That development is a multi-dimensional phenomenon entailing delineation of institutions, processes, and structures to ensure sustainability and equity — apart from ensuring economic growth, social progress and cultural prosperity — is often forgotten.
The unbridled ambition to pursue mindless economic growth in the global South has led to a lopsided development that has promoted inequality on the one hand, and destruction of the natural ecosystem on the other. The very reductionism in the development vision in this part of the world can be witnessed from the fact that development has been reduced to a number reflecting the growth of the GDP figures. Such reduction of a multidimensional phenomenon called “development” to mere numerical measure hides more than what it reveals: it successfully hides the cost of pursuing myopic reductionist growth path, with scant or almost no acknowledgement of the concerns of equity and sustainability. That development is a multi-dimensional phenomenon entailing delineation of institutions, processes, and structures to ensure sustainability and equity, apart from ensuring economic growth, social progress and cultural prosperity is often forgotten.
The destruction of the natural ecosystem is an extremely vital cost of the myopic development process. To understand that, one needs to look at the modern society. The existing delineation of “modernity” centres on a high propensity to consume. Rather the “consumption culture,” a term often used, has been accepted as the hallmark of “modernity.” In the global south, “consumption-driven-growth” is now a policy vision for China! For South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, consumption has emerged as an organic driver of economic growth ever since the 1990s. The inextricable externality of growth is felt in large-scale land-use change over the last four decades from forest land to unsustainable agriculture (e.g. palm cultivation in Malaysia) and urban spaces (e.g. growth of cities like Mumbai in India), release of effluents in air and water (largely concentrated in East and South Asia), and changes in flow regimes of rivers through large constructions (e.g. China’s plans over Yellow River and Mekong, and India’s large multipurpose river projects). What is being missed out in this mindless growth model is the concern of the ecosystem-livelihoods linkages!
Yet, the concern with the ecosystem-livelihoods linkage is being raised in various international forums from the 1970s ever since the US started recognising that their dam-building spree from 1920s to 1960s have not only changed flow regimes and affected the basin ecosystem structures and functions, but are proving detrimental for the ecosystem services that are provided to the human community free of cost by the natural ecosystem. The EU followed suit. Throughout the 1990s, therefore, more than 500 dams were decommissioned in the US and the EU with an attempt towards keeping water instream. Similarly, forests were started being valued not merely for the timber they provide, but for their critical roles in carbon sequestration and erosion control.
One of the important enablers of this process in the global North is the significant advancement of knowledge and scientific understanding of the interactive dynamics of the complex human system and natural ecosystem ever since the ‘70s. The bidirectional causality of the ecosystem and the human economy became even more glaring with the Club of Rome’s doomsday call of apocalypse in their The Limits to Growth thesis of 1972. Global conventions like the Earth Summit of 1992 finally adopted the Brundtland Commission Report’s definition of “sustainable development.”
With the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) opened for global ratification in 1992, it became effective from December 1993. This paved the way for international statues, acknowledging a very critical scientific fact: biological conservation is not against development, but an inextricable enabler of the development process.
The end 80s and early 90s actually marked a paradigm shift in the human ways of thinking about the environment-development dynamics. Apart from the global conventions on the one hand, David Pearce and Kerry Turner’s magnum opus on Circular Economy marked a clear departure from the very reductionist linear growth thinking of “take, make, dispose” to a more holistic paradigm that acknowledged that the human system is embedded in the broader natural ecosystem. As such, the human actions to extract ecosystem services often create pressures on the “natural capital” thereby leading to its degradation.
Though from end 1990s, assessments by Gretchen Daily and Bob Costanza talked about the criticality of the nature’s contribution to human societies through ecological economic arguments, the most succinct statement on understanding ecosystem services emerged with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) of 2005. Interpreting science for policy makers, MA brought to the fore with significant clarity that the ecosystem functions in its own inimitable ways to provide ecosystem services (benefits) to the human society in the form of provisioning services (e.g., food, raw materials, genetic resources, water, etc), regulating services (e.g., carbon sequestration, micro-climate regulation, disease control, etc), cultural services (tourism, religion, etc), and above all, supporting services that are the umbrella services that help in the production of the other three ecosystem services (e.g. primary production, soil formation, etc). This brought to the fore the human society’s undeniable and inextricable depedence on the “natural capital” which exists as a “stock” to help the “flow” of the various goods and services from the ecosystem!
