Over the last 15 years, the amount of money spent on pets in the U.S. jumped from $17 billion to $43 billion annually. Birding is catching on in popularity globally.Clearly people love their animals -and not just their pets either. Perhaps this is why biodiversity conservation has attracted so many advocates and so much attention around the world. Newspapers routinely report on the discovery of new species and the demise of others. Nature as theater, both gripping and grizzly, is wildly popular when captured on film.
And yet, conservation biology, the interdisciplinary pursuit of saving wild species and wilderness, is at best marginal in the public policy sphere, particularly in development circles. Often, so too is environment more broadly. In this marketplace of ideas, conservation is certainly not king. Though it should be.
3/4 of the world’s poor live in rural areas. For many of these people, natural capital - the animals, plants and ecosystems that surround us - is often their primary capital asset. It's the Bank from which they access credit and supplement their paycheck. Need to fund your child's tuition bill? Annual harvest not lasting throughout the year? Catch a cold? Sustainably managed forests, agricultural land, oceans and other natural capital can provide livelihoods, sustenance and remedies.
Nature forms the social safety net for the rural and coastal poor, providing wild protein to supplement agriculture and nature-based livelihoods to diversify on-farm income and offset the boom and bust of smallholder farming. It acts as the canary in the coalmine, its absence alerting communities to trouble ahead when the natural infrastructure on which their diet, income and livelihoods depend is under threat. After all, when species go, ecosystem services are rarely far behind. We may not know the exact tipping points that transform functioning ecosystems that provide life-sustaining services into empty shells, but we do know that when native freshwater mussels are outcompeted by invasive species, any irrigation lines moving water from that system are in danger of clogging and choking off water to agricultural fields. We may not know precisely how forest cover and soil composition regulate water quantity and quality, but we have all seen the devastation from floods raging over deforested and eroded landscapes.
Saving wild species and wilderness provides food security, generates jobs and revenue flows, and builds resilience against external shocks, or so the theory goes.
We are testing this theory at the World Bank. We are committed to promoting and protecting nature as a local and national public good through our capital, convening services and technical assistance. We are committed to making it relevant in the development marketplace of ideas. Truth be told, we simply cannot alleviate poverty by impoverishing – by design or simple neglect – the natural wealth accounts of rural communities. This is why we celebrate Biodiversity Day today and Biodiversity everyday, in pursuit of the end of extreme poverty. Natural capital like forests, wetlands and oceans represent, on average, 36 percent of the total wealth of low-income countries and more than half of the “GDP of the poor”. Nature succours and supports our efforts to eliminate extreme poverty. We know nature-based investments can do this. For example, the Honduras Forests and Rural Productivity Project  supported conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity sub-projects in a subset of communities that increased incomes by over 300%, and more broadly, created 3,000 direct jobs and an additional 5,400 indirectly. Similarly, in South Africa’s Greater Addo Elephant National Park , a US$5.5 million investment spurred US$14.5 million in private sector investment and the creation of 614 jobs. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a 23% decline in seasonal outmigration was associated with average annual forest-based incomes rising from US$ 44 to 104 as a result of the AP Community Forest Management Project. The Second Community Forestry Project in Mexico showed a similar trend, as an estimated 6,200 people did not migrate from the project states as employment in the forest sector increased by 27 % and the net value of forest goods and services grew by 36 %.
So nature matters. Not just to people with spare time to bird watch or spare funds to pamper their pets. Though their passion counts too. It matters not just because it provides an opportunity to attract private sector financing in rural areas to capture tourism revenues or capture moving images. Though managed correctly these opportunities can provide a vital flow of funds for gateway communities. Nature – natural capital – matters first and foremost as a development concern. And as a source of conflict or a salve to it. It matters most to those people who use it as a daily staple, for whom nature is their only asset, and the health of its portfolio drives their own wealth and well-being. Nature may be labeled a global public good; but it is needed, desperately, at the very local level to drive development at the periphery and sustain growth at the center.
So as we celebrate Biodiversity Day, let’s raise a toast to Mother Nature and the social safety net she weaves to lift people out of poverty, and keep them out of it.