Why I’m More Optimistic than Ever about Biodiversity Conservation


This page in:

Conservation biology was baptized as an interdisciplinary problem science in 1978 at a University of California San Diego conference. But the conservation movement precedes this conference by at least a century, when the first national park was established in Yellowstone in 1872 and signed into law by U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. Both the academic discipline and the practice of conservation have had two things in common for a long time: they remained steadfast to their original mission to protect nature and their proponents were largely American and European and mostly middle class. 
But nothing stays the same forever.
At a recent high-level panel on biodiversity and the sustainable development goals hosted by the Prime Minster of Malaysia, I remarked upon a watershed moment that has arrived to signal a change in biodiversity conservation. In fact, it’s more like three moments that together signal new maturity in a field that for too long has been dismissed as a luxury pursuit unrelated to economic growth or poverty alleviation.
Firstly, the science and practice of the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is no longer fixated on the impact other sectors have on biodiversity. Rather, as a discipline, we are experiencing a shift towards a discussion of what biodiversity can do for other sectors – how the goods and services that biodiversity provides underpin agricultural yield, make wild protein available for communities and families who need it, prolong the life of infrastructure investments, and act as vehicles to attract public and private investment at the rural frontier. That’s not to say that impact isn’t still important. Growing strong economies means that all forms of capital – economic, financial, social and natural – are carefully stewarded and investments in one do not undermine the sustainability and growth of another. But through vehicles such as the WAVES partnership (Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services), the biodiversity community has found a language in which to discuss how nature, natural capacity and biodiversity can drive strong economies and underpin healthy communities. 
WAVES is a global partnership that promotes sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts. It is the culmination of a shift in environmental thinking, which has moved from impact to dependencies. It is also the vehicle by which the biodiversity community has been able to achieve a second moment of import: changing its audience from the choir to the unconverted. 
Secondly, the biodiversity community has focused its energies on building the capacity of environment ministries worldwide and developing for them a strong civil society counterpart.  This has been, and will remain, critical. But now the community also recognizes the importance of helping those self-same environment ministries to dialogue with ministries of finance, economy and planning. Tools such as those developed by WAVES under the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounts, or the use of adjusted net savings measures (ANS) as a sustainability indicator building on the concepts of green national accounts, have translated information on biodiversity and ecosystem services into a language that resonates with decision-makers more broadly across economies. While the community has always spoken to these ministries, they have never done so in a language that is immediately understandable as an input to decision-making. Never before have we been able to show conclusively that conservation and sustainable use drives economic growth and poverty alleviation now and into the future, or talk convincingly about the reality of trade-offs across landscapes. Already, the idea that conservation and sustainable growth are linked is gaining traction, and countries like BotswanaColombiaIndonesiathe PhilippinesRwanda, and others have begun working with WAVES to include natural resources in their development planning.
The third and perhaps most noticeable change is that leaders are increasingly coming from developing and middle-income countries, and leadership on these issues is being pushed by countries from the global south. Many of the most important voices in the community are coming from women, many of whom are making the case for biodiversity from their countries. Women like President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf or the head of her Environment Protection Agency, Anyaa Vohiri, who have prioritized conservation and sustainable use of natural capital as critical to economic growth and poverty alleviation in Liberia; or Nicole Leotaud, Executive Director of The Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), a leader in building home-grown capacity for participatory biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in pursuit of equitable growth. Just three of the cadre of amazing women who have begun to make the biodiversity community in their own image.
We have reached a moment where we have people with the moral authority to speak compellingly and convincingly to influencers, not just about protecting nature but about biodiversity as a vehicle to deliver public services. Because of these changes, I’m more optimistic than ever about the future of biodiversity.


Valerie Hickey

Practice Manager for Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy in Latin America and the Caribbean, World Bank.

Join the Conversation

Graham Long
December 09, 2013

Hi. Just an observation - the whole blog post (which I found very interesting) is pitched in terms of what biodiversity can do for us. I wondered whether people working on biodiversity had any commitment to the idea that biodiversity was good for its own sake, quite apart from its benefits for humanity?
If the diversity of nature does have value in itself (or if those talking about biodiversity haven't settled this question - maybe even deliberately avoided it?) does not talking about this undercut the "moral authority" of those advocating biodiversity "as a vehicle to deliver public services"?
Don't get me wrong, I can see the strategic appeal of showing what biodiversity can do for humanity. I just worry about the long term consequences of framing the issue in these terms, or about cases where humanity's interests, and those of non-human nature, diverge.

Valerie Hickey
May 23, 2019

Saving nature for its own sake has real merit, and remains a clear and compelling case for supporting biodiversity conservation. Often this is why biodiversity 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. This is why institutions dedicated to nature will always have an important voice.
But I am a World Banker; my job is to help governments to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. For us - and many other development institutions - to invest in nature requires linking the impact of that investment to our overarching goal. I have always known that investing in nature is important for poverty alleviation at the rural frontier; now I have the economic language to provide a compelling case to my colleagues, clients and counterparts for whom economic rates of return matter. That's important to ensure that conservation can be both a moral cause that we can espouse as a stated preference, as well as a functional cause linked to our ability to spur strong economies and healthy communities.
What happens when the two causes collide? That's for the cohabitants with biodiversity - the government and its people - to decide. In that decision, economics is but one item traded in the marketplace of ideas and values. And more important often are the sellers - who now, as I wrote, look more and more like the people who will live with the consequences of that decision - than the language in which they sell.

December 06, 2013

Great blog Val ... keep the ecosystem flag flying high!Very interesting that you point to the gender leadership dimension ... of not just biodiversity, but also environment in general !

Phillip Southward
January 31, 2014

Yes,I am new to this field of study,well sought of I've been around natural habitation all my life,living on acres of land and being close to the fauna and flora.I am so please to be reading the care that people are taking in the world about the efforts for living in a natural enviroment and taking the time to work with the ecosystem,what I'm trying to say is I hope I can jump onboard and learn what needs to be done to help this world survive.Thankyou for your education on this subject.

Lucius Phoenix
January 19, 2014

Your effort are really appreciable . I am glad to being part of this post . As the eco-system of today is struggling with many problems this kind of blog provides nice information . Thank you so much .