Discover the holistic approaches to valuing ecosystems, crucial for fostering conservation and sustainable growth. Can economic sciences provide tools to strengthen our biodiversity conservation efforts?
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Ecosystems: Beyond price tags

Discover the holistic approaches to valuing ecosystems, crucial for fostering conservation and sustainable growth. Can economic sciences provide tools to strengthen our biodiversity conservation efforts?

Humans assign value to various things for different reasons. Understanding the value of ecosystems, particularly those in the Magdalena-Cauca basin, where 80% of Colombians reside, is crucial for shaping public policies and conservation efforts. The IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Ecosystem Services) identifies three main ways to value nature: intrinsic (biological significance), relational (cultural and spiritual), and instrumental (economic). Each approach has its limitations, but together, they provide a more holistic view of biodiversity value. 

Economic valuation as an instrument for decision-making

The concept of Natural Capital (NC) is widely acknowledged for its role in human well-being, encompassing both living and non-living elements of ecosystems that provide essential goods and services. This valuation approach aids decision-making at various levels, allowing for the assessment of ecosystem service importance through economic means. The economic valuation (instrumental valuation) reveals the value in terms of the ecosystem services’ importance for society in a given area through monetary values that must be understood as value indicators and complementary language to environmental management. Economic valuation is one of the many ways to determine the value of the NC.

Can economic sciences provide tools to strengthen our biodiversity conservation efforts?

Cesar Augusto Ruiz-Agudelo

Natural Capital economic valuation for Colombian socio-environmental development 

Drawing on established methods for valuing ecosystems globally and regionally, a preliminary assessment of the remaining and lost NC in the Magdalena-Cauca Basin for 2020 was conducted. The process involved three main stages: firstly, a comprehensive review of economic valuation studies in Colombia from 1993 to 2021; secondly, the standardization of price indicators to 2020 international dollars (USDInt.2020); and thirdly, the adjustment, transfer, and mapping of these values for 168 biomes and 77 general ecosystems within this basin, known for its rich biodiversity.

For the first time in Colombia, an initial assessment of the NC value of this significant basin has been conducted. This evaluation relied on data regarding 15 ecosystem services, including recreation opportunities, water provision for various activities, pollination, and more. The aim was to provide a geospatial method for calculating these economic values, highlighting the economic worth of the remaining natural assets in this region. This initiative seeks to furnish policymakers, academics, and the public with valuable insights to underscore the importance of these ecosystems for the well-being of local, regional, and national communities.

Discover the holistic approaches to valuing ecosystems, crucial for fostering conservation and sustainable growth. Can economic sciences provide tools to strengthen our biodiversity conservation efforts?
Credit. Midjourney

The findings from the research indicate a significant loss of NC in the region, amounting to 1.5 trillion Int. $2020/year, surpassing Colombia’s GDP in 2020. Conversely, the remaining NC is valued at 469 billion Int. $2020/year, also exceeding the country’s GDP. Several challenges emerge from this initial assessment.

Firstly, there’s a pressing need for a comprehensive evaluation of the various ecosystem services in the Magdalena-Cauca basin to better gauge its remaining NC and the associated social benefits. Secondly, these results prompt the adoption of new management approaches to maximize the socioeconomic advantages of conserving the basin’s NC, such as incentivizing the preservation of valuable areas through economic mechanisms like payments for ecosystem services. Thirdly, with 24% of the remaining NC situated in protected zones, there’s an urgent call to bolster land management policies, a responsibility primarily falling on the Colombian government. Lastly, future development plans in the Magdalena-Cauca basin must be carefully crafted to prevent further depletion of its NC.

It is expected that future estimates will be able to specify and detail this information even more, which is undoubtedly very useful for decision-making. Furthermore, a call is made to combine strategies that prevent this NC from continuing to be lost and, therefore, from degrading or losing the ecosystem services it offers us.

Final recommendations for decisions makers

Sustainable development is one of the main challenges in the 21st century, and NC protection is a central criterion for strong sustainability defenders. In an economy, the sustainability of development can be understood through the emphasis on natural assets, although other forms of capital assets are also important.

Development policies have traditionally excluded NC because economic growth and development are the preconditions for the demand for environmental goods and services. Conservation scientists have emphasized the need to pay attention to the socioeconomic context of NC losses to design effective policies. This emphasis becomes urgent in the face of unprecedented biosphere degradation. To the extent that economic growth is an integral part of this development, exploring its effects on NC has the potential to strengthen the diagnosis of biodiversity decline and support the design of effective solutions.

For all countries (with significant changes in their ecological systems), NC characterisation and valuation are pending tasks. Additionally, it is an unavoidable necessity for development planning. In this context, the present research addresses methodological issues that permit replicating this experience in different geographical areas with different socioeconomic contexts. Finally, it’s important to consider the economic tools available to complement our efforts in nature conservation

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Journal reference

Ruiz-Agudelo, C. A., & de Paula Gutiérrez-Bonilla, F. (2024). The remnant natural capital of the Magdalena-Cauca basin: immense losses for the 80% of Colombian inhabitants. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences14(1), 135-153. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-023-00873-2

Cesar Augusto Ruiz-Agudelo is a biologist from the National University of Colombia, holding a master’s degree in social economy and a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences and Sustainability. He boasts 20 years of experience as a coordinator and technical director of sustainable development projects in interdisciplinary teams across various regions of Colombia. Additionally, he is a professor at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University and a leader of the Capital Natural Colombian strategy. He has authored 45 scientific publications on these topics and seven on the development of public policies in Colombia. His work focuses on sustainable local development, economic valuation, payment for environmental services, and the dimensioning of economic valuation and human well-being.