Incorporating Nature into Decision-Making in Madagascar

© Christina Mittermeier

Editor's note: Today at the Rio+20 conference, several CI staff are participating in a side event called “Natural capital accounting: Why do we need it and how can we implement it?” Co-organized by the World Bank, the Brazilian Ministry of Environment and CI, this event examines how researchers can evaluate “natural capital” — the benefits and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems — and incorporate it into economic decision-making. Here on the blog, CI’s Rosimeiry Portela describes some of her field research.

It was our third day in Madagascar. After intensive meetings with bureaucrats in Tana, the busy and frenetic capital, and a day gathering data with practitioners and community organizations in the field — we were finally headed into the forest.

Our small team of scientists — myself, Laura Onofri and Ferdinando Villa — were in the country conducting an analysis on ecosystem services from the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ). Our research would focus on three important services: carbon storage and sequestration, water supply and sediment retention. We would combine biophysical and economic analysis while taking into account the differences in the use of ecosystem services by sectors such as agriculture, mining, tourism and hydroelectricity.

This would be the first demonstration case study for the Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), a World Bank-led partnership that aims to integrate natural capital into national accounting systems, with the ultimate goal of encouraging better and more efficient decision-making and planning. Before now, remarkably few of these types of studies existed, a situation that has been increasingly recognized as a hindrance to truly sustainable development.

CAZ is home to nearly 350,000 people — mostly rural communities who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, practicing a mix of subsistence and cash crop production. It is also the largest remaining forest patch in Madagascar — a mosaic of land uses and zones containing five protected areas, as well as agriculture, forest plantations, villages and community-managed zones. It is home to over 2,000 species of plants — many found nowhere else on Earth — as well as a great number of mammals (including many species of lemurs), amphibians and bird species.

As we explored one of CAZ’s reserves, the Analamazoatra, which is part of the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, we got a better understanding of an important economic activity in the area: ecotourism. We saw amazing indri and sifaka lemurs leaping through the forest canopy, along with incredibly tiny and beautiful chameleons — all unusual creatures that draw many foreign tourists to Madagascar. We also had a chance to meet several people whose livelihoods were dependent on the reserve.

Many economists like Laura are far more used to urban research, yet she was a natural as she gracefully hiked through the forest — sporting fashionable shoes and coat, of course. Working from an industrial economics perspective, Laura was there to investigate the contribution of ecosystem services to different economic activities in the CAZ region.

Ferdinando, an ecologist and computer scientist — as well as gifted photographer — lent Laura and I an occasional hand as we made our way through the forest. He would later use sophisticated modeling to map and quantify the physical flows of the ecosystem services we observed, both from their natural sources and the human benefits perspective. As the team leader and ecological economist, I was interested in how our findings might inform policy decisions in the country. This was truly an exciting and challenging project.

Our results showed that CAZ provides important benefits for people in terms of climate stabilization, as well as water supply and sediment regulation — upon which a variety of economic sectors are highly dependent.

The analysis indicated that while current levels of water demand for irrigation, livestock, residential needs and tourism are essentially met both inside and outside of the protected CAZ corridor, areas within the corridor have the potential to sustain much greater water demand than sites outside the corridor, where critical levels of water demand are already being faced. Water quality was also estimated to be significantly better inside the CAZ corridor than outside. Finally, we found high economic values of carbon sequestration, as well as high marginal economic value for water in the mining and hydroelectricity sectors.

Collectively, these results can help to inform policy development and the design of management alternatives for areas such as the CAZ corridor. And while some of our findings may seem obvious, what is really striking is that few analyses have ever been conducted where both biophysical and economic estimates of ecosystem services are examined simultaneously.

This week at Rio+20, as global leaders recognize the need to move beyond GDP and express their commitment to green economies, the relevance and importance of natural capital accounting will be increasingly evident.

At the conference, I will be working with World Bank colleagues and the Brazilian Ministry of Environment to showcase the need for natural capital accounting, to present methods for doing so and to learn from the experiences of countries that are already taking action through WAVES. We strongly hope that governments will commit to the implementation of natural capital accounting within their own countries — an important stepping stone toward its integration into development planning.

Rosimeiry Portela is an ecological economist and the senior director in the Global Change and Ecosystem Services group of CI’s Science + Knowledge division. In addition to Rosimeiry, Laura and Ferdinando, Paulo Nunes and Glenn-Marie Lange provided invaluable research for this case study.