Discussion summary - The Earth Debate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas: Can We Put a Price on Nature?

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The Skype-enabled Earth Debate, “Can we put a price on nature?”, organized by  the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the British Council Nepal, with participation by country groups from Dhaka, Bangladesh; Vishakhapatnam and Kochi, India; Beijing, China; and Kathmandu, Nepal,  was held on 24 February 2012. The debate was moderated by Daan Boom, Programme Manager, Integrated Knowledge Management, ICIMOD, and Tek Jung Mahat, Node Manager, Asia-Pacific Mountain Network, ICIMOD. The highlight of the Earth Debate was the discussion that took place between country groups and the panel, which was comprised of three experts from the development, media, and tourism fields. 

Welcome remarks

Dr Robert Monro, Director, British Council Nepal, welcomed the participants to the Earth Debate. He reminded them that climate change is real and that the clock is ticking. He noted that, although the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 heralded a new beginning in terms of commitment to fight climate change, the COP-15 in Copenhagen didn’t quite deliver, signalling that there is still a long way to go. He said that the focus of this debate – the economics of climate change – was apt and timely, and emphasised that it is important to keep climate debates alive and going at all levels. 

Dr David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD, noted that climate change in the mountains is an issue of global concern. He pointed out that the solutions to problems such as the rapid melting of glaciers and snow, greenhouse gas  emissions, and changes in monsoon  precipitation need to be sought at all levels. He reminded the participants that, although mountain people often take good care of the mountain systems that provide us with ecosystem goods and services, they are seldom, if ever, rewarded for this role. He called on everyone to join hands to put mountains on the global agenda at Rio+20. 

Panel: Opening statement

Dr Madhav Karki, Deputy Director General, ICIMOD, noted that “that which is not valued is often not protected”. He acknowledged that cultural values and the regulating functions of ecosystems are not easy to value in monetary terms. He likened the over-extraction of natural resources in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, which are increasingly recognized as a global commons, to the ‘tragedy of the commons’. “Misusing the global commons,” he warned, “will have implications for intergenerational equity”, and called on everyone to flag this issue at Rio+20. 

Ms Smriti Mallapaty, Correspondent for SciDev (the Science and Development Network), noted that, while the monetization of nature is important, it is only a tool to advocate for solutions to some of today’s protracted environmental problems. She asked, “Who will pay for global ecosystem servicesthat are currently valued at USD 33 trillion?” She suggested that there is a need to create incentive structures that go beyond price to ultimately benefit nature. 

Mr Raj Gyawali, Founding Director, Socialtours.com, said that there is already a price on nature in Nepal’s tourism sector in the form of the royalties and permits that visitors pay to climb mountains or visit protected and restricted areas. He said that the important question to ask is, “How much of this money is captured by local communities?” Rather than rely on the state licensing system to put a price on nature, he opined that it is much better to ensure that a larger share of tourism revenue is captured by local communities, as this will motivate them to take better care of nature.  

Summary of discussion

  • Putting a price on nature: In India, revenue from natural resource is going into the National Accounts, which is an encouraging development. Green accounting should start at the micro level: it can begin with a unit of 500 hectares of land, for example, or with a micro watershed, and cumulatively go up. But who is going to reward watershed managers such as upstream farmers and community forestry user groups for maintaining watershed services? Unless green accounting is linked to payment mechanisms such as payment for ecosystem services (PES), it will only have limited impact. On the downside, the Environment Impact Assessment process in the region has been highly politicized and used to serve the narrow interests of certain groups of people.  This issue needs to be addressed.
  • Role of the market: Although the market is not perfect, it has a role to play in pricing nature. However, the interests of the poorest of the poor have to be protected from the vagaries of market forces so that they do not get ‘priced out’ of ecosystem goods and services, so to speak. Even among themselves, the poor are likely be differentially impacted by the pricing of nature: those whose livelihoods are linked to the production of natural resource-based goods and services are likely to benefit from better prices, while the urban poor will be worse off.  
  • Implications for developing countries: The pricing of nature, which is often seen as a public good, is likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. As a good majority of the poor in developing countries depend on natural resources, especially forests, for subsistence and livelihoods, it is important to involve them in joint forest management and community forestry by awarding tenure rights over degraded forests, as it is usually in the absence of such rights that deforestation is carried out by external agents. There have been instances of indigenous peoples being displaced from their homeland in the name of development, with scant regard for their rights, especially their rights to water, land and life itself. As indigenous peoples are not in an equal position, governments should consider awarding them title to their ancestral lands so that they are protected. In an ideal world, everybody must pay a fair price for nature, irrespective of the level of employment and poverty prevailing in the country. However, exceptions can be made for the poorest of the poor in developing countries. Attaching a premium to conservation is the way forward, as the maximum number of people stand to benefit. 
  • Low carbon economy: A ‘green economy’ means following low-carbon pathways to sustainable development or even growth. The world is already moving toward alternative energy. As the price of fossil fuel rises, the development of alternative energy becomes more feasible. This will have a dramatic impact on all sectors of the economy. Innovations are already taking place in solar and wind energy technology and prices are dropping markedly. Indeed, the future of alternative energy has never looked brighter.
  • Role of the private sector:  The private sector can have a strong influence over the way that communities benefit from natural resources. The ecotourism industry, for instance, can use local guides and porters; promote local handicrafts, products and produce; encourage the use of locally available materials in construction work; and plowback a percentage of profits into community development to ensure that the local economy is benefiting from ecotourism. This is the kind of approach that the private sector could take, with a nod to corporate social responsibility, to catalyze actions at the local level to help ‘green’ the local economy. Moreover, large companies, especially industry leaders, could introduce green auditing, however this may not be feasible for small companies because of economies of scale.
  • Role of youth: The biggest concern of the youth today is jobs, sothey should advocate for ‘green jobs’. . At Rio+20, the youth have a role to play in advocating for a sustainable world where the youth have a future. They can also play a role as watch dog and in pressure groups to hold projects, institutions and authorities to account.
  • Role of the media: The media can help promote ‘green practices’, report on the overexploitation of natural resources, recognize ‘green champions’ for their good deeds, and nurture debates leading up to Rio+20 and beyond.
  • Policy: Rio+20 must aim to achieve actionable political commitments by avoiding the mistakes of the past. Rather than getting stuck on definitions of the key terms used in policy debates, it is better to articulate in relevant forums how ecosystem goods and services benefit humanity at all levels, and why they should be maintained. At the national and local levels, policy has to be informed and inspired by evidence-based science. This calls for long-term monitoring of the environment. The role of an ‘ombudsperson’ and the right to information should be institutionalized so as to hold the government to account. When nature is put into a market framework of prices, there has to be regulation in place, otherwise overexploitation of nature and unsustainable practices result.
Text by Ujol Sherchan, usherchan@icimod.org
Photos by Nabin Baral, nbaral@icimod.org