When nature is viewed as capital, is it nature or money that is being valued, asks Third World Network

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


For some months now, and especially at the Rio+20 summit in June, I have been hearing with some disquiet about accounting for ‘natural capital’; ‘green accounting’; and the UN programme on the economics and ecosystem biodiversity (TEEB). What was troubling me was how and where do you draw the line between the imperatives of nature and business?

At COP-11 on CBD, I picked up a the Third World Network’s booklet on ‘Financialisation, biodiversity conservation and equity: some currents and concerns’ and found the question popping up: “When nature is viewed in monetary terms, is it nature that is valued or the money?”

When nature becomes capital, does one value nature or money, asks TWN. Credit. Wikipedia.Org

Its first chapter is titled ‘On elephants and economics’. It cites Australian ecologist Graeme Caughley’s 1993 paper on elephant conservation and market theories. Caughley tried to demonstrate the fallacy of the argument that clear ownership and ability to sell harvested ivory in a free market would be an incentive for elephant conservation. Caughley argued that given that the interest rates in banks were higher than elephant replacement rates; and the high price of ivory, free market logic meant that it would make sense to convert elephant assets into saleable ivory and deposit the money in a bank and earn interest. Never mind if the elephants become extinct, but you are rich for posterity.Third World Network’s Sian Sullivan cites this to ask that when nature is viewed as a monetary asset, it is the money and not nature that will be valued.

On the one hand, there is potential it could scale up finances for biodiversity conservation. On the other it could lead to newer land grabs by governments and investors, displace local communities from areas considered to be high monetary value. Also, converting complex landscapes into monetised units could  displace local cultural knowledge about environment and ecology; as well as traditional practice.

Some of these concerns again cropped up during a national consultation with Indian civil society organisations in September, where some expressed discomfort over the marriage of biodiversity and business and sought clarifications on industry’s concept of ‘sustainability’, ‘participation’ and ‘biodiversity management’.

That will be a tough balancing act - biodiversity and business.

This blog post is part of our coverage on COP 11 Convention on Biological Diversity — which takes place 8–19 October 2012. 

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