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People and Conservation

Natural Capital Project

A coral reef aswarm with ocean life. A honeybee busy over a flower. A forest standing silent guard over a river. These everyday sights of nature bring us joy, wonder, and comfort.

But can we quantify the benefits they give us—not just aesthetic, but economic? In a world with so much poverty and hunger, how can we justify paying so much attention to conservation and the environment?

The answer is simple: human well-being depends on the services and assets that nature provides for free, everyday and everywhere. Humans depend on ecosystems such as forests and coral reefs for clean water, fertile soils, food, fuel, storm protection and flood control.

Helping Government and Industry Value Nature’s Benefits

The Natural Capital Project — a new 10-year partnership among The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and Stanford University — will help key decision-makers such as government and industry incorporate the value of these benefits (also known as ecosystem services) into their conservation and development decisions.

Launched in October 2006, the project is developing finance and policy mechanisms as well as mapping and other decision-support tools that together can help the world secure its natural assets both for people and for nature.

The vision of the Project is a future in which conservation is mainstream — that is, economically attractive and commonplace throughout the world.

What’s Natural Capital, Anyway?

Natural capital refers both to non-living, non-renewable resources derived from the Earth (such as minerals) as well as to the living, renewable sources of human well-being that flow from ecological systems — the organisms of a place, their physical environment, and the interactions between them.

The Natural Capital Project is focused on living natural capital assets — ecosystems that, if properly managed, yield a flow of vital services both to humans and nature. Relative to other forms of capital, natural capital is poorly understood, rarely monitored, and in many cases undergoing rapid degradation and depletion. Often the tremendous importance and economic value of natural capital is appreciated only upon its loss.

Information, Science, and Policy

The partnership draws on the intellectual capacity and academic network of Stanford University—a premiere science and research institution — as well as the real world, on-the-ground experience of the Conservancy and WWF’s conservation practitioners. Its major thrusts will include:

  • Providing tools (such as sophisticated mapping) that help decision-makers protect biodiversity and secure full ecosystem services;
  • Catalyzing new ecological science that better links land-use decisions to quantifiable changes in the delivery of ecosystem services; and
  • Developing new financial, market and policy instruments that fund the protection of ecosystem services in a fair and credible manner.
Broadening the Lessons Learned

The project will first apply these tools in a strategic set of demonstration projects in Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains, China’s Upper Yangtze River Basin, and California’s Sierra Nevada Region. Once we demonstrate effectiveness in our three initial areas, we aim to select and add four to six additional sites, including marine habitats.

Each new project should force us to develop new insights and create a portfolio of demonstration projects that can be tailored to local conditions and cultures. By demonstrating the power of this approach, providing the tools needed to replicate it elsewhere, and communicating effectively to governments, the private sector, and the general public, we aim to improve ecosystem management practices worldwide.

And once we develop standard accounting systems and valuation approaches for ecosystem services, private finance will have a creative and growing role to play in conservation — to make sure no one can deplete natural capital without also investing in its replenishment and long-term equity.

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