Since 1987, when the Brundtland Commission first linked environment and development concerns, it has gradually become fashionable to approach biodiversity conservation from an economic perspective. In the early 1990s analyzing the impacts of economic, trade, finance and subsidy policies on biodiversity was a relatively new thing: «It’s the economy, stupid» was a popular slogan that was used by certain conservation scientists and NGOs. It was still considered to be very forward looking if a conservation organization decided to include economists in its staff. By looking at biodiversity conservation through economists’ eyes, the biodiversity conservation community hoped it would be able to influence economic policies and incentive schemes and adapt them to the needs of biodiversity conservation.
The now popular use of the term ‘environmental services’ was clearly inspired by the ambition to integrate biodiversity conservation into classic development policies. The authors of the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment popularized the term in an attempt to integrate the findings of the assessment into the multitude of programs and policies that were being put in place to implement the UN Millennium Development Goals. It was undoubtedly felt that a utilitarian approach would be more successful in convincing development policy makers of the importance of biodiversity conservation. It should be noted, though, that many Indigenous Peoples and other social movements have expressed concern about the term ‘environmental services’ as they consider it an expression of a utilitarian attitude towards biodiversity that does not take into account its intrinsic value and holistic nature.
However, the influence that economists wield was underestimated by the conservation community. Instead of adapting economics to the imperative of conserving our planet’s biodiversity, there has been an increasing tendency to adapt biodiversity conservation policies to mainstream economics.2 The economic rationale is very straightforward: if it is possible to transform biodiversity and other environmental ‘services’ into marketable assets, then market forces will drive biodiversity conservation. However, attempting to squeeze something as holistic as global biodiversity into the structured and relatively rigid framework of the market was always going to be difficult (not to say morally dubious). For anything to become marketable, the ‘product’ has to be:
• commodified and transformed into a clearly defined legal object or entity that can be traded;
• privatized, in terms of becoming the clear property of a specific owner who has the legal right to sell it; and
• sold, which also means there needs to be a buyer willing to pay to become the new owner.
In relation to biodiversity, these three steps raise numerous moral and technical dilemmas – and it should be emphasized that these dilemmas are not just theoretical. For example, Paraguay, having passed a ‘Payments for Environmental Services’ (PES) law (featured in one of the case studies in this publication) is now faced with the highly complicated question of developing an adequate regulatory system to implement the general principles of the law. As a first step, the Secretariat of the Environment in Paraguay has been charged with the quite daunting task of putting an appropriate market value on all the ‘environmental services’ provided by Paraguayan ecosystems.
In most existing market-based conservation approaches, the complexity of separating and commodifying the various elements of ecosystems has proven to be overwhelming. Ecosystems are complex, highly interactive systems, and most values are integral to the system itself. Even the carbon sequestration of forests for example, is variable, impermanent and not always easy to measure. Ecotourism – also considered a market mechanism since it commodifies landscape values – has often destroyed the very landscapes people come to visit.
Furthermore, certified timber, such as that certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), still includes timber derived from large-scale monoculture tree plantations, meaning that there is no positive linear relationship between FSC certification and biodiversity values either. As monoculture tree plantations normally replace more biologically diverse ecosystems, such as old growth forests and natural grasslands, the biodiversity value of certified timber can be highly negative. Assumptions that plantations would decrease timber exploitation from natural forests have never been satisfactorily substantiated.
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