Valuing the Arc – How to Put a Financial Value on an Ecosystem

This week we’re taking a detailed look into the work that Frontier is carrying out on various projects around the world. The research carried out by Frontier is frequently used in scientific studies. Today we speak to Neil Burgess, Programme Coordinator of the ‘Valuing the Arc’ project, which aims to attach a financial value to the ecosystem of the Eastern Arc Mountains in Tanzania, relying on data collected by Frontier since we started working there in 1989.    

Frontier: What are the aims of the ‘Valuing the Arc’ project?

Neil: Well it’s actually ending in December, but its aims were to map, measure and calculate the economic values of the ecosystems services coming from the Eastern Arc Mountains and the watershed areas of those mountains in Tanzania. It’s been running for approximately five years.

Frontier: You have previously worked with Frontier in this area. How has data collected on Frontier projects in the Eastern Arc Mountain region contributed towards this project?

Neil: All of the available plot data has been used. When people on Frontier expeditions in the various mountains carried out transects through the forests to calculate disturbance and plots to measure trees, all of that data was recompiled into the database and used. So basically the project has used all of the forest measurement data collected by volunteers, as well as making use of the species data reports.

Frontier: In which ways can an ecosystem be financially valued?

Neil: Well this really depends on what the ecosystem is. But generally speaking, there are various elements of an ecosystem that can be valued. For example, the standing carbon stock in a forest is worth something: if you cut it down it’s contributing to global warming, so a reduction in the rate of this deforestation has a financial value. We’ve also been looking at water and how to attach a financial value to the water-flow from these mountains. Other examples include calculating the economic value of products being taken out of the forest, such as people collecting firewood and building poles. All of those products have a financial value, even if it’s only how much time it took to get them. So valuing factors such as people’s time is also part of it. Tourism is also another area we looked at: how many visit? How much time do they spend there? How much do they pay? Where does that money go to? It’s basically a case of valuing an area service by service.

Frontier: Then it’s a case of adding-up these values and presenting a financially viable case for protecting them?

Neil: Yes. If you’re preserving an area of forest for example, you’re taking that land out of agricultural production, so you need to know what the land would be worth if it was being used for something else.

Frontier: Has that also been part of the ‘Valuing the Arc’ project?

Neil: This has been part of it, yes, working out the opportunity costs of conserving the forests in Tanzania for the people living there. E.g. How much would they potentially get from growing maize on that land versus what would the losses be in terms of carbon, water and various other things that these processes use? The tricky part in all of this is valuing biodiversity because a lot of it has no value to people in the local area, but it’s of infinite value if and when a species goes extinct. However, you can’t put ‘infinite’ into a financial model. So ignoring those indefinable aspects leaves your economics looking neat and tidy, and may well show that changing the land into maize fields is more economically valuable, but you’d be losing all that biodiversity. So you’d have to say that well, actually, this does have a value and it’s bigger than that of the potential maize fields.

Frontier: What has been the outcome of the project?

Neil: The outcomes haven’t been fully determined yet. We have economic values for a lot of things, but not everything. So although it’s officially finishing in December, when the majority of economic values will be calculated, there will actually be a couple of people who continue the process through until March next year. So the final answers will be achieved in the early stages of 2012.

Frontier: Are the results looking positive so far?

Neil: Yes, I think some of it is really useful. We think we have the best calculations and best answers for this kind of project anywhere in the tropical developing world. In other words, it’s the best example of such a project. How we are going to use the information in terms of policy, conservation and influencing things in Tanzania isn’t completely worked out yet. Being an academic project involving universities from the UK, their primary interest is in publishing scientific journals. It will then be up to people like me to take the process further with WWF and other organisations working in the region, turning it into real solutions. I will continue to work in Tanzania, so we’ll get it out there eventually, but it won’t be in the same complicated mathematical format that will be seen in the papers released by the University of Cambridge.

Frontier: You’ve spent a lot of time in Tanzania. How has the region changed in the last 20 years?

Neil: There have been huge changes over that time period, especially in the region surrounding Dar es Salaam, which has gone from being a tiny city to one of 4 or 5 million people. It’s all still fuelled by biomass, so charcoal still comes in for people to cook and they’re using timber from forests to make furniture and houses. There’s a huge inward demand in Dar es Salaam that just wasn’t there 20 years ago. In the deep rural areas Tanzania hasn’t changed that much, the only big difference is that people have mobile phones nowadays. But the country is rapidly urbanising, and that process is causing a lot of demand on natural resources, including bush meat, charcoal, timber and land. Human population has doubled in the time that I have been going to Tanzania which is a bit scary.

Frontier: Is this a project that you hope others will copy elsewhere?

Neil: There are plenty of people trying to do ecosystem service valuation projects around the world, so it’s quite common these days. The ‘Valuing the Arc’ project is quite an expensive example as we had the luxury of a lot of money being thrown at it. So we could get top scientists in to work on it. This approach would be too expensive for many other projects, so there are plenty of people attempting to work in a more simplified way to give some kind of idea of economic worth with regard to ecosystems. So yes, there’s a lot of this type of thing going on already. The world is so worried about the economy and attaching values to things these days, with the idea that nature must pay its way, so this approach is here to stay for a while at least, and possibly forever.

Frontier: Do you see this as the best way to go about conservation?

Neil: Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the approach that says: “There are five endemic frogs in this area, so it’s worth conserving”. But whether other people consider that as a valid argument is a different matter. A lot of people would say that those frogs are of little importance when the land could be used to grow maize. So then you have to come up with some other argument that they might listen to. For example, if you continue with a certain way of life, you might run out of a certain resource and suffer further down the line – something that’s going to get some attention, you know?

For more information on the 'Valuing the Arc' project, check out the website.

Also read our article about another scenario in which an ecosystem has been financially valued in a different way; that of the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador.

Interview by Alex Prior

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