Mapping natural capital

Where are the ecosystems that people rely on?


​​In order to protect and manage our natural capital, we need to know where it is located.

The forests that regulate our climate. The rivers that provide sources of clean water. The stocks of fish that feed us. The soil in which we grow crops. These are examples of “natural capital” — the sources of goods and services that ecosystems provide that humans rely on.

Conservation International is working with governments and others to map the most important, or “essential,” natural capital in select places around the world so that countries, development banks, conservation organizations and other actors can meet conservation targets and ensure sustainable development for their people.


To determine natural capital (sources of things like water, fish, forest products, protection from storms) we must first find out where it is and how much exists in a region. Also part of the calculus: natural processes ranging from the amount of carbon stored in forests to crop pollination by insects.


If natural capital isn’t considered, any calculations of a country’s true wealth are inaccurate. A nation with a low GDP, for example, may be rich in biodiversity, but decisions by governments or businesses that deplete these resources could hurt the country economically — and the world, ecologically — in the long run.


Teams from Conservation International work with existing data on subjects including sources and amounts of fresh water, plant and animal biodiversity, non-timber forest products, and carbon storage to map their location, characteristics, and how they all work together.

What we’re doing

Beautiful view of Wayag Lagoon from the peak of one of the many islands in the Bird's Head Seascape, West Papua.
© Conservation International/photo by John Martin

Determining what needs protecting

We know from mapping biodiversity “hotspots” that the greatest return on investment is found by focusing on the right places. We provide the same insights about our stocks of natural capital to determine the natural places societies must protect to sustain our lives and economies.

Partnering with business and governments

By creating and applying a unique and truly groundbreaking accounting framework for ecosystems that maps their area, characteristics and flows, Conservation International aims to enable governments and businesses to base economic decisions on a complete picture that includes nature’s goods and services — and the value they provide.

What does natural capital look like?

NOT NEW SPECIES: A tree frog (Hypsiboas geographicus) clings to a branch in the lowland forest near Kasikasima. It represents one of the astounding 46 frog species found during the expedition, including six frog species potentially new to science
© Trond Larsen


The variety of species and ecosystems is fundamental to the planet’s health — and to humanity’s survival.

What parts are “essential”?
Areas of essential natural capital for biodiversity include habitats that harbor threatened species, unique ecosystems and exceptionally high species richness (the number of species present in a particular area).

Patrol teams conduct checks on snares and report them using the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool
© Jeremy Holden

Forest carbon/climate mitigation

Tropical forests are critically important for regulating global climate, capturing and storing carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

What parts are “essential”?
Areas of essential natural capital for forest carbon/climate mitigation are identified based on their current stores of carbon stock and for the potential amount of emissions that can be avoided if the area is protected.

A great CI initiative that has taken place since I was here in 2012 is the pumping in of water from the national forest to local village residence.
© Jessica Scranton

Fresh water

Water is the most essential natural resource, a core component of both human well-being and a thriving economy.

What parts are “essential”?
Essential natural capital for fresh water includes ecosystems that provide water for human use or hydropower production (water quantity), avoided erosion and sedimentation (water quality), or provide a stable flow of water (flow regulation).

An inspector labels each log harvested from the forest.  
© Benjamin Drummond

Non-timber forest products

Ultimately, all our food comes from nature. Forests, though, provide even more products that millions rely on: Medicines, fuelwood, fibers.

What parts are “essential”?
Areas considered essential for non-timber forest products fit two criteria: the presence of species used for such products, and accessibility of these areas to human populations.

Coral reef: hard corals, soft corals and tropical fish
© Comstock Images


Worldwide, millions of people depend on marine and freshwater fisheries for protein and livelihoods.

What parts are “essential”?
Essential natural capital for fisheries includes the fisheries themselves as well as the coral reefs, mangroves, lakes, rivers and wetlands that provide food and nursery habitat for the fish that people rely on.

Some plants grow on a mangrove near the coast of Ecuador.
© Lucas Bustamante

Reducing human vulnerability to climate change

Ecosystems can reduce our vulnerability to the effects of climate change in numerous ways — for example, mangroves can protect coastal communities from storms, forests and wetlands can reduce severe flooding by regulating water flows, and many ecosystems provide food and support incomes during a crisis.

What parts are “essential”?
For our purposes, areas are considered essential for reducing climate vulnerability when they provide benefits such as coastal protection or flood regulation which are predicted to be important under climate change scenarios.



We are mapping natural capital around the world in order to meet conservation targets and ensure sustainable development.


© Art Wolfe/


What do we do once we know what parts of nature to protect? Use natural capital accounting — a standard format of measurement and valuation.
© Sara Sanger
© Benjamin Drummond