Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Event Summary: The Earth Debate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas – “Can we put a price on nature?”

The Earth Debate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas – “Can we put a price on nature?”

Date: 24 February, 2012
Time: 1:30-4:00 PM
Central Venue: ICIMOD Headquarters, Kathmandu, Nepal

Moderators: Daan Boom, Programme Manager, Integrated Knowledge Management, ICIMOD; Mr Tek Jung Mahat, Node Manager, Asia Pacific Mountain Network – Mountain Partnership

Guest Speakers: Dr Robert Monro, Country Director, British Council, Nepal; Dr David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD

Panelists: Dr Madhav Karki, Deputy Director General, ICIMOD; Mr Raj Gyawali, CEO, Social Tours; Smrity Mallapaty, Correspondent, SciDev

Country groups present via Skype-web: Dhaka, Bangladesh; Beijing, China; Vishakhapatnam and Kochi, India; Kathmandu, Nepal

Mr Tek Jung Mahat welcomed the guest speakers, panelists and the country groups to the Internet debate on the topic of ‘can we put a price on nature?’ and thanked the Natural History Museum, Stakeholder Forum, and British Council for bringing the same to the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.  Dr Robert Monro reminded the audience that climate change is real and that the clock is ticking. He noted that although we’ve come some way since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, CoP-15 in Copenhagen was a failure. He underscored that the focus of the debate on the ‘economics of climate change’ was very apt, as it is the vested interests backed by ‘big money’ that are holding back progress on the climate change mitigation front. Dr David Molden agreed that the topic is relevant to ICIMOD in the run up to Rio+20. He acknowledged that climate change in the mountains is an issue of global concern and that solutions to problems such as glacier/snow melting, green house gas  emissions, and changes in the monsoon pattern need to be sought at all levels. He noted that mountain people who are care-takers of mountain systems that provide ecosystem goods and services are not compensated for their essential role, and called on the audience to join hands to put mountains on the global agenda of the UNFCCC process, including Rio+20.  

Next, the 17-minute video clip of the Earth Debates, titled "Ecosystem economics - Can we put a price on Nature?" was shown to the audience comprising mostly the country groups and the panelists to set the tone for the two-way Skype-enabled interactions to follow between them.

Dr Madhav Karki noted that valuation of ecosystem services is important since ‘that which is not valued is often not protected.’ He admitted that cultural values and provisioning roles of ecosystems are not easy to monetize, while likening the over extraction of natural resources in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, which are increasingly being recognized as a global common, to the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Misusing this common, he said, will have implications for intergenerational equity, so called on all to flag this issue at Rio+20. Ms Smriti Mallapaty noted that while monetization is important, it is only a numbers game or tool to advocate for solutions to some of today’s protracted environmental problems.  She said internalizing negative externalities often comes at the expense of economic growth, and asked, “Who will pay for the global ecosystem services that are valued at 33 trillion dollars?”  She noted that there is a need to create incentive structures that go beyond prices to benefit Nature ultimately.  Mr Raj Gyawali reminded everyone that in Nepal’s tourism sector, there is already price on nature in the form of royalties and permits that visitors must pay to climb mountains and visit protected or restricted areas. “But the big question,” he said, “is how much of that money actually goes back to the community, since putting money in their hands is the best way to ensure protection of the environment and ecosystem services?”  Rather than rely on the licensing system to arbitrarily put price on nature, he opined that is is much better to ensure that a ‘greater share of the tourism revenues’ are captured by the local community and that they are provided with tools to do conservation with, not to mention legislation to influence behaviors and attitudes all around.

The Indian Group
§  Flagged that in most countries, Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) are highly politicised to serve the narrow interests of a certain group of people, so the very purpose of the EIA has been lost in the wind. However, in India now that natural resource accounting is going into National Account, it is an encouraging sign of the time.
§  Noted that the climate science as reported by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was erroneous. It retracted the statement it had made about the Himalayan glaciers and the snow cap on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The panel responded that although some of the findings of IPCC were questionable, their overall conclusion was sound: that climate change is real and happening.
§  Reminded that indigenous peoples (IPs) are being displaced from their homeland in the name of development, with scant regard for their rights, especially their right to the water, to the land and to life itself, and asked what can be done to ensure that they benefit from eco-tourism. The panel responded that the IPs are not on the same level playing field as other groups and the government could consider awarding be them land titles to their ancestral domains, so they don’t lose out. It also said that IPs should come to the forefront of ecotourism and must be encouraged to do so. However, as they already coexist with other groups, it would not be advisable to single them out for a preferential treatment.
§  Posed a question: how underdeveloped countries with high unemployment and poverty will cope, if nature, which is a public good, is subjected to pricing/valuation. The panel responded that a good majority of the poor in underdeveloped countries are dependent on nature and natural resources for their livelihoods and subsistence. It would help to involve them in joint forest management and community forestry through the provision of tenure rights, and enabling policies. It noted that is actually in the absence of such rights that deforestation is done by external agents. The poor whose livelihoods are based on natural resources –e.g., in medicinal and aromatic plants, horticulture, farming, small scale resource based income generation activities –will likely benefit more from the pricing of nature, although the same may not hold true of the urban poor. In an ideal world, everybody should be expected to pay a fair price for nature, irrespective of the level of employment and poverty prevailing in the country. However, exceptions can be made for the absolute poor in underdeveloped countries.
§  Posed a query: As far as low carbon economy goes, what will be the role of energy in terms of improving quality of life? The panel responded that Green Economy actually means following low-carbon pathways to sustainable development as well as growth.                               As such the world is already moving into renewable energy slowly but surely although not everybody is happy with the pace. As the price of fossil fuel rises, development of alternative energy becomes more feasible. Lots of innovations are happening in the area of solar technologies and prices are also coming down – and this will continue. Indeed the future looks bright.
§  Proposed that green accounting should start at micro level, say beginning from a unit of 500 hectares of land. The panel responded that green accounting could start at micro watershed level, and cumulatively go up. However, the question must be asked: who is going to compensate the watershed managers –for examples, mountain farmers and community forestry user groups – for maintaining watershed services? Unless green accounting is linked to compensation or payments for ecosystem services, the exercise will be useless.
§  Posed a query: Is it feasible for companies and organizations to go for green auditing? The panel responded that because of the economies of scale, it is not economically feasible for small companies to go for green auditing. However, big companies, especially industry leaders, should go for green auditing to set an example for other s to follow. Green auditing is an idea whose time has come.