This also changed the ways the conservation NGOs in the global north started functioning. They could understand that an ecological or an ethical argument for conservation is not sufficient. Such arguments could not create the impact that they should have as these failed to relate with the daily life and livelihoods. In the process, such communications were taken as something external to the fundamental human existence, and not as core of business. The perception started changing with the substantial exercises on valuation of the ecosystem services. Today, a large part of the global North treats conservation as being central to its core business, and linked to their long-run bottomlines. Unfortunately, the same perception is not prevalent in the global South, despite a stronger linkage of the ecosystem with human livelihoods.
The central to appreciating the criticality of the “natural capital” is through monetary valuation of ecosystem services. The rationales are multiple. Firstly, with ecosystem services being expressed in monetarily values, human societies begin understanding their importance and can think of supporting conservation goals for selfish reasons. That helps the cause of conservation. Secondly, like any numeric measure, valuation offers an objective instrument for decision making and rationalisation of choices. Thirdly, such valuation exercises can even help legal proceedings to determine damages where a party is held liable for causing harm to another party especially through losses in ecosystem services. Fourthly, when an upstream activity results in downstream losses, valuation of the ecosystem service losses helps to assess the extent of the negative externalities, thereby helping the process of compensatory payments. Fifthly, integrating values of ecosystem services in the cost-benefit matrix of investment projects (either as benefits or costs) can help revise investment decisions: e.g. infrastructure development, that might otherwise ignore the related harm expected to be caused to the natural environment and consequent loss to the ecosystem services. Sixthly, such valuation exercises help creation of markets for ecosystem services like PES (payment for ecosystem services) that can help in sustainable development financing.
Pawan Sukhdev’s paper in Nature in 2009 brought about the very critical equity dimension in the discourse of ecosystem service valuation, when he interpreted these values as “GDP of the poor.” This becomes even more prominent for the global South, when Sukhdev showed that 57% of the poor’s incomes in India are sourced from the nature, whereas this proportion is substantially lower for the higher income groups. The notion of “GDP of the poor” was also acknowledged in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), published in 2010.
This can be evidenced in my own research for WWF India on the Terai Arc Landscape in Uttarakhand, where I estimated the aggregate values of selected nine ecosystem services to be around USD 6 billion in 2015-16. This signifies that the destruction of the landscape ecosystem through unbridled anthropogenic interventions is tantamount to destroying a value of USD 6 billion. Interestingly, while in 2005-06, the ecosystem dependency index (defined as the ratio of direct ecosystem service values and the incomes of the community) of the TAL region as a whole was 1.19, the ratio declined to 0.52 in 2011, and 0.41 in 2015. This decline is because the incomes from other sources especially the tertiary sources that are not dependent on these nine ecosystem services have increased. On the other hand, this has huge implications for the poor in the landscape, where more than half the population is living below poverty levels. As can be made out, the ecosystem dependency of the poor is significantly higher than average per capita income earning household, as they earn more from ecosystem services than incomes from various “economic” sources. This reinforces the contention of ecosystem services being termed as “GDP of the poor.”
This further brings to the fore that when land-use change occurs for achieving growth objectives, the cost of such “development” is reflected in the loss in the “GDP of the poor.” Short-term and reductionist perspectives of economic growth are so overbearing in the developing and underdeveloped world that such “costs of growth” are often not acknowledged. The ignorance of this critical cost by businesses escalates the social costs of the projects, and often leads to social conflicts. This creates a case for ecosystem service values to be integrated in the cost-benefit matrix of projects entailing ecosystem structure changes. It is through such valuations that conservation will be treated as everybody’s business, rather than being businesses of the conservation NGO’s and ministries vested with the responsibilities. Such movements towards holistic cost-benefit matrix for project assessments will help in integrated development planning on one hand, and on other hand reconcile between the irreconcilable trinity of global development discourse, namely, equity, efficiency and sustainability.
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Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...Read More +