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Treating Nature's Bounty as Capital

People in the 21st century, on average, live longer and are better nourished and healthier than ever before in human history. But this progress has come at an alarming cost to the environment.

The United Nations Ecosystem Assessment (released in 2005) reported that 60 percent of global ecosystems are either degraded or used unsustainably, and that between 10 and 30 percent of the earth's mammal, bird and amphibian species are threatened with extinction.

The UN study suggested attaching a monetary value to those ecological services that sustain life - including clean water, clean air, and healthy soils.

A new report published this month [May 7,2007] by the World Resources Institute, responds to the U.N. findings with a detailed plan of action.

The report is called Restoring Nature's Capital. World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash says it is an effort to rethink the economic, social and political value of nature's bounty. "I think the evidence of the Millennium Assessment is not that you should chose differently when you chose between ecosystems and development, it is that you can have ecosystems and development or neither."

Lash says nature's assets (lands, waters, forests and reefs) are undervalued. He points to the case of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. In the early 1960s farmers began to use its waters to irrigate their crops.

Since then the sea has shrunk by half its original size. The result, says Lash, is that the sea has lost 90 percent of its volume, and people whose lives depend on fishing have had to go elsewhere. "Some 40,000 people have been driven out, and salt and pesticide-laden winds now rake across the area and affect crops as much as 1,000 kilometers away."

The new report offers a plan to reverse this kind of ecosystem degradation. WRI's Jonathan Lash says among its recommendations is one that would give business, government and civil society new information about the capital assets of ecosystems. The report also calls for creating new economic incentives tied to good environmental stewardship, strengthening the rights of local people to use and manage natural resources, making decision makers more accountable, and developing ways to manage nature's bounty across geographic and political lines.

Report co-author Janet Ranganathan says these principles must be part of the decision-making process. "They have to happen simultaneously. There is no good in having information if you don't have rights over resources and if you have information but no incentives."

Ranganathan says a watershed restoration project in India is an example of how communities can benefit ecologically and economically. "The results have been startling," she says, "four to five times increase in income related to some of the rural benefits there. And now it is being taken to scale."

Today more than 1,000 villages have implemented similar plans.

The World Resources Institute also has initiated a pilot research program with five large multinational companies. Ranganathan says its purpose is to help corporate culture better understand how routine business decisions can impact natural resources and the bottom line. "An obvious example is Coca-Cola," that depends heavily on good fresh water for its product. She says the company has begun to analyze the business risks and opportunities of a healthy ecosystem.

Summing up the report's action plan, Ranganathan says, "One thing is abundantly clear: when it comes to managing our natural resources, 'business as usual' is no longer an option.