The Nepali Group
§  Noted that nature is priceless, and wanted to know how Nepal can learn from Bhutan and put a premium on tourism and also promote culture and its appreciation at the state level. The panel responded that Nepal has not had a stable government for over a decade. Nepal is not Bhutan and cannot be like Bhutan.  Bhutan is a special case in that it has a small, manageable population, and constitutionally ensures that 70% of its territory is under forest cover at all times.  Nepal cannot do that. Instead it should focus on getting its house in order, and catalyze actions at local level by mobilizing its citizens– such as making the Everest and Annapurna regions plastic free.
§  Posed a question: what role can the youth and media play in advocating for a Green Economy at Rio+20. The panel responded that the biggest concern of the youth today is jobs, jobs, jobs, so they must advocate for ‘green jobs’ and join the green sector to bring about positive changes from the inside. At Rio+20, they should advocate for a sustainable world where the youth has a future. As the youth has a very high level of energy and awareness, they need to hold projects, institutions and the higher authority to account by playing the role of a watch dog as well as a pressure group. The media can help
§  Posed a question: what role can private sector play to bring about a Green Economy through corporate social responsibility (CSR). Probably the corporate social responsibility should be renamed as “corporate ecological responsibility”? The panel responded that the eco-tourism industry should add value to their green credentials and charge a premium for their services; use local guides and porters; promote local handicraft, products and produce; encourage the use of locally available materials in construction; thereby ensuring that a large share of the tourism revenues are captured by the local economy. This is the kind of work that private sector can do with a nod to CSR to help ‘green’ the local economy.
§  Posed a question: As there are many definitions of ‘ecosystem services’ and of ‘payment for ecosystem services’, what definitions will we take to Rio+20? The panel responded that it is not wise to get stuck on definitions, be they official definitions or provisional ones. It is better to make a case for the protection of mountain ecosystems at Rio+20 by contextualizing the examples of ecosystem services at all levels, and how they actually benefit humanity.

The Chinese Group
§  Noted that the policies made in 1950-1960 created serious environmental problems over the next several decades in China and wanted to know how to ensure that the government makes the right policy that puts the local community at the centre of conservation. The panel responded that policy is important, and that Rio+20 must aim to achieve actionable political commitments by avoiding the mistakes of the past, and. At the national and local levels, policy has to be informed and inspired by science and ground reality. This means the environment has to be monitored constantly. The ombudsperson and the right to information need to be institutionalized so as to hold the government to account. When nature is put in the market framework of prices, there has to be regulation in place, otherwise it will invariably lead to overexploitation. It is not advisable to push for economic growth without putting a regulatory system in place for the same reason. There is no win-win in this, as every policy choice involves a trade off. Penalizing ‘polluters’ is necessary but not sufficient.

The Bangladeshi Group
§  Noted that putting price on ecosystems will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor. The panel responded that although the market is not perfect, it has a role to play in pricing nature. However, the interests of the poorest of the poor have to be protected from the vagaries of market forces so that they do not get ‘priced out’ of nature, so to speak. It also said that attaching a premium to conservation is probably the way to go, as maximum people can potentially benefit. This entails ensuring that ‘polluters pay’ and ‘consumers pay’ their fair share.

Mr Daan Boom thanked the country groups from China, Bangladesh, India and Nepal as well as all the three panelists - Dr Madhav Karki, Mr Raj Gyawali, and Ms Smriti Mallapat - for enriching the debate. He thanked Ms Smrity Dewan, Programme Manager, British Council-Nepal for the support as well as Mr Tek Jung Mahat, Mr Basudev Upadhaya and Mr Utsav Maden for organizing the Earth Day Debate. He expressed deep satisfaction that the web-conference style debate left very little carbon footprint, if any, while contributing to the process leading up to Rio+20, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 20 to 22 June 2012.

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