Nature? Who cares?

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 At the top of Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa, there is one of the most remarkable flowers you’ll ever see. Jamison Ervin / UNDP

At the top of Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town South Africa, there is one of the most remarkable flowers you’ll ever see.

A few years ago, I was taking a picture of it, when a woman walked by and said to her friend, “I don’t get what the big deal is – I really don’t care about nature”. As if not caring about nature were an option, like video games, or miniature golf.

But she was not alone in her sentiments – by and large, society does not care about nature, at least not in the way that we need to care. We mostly care about growth and development – about making sure people have enough food and water, have jobs and livelihoods, and are safe from natural disasters. But the current development trajectory is unsustainable; it is riddled with market failures and policy failures that lead to biodiversity loss.

We cut down the mangroves that provide habitat for the fish that feed our families, in order to make way for a resort hotel. Or we drain the wetland that protects our cities from floods, in order to put up a shopping mall. And we accept this as the cost of development.

But throughout the World Parks Congress program, and particularly in the stream on reconciling development with protection, we’ve heard again and again that it doesn’t have to be this way.  A number of communities and governments around the world are showing the pathway forward on how to reconcile nature protection with sustainable development.

In Cambodia, for example, sustainable rice production in protected areas supports livelihoods, provides food and sustains the wild Ibis. In Rwanda, a payment for ecosystem services scheme helps pay for the protection of Nyungwe National Park. In Australia, the National Landscapes Program helps transform 36 million visitors a year into thousands of local jobs. In Uganda, the protected area system is being designed to mitigate flooding.

We’ve also heard again and again that as governments and communities, we must understand the full benefits of protected areas, we must invest in protected areas to realize a full return on benefits, and we must embed protected areas within economic and sectoral decision-making frameworks if they are to have any relevance.  In other words, we must begin to care about nature. Moreover, if we care about sustainable development, we should also care about the economics of nature and protected areas, because investing in nature protection is one of the most affordable, efficient and durable solutions for sustainable development, with a return on investment of between 50:1 and 100:1.

Yet the total cost of adequately protecting the world’s biodiversity is only around $33 billion annually, or 0.0005% of global GDP. This is what economists call a ‘rounding error’ – so trivial as to be beneath notice.

At the top of Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, South Africa, there is one of the most remarkable flowers you’ll ever see. It, and others like it from the Fynbos plant community, provide all of the drinking water for the city of Cape Town, add $12 million to the national economy through tourism in this park alone; help employ thousands of people; provide sustainable livelihoods worth millions of dollars, and all while sustaining some of the most endangered wildlife on earth. Oh – and it’s not bad looking either!

Blog post Environment Ecosystems and biodiversity Sustainable development

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