Monday, February 18, 2013

Sánchez: Putting money where the green is

 By Benedicto Q Sánchez,  SunStar

PLACING economic value on environmental services might be politically incorrect for some environmentalists. That's like "commodifying" natural resources, as Bolivian President Evo Morales warned.

Morales's warning is not limited to Bolivian mountains, however. They have found a home in the Philippines. I have had some heated debates with colleagues on the concept of the green economy currently being promoted by the United Nations at last year's Rio + 20 summit on Agenda 21, its blueprint for sustainable development.

From where I sit as an advocate of sustainable mountain development, however, I can understand the UN position.

During my community forestry days, the mountain communities of barangays Bagong Silang in Salvador Benedicto and Marcelo, Calatrava have long graduated from the hunting and gathering social development phase of the "pure" Aetas in Cádiz that have been forced to resettle to change their nomadic lives.

Mountain peoples are now engaged in the market economy. While many still till the mountain slopes for their food consumption, they also need cash to buy their cooking oils, salt, salted fish, or even to pay to watch the neighborhood DVD shows of Philippine movies.

Understandably, they use natural resources to sell poached timber or wildlife and illegal charcoal making to earn cash. In the end, survival means risking their freedom to play a cat-and-mouse game with our local governments and the DENR.

Frankly speaking, I doubt that when it comes to survival and subsistence, no amount of environmental education can convince most mountain people to change their ways.

The government option now is to involve mountain-based people's organizations to plant native tree species under the National Greening Program (NGP). For every seedling raised, nursed, and planted, the DENR pays them P12.

I have no problem with that. In fact, I worked with people's organization to enable them to qualify for the NGP program. My problem is that government subsidies are not sustainable. Eventually, program funds will dry up after 2016 when PNoy's administration comes to an end. What then?

I hold that market-based instruments will enable mountain peoples to sustain their livelihoods, but along the lines of the green economy.

"The biodiversity of Earth is our biological wealth, our biological capital. The savings are every gene, every population, every species and every natural community that inhabits the oceans, the land, and the air. ... Biodiversity is, as far as anyone knows, totally irreplaceable," says the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of the University of Oxford.

It cited some figures. In 1997, the global market for natural-product derived pharmaceuticals derived was estimated at US$75-$120 billion, where 1 in 125 plant species screened has produced a major drug, each with a value of US$200 million.

However, species losses have led to a huge loss of "option value" (opportunity cost): loss of 1 tree species per day translates into a loss of 3 potential drugs per year, or an opportunity cost of US$600 million.

WildCRU's Jerwood Business and Biodiversity Initiative have organized seminars and courses, designed to present the business case to executives for investment in biodiversity initiatives, and to provide practical advice to companies on how to integrate biodiversity into their business practices, how to engage with mountain-based stakeholders, and how to inform their employees about these issues.