From iconic species to iconic case studies

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Iconic species – the panda, the tiger, the bald eagle, and even the small but spectacular corroboree frog – have been the vehicle for spreading the environment message.  That message can change and become more subtle. 

 Photo © Ryan Rayburn/World Bank

Mr Zoellick’s message at the launch of the Tiger Initiative in 2008 focused on integrating “environmental concerns ...  into the mainstream of development and operational plans”.   His statement in relation to the National Geographic’s “Vanishing Icons” photo exhibit (in the World Bank headquarter's atrium in DC) advanced the discussion to the tiger’s “largely untapped potential to spur balanced development”.  The conditions and actions needed to improve the habitat of the tiger are closely related to those needed to improve the livelihoods of local communities and vice versa.

Some plant communities are emerging as iconic ecosystems.  The mangroves are the best example.  Their role as a habitat and breeding ground for so many species, as a resource for local people and in coastal protection are listed again and again.  They feature in the recent WRI publication “Banking on Nature’s Assets” which forcefully makes the case that Multilateral Development Banks can strengthen development by using ecosystem services and describes some of the case studies and tools we have to help do this.

But we are also seeing the emergence of “iconic case studies” and this is a concern to me. 

Being an icon is a heavy burden – think of the poor tigers and all those movie stars who want to hang out with them.  A mangrove - shrimp farm comparison appears again in the above WRI publication.  It shows that the net present value of an extant mangrove community far exceeds that of their conversion to shrimp farms ($36,000 per ha to minus $5,000 when both social and economic values are considered).  This headline catches attention and probably many of us have seen it.  But it hides the far more subtle story in the original study by Sathirathai & Barbier (2001) and earlier work by Sathirathai and her team in 1998. This delves more deeply into the interplay between personal and community gain, community and government interests and explains why, despite the headline message, mangrove communities continued to be converted to shrimp farms.

But at least this headline has a substantial study beneath it.  Others are much weaker.  Have you looked for the evidence behind the oft stated protection provided by mangroves against tsunamis? 

The call to MDBs by WRI is timely, but we also have another responsibility to see that more of the analytical work we perform or oversee does carry through to carefully reported studies that not only bear strong headlines but can withstand the scrutiny of skeptics determined to make what they can of any shortcoming. 

We in the MDBs have a lot we can contribute to the policy-influential efforts like the IPCC or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  But we need a substantial body of evidence and not just a few icons.


Ian Noble

Chapter Author, World Development Report 2010

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