goals without biodiversity and all these different species that underpin everything that we aspire to.

It’s a huge challenge to really dig deeply into the impact of extractive industries—mining, logging, oil and gas—on ape populations and tropical forests. It pushes us to engage with partners that perhaps in the past we would not have partnered with—financiers, mining and agricultural companies—in order to get that message across and have a voice at the table. It is critically important that species conservation is part of development and economic growth. It’s rarely taken seriously but it has to be,” urged Lanjouw.

Apes have to be part of the conversation. As do elephants, monkeys, antelopes and frogs. Conservation is not just for tree huggers.