The next wave of investment and innovation in Africa will be driven by the need for new energy resources, wealth generation and job creation, the head of the United Nations environment agency told regional leaders, making a case for the need to place value on natural resources.
“As the continent undergoes such unprecedented development, wealth accounting and the valuation of ecosystem services are critical to Africa’s future growth,” Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, told the high-level African ministerial conference on green economy in Oran, Algeria.
Natural accounting and valuation in not a fringe activity, he stressed, but a cornerstone of wealth upon which sustainable, equitable and prosperous societies will be built.
Natural capital, which encompasses resources from trees to water to fish, is a critical asset in low-income countries where it makes up around 36 per cent of wealth, according to recent World Bank estimates.
“An inclusive green economy has the potential to improve human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities,” Mr. Steiner told the political leaders yesterday.
In a green economy, growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investment that reduces carbon emissions and pollution, enhances energy and resource efficiency, and prevents the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The focus of this article is not specifically the transparent and accountable management of natural resource revenues, which has been identified as an important aspect of sustainable development. Rather, it is in reference to “natural accounting”; putting a value on ecosystems and nature that have traditionally been a casualty of economic development.
It is indeed important to place a value on nature, otherwise corporations have the ability to negotiate their own price (often times with governments more concerned with embezzling funds than sustainable human development). In other words, “business as usual leads” to a gross under-valuation of natural resources.
To be an effective tool for sustainable human development, natural accounting must be conducted in an inclusive matter. Specifically, it must be done in consultation with the rural poor and indigenous groups. There are two primary reasons why these groups must be included:
1) Indigenous and rural peoples are historically underrepresented in political processes: This problem is even worse in countries that lack inclusive political institutions for society as a whole; people are underrepresented in general, the indigenous / rural poor are completely unrepresented.
2) Indigenous and rural poor communities rely much more heavily on nature for all aspects of their livelihood: Therefore, these people will likely place a much higher value on nature than other stakeholders: a) governments (who consider the value of marketable resources / other bids on land) b) corporations (who are trying to minimize the value to reduce costs) c) environmental groups (which tend to view indigenous lands more as carbon-sinks than living quarters).
The voices of these people must be heard; indigenous rights and land claims must be protected by governments. People whose lives will be uprooted in the name of “development” must be properly represented in negotiations devoid of power asymmetries (not a predetermined agreement), and properly compensated for any agreed upon losses.
Failure to do so sets the stage for irreversible environmental degradation, loss of culture / livelihood, and violent conflict. Not just wages are lost when ecosystems are destroyed, entire livelihoods are changed. Instead of creating “spoilers” by leaving the most heavily invested groups out of political dialogue, an inclusive approach to natural accounting can lead to an agreeable solution and avoid crossing culturally-sensitive “red-lines”.