We’re in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, with the worst affected the rural poor in the developing world. Their absolute dependence on the bounty of forests, deserts and coasts means ‘biodiversity loss’ can mean losing all: food, fuel, building material, medicine, forage, livelihoods and culture. The good news is that it can work the other way. Poor communities, as long-term stewards of natural riches, are steeped in profound knowledge about them. As this pocketbook shows, working with them can reverse the downward spiral of environmental degradation. By banking on biodiversity, we can protect our natural legacy while tackling poverty locally, nationally and globally.
New wealth of nations: biodiversity and poor economies
Take a forest in rural India. Local villagers graze their livestock, gather fuelwood, fruit and medicinal bark, and hunt for honey. The trees help prevent drought and flood damage by drawing up groundwater and anchoring soils with their roots. Most, if not all, of such direct and indirect ‘flows’ of value into rural or forest-dependent households are public goods and services — received free from wild nature, and not priced or traded in any markets. Because of this, ‘ecosystem services’ are economically invisible. And they do not generally figure in the national accounts that measure a country’s economic activity. Does this matter? Yes. We cannot manage what we do not measure, and economic invisibility is not a good starting point for ensuring that ecosystem services thrive. We risk depleting them because of tradeoffs such as replacing forests with cultivated crops. Putting a value on nature and factoring that into national accounting can help governments and business wake up to the fact that healthy economies rest on healthy ecosystems — as do the wellbeing and livelihoods of the poorest of the rural poor.