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Protecting Nature Through "Radical Collaboration"

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I'll be joining this year's TED conference in Long Beach, CA, where some of today's most cutting edge thinkers will discuss what is possible if society looks beyond traditional expectations.

One of this year's themes at TED is "Radical Collaboration." I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately - specifically what can be achieved if the goals of development and conservation were linked together.

For too long, the conservation movement has viewed development as something that must be stopped in order to protect nature.

Conversely, businesses and governments have traditionally given too little thought to the value of nature.

For example, coastal wetlands in the United States provide critical protection each year to local communities by absorbing storm energy from hurricanes and preventing damage to homes and businesses. Insurance experts estimate the annual value of this protection exceeds $20 billion.

Likewise, coral reefs provide as much as an estimated $150 billion annually in food, medicines, recreational income and other services, according to economists. What would happen if nature could no longer provide business and society these important services?

As we face a resource-challenged world with rapidly growing populations, human well-being and the health of the natural world can no longer be viewed separately. We need to design a new way of thinking that brings development strategies and conservation principles together. But how?

As a first step, a group of academic institutions and conservation NGOs joined forces recently to demonstrate to businesses and governments just how important healthy natural systems are to their development goals and business plans.

Called the Natural Capital Project, the group is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Stanford University, WWF and the University of Minnesota. It created a set of computer tools that quantify the services nature provides. The goal is to get businesses and governments to view these services as "natural capital" worthy of investment and critical to their bottom lines.

The tools developed by Nat Cap use scientific data to analyze land use decisions such as converting agriculture areas to residential development or building an airport along a coast. Such decisions, of course, would impact the natural services communities and businesses rely upon, such as clean water flow, soil fertility or fish production.

Corporations can then assess the tradeoffs associated with their actions and decide how and where to make investments to protect their supply chains. Government agencies can determine how to manage lands and waters to provide an optimal mix of benefits to people or to design mitigation programs that sustain nature's benefits to society.

And conservation organizations can use the data to align their missions to both protect biodiversity and improve human livelihoods.

Through a variety of demonstration projects in China, Colombia, Indonesia, Tanzania, the United States and elsewhere, Nat Cap is seeking to transform how governments and businesses factor the value of nature into policy and decision-making.

In China, for example, the Yangtze River is facing numerous threats from rapidly growing populations, mining, road-building and hydro-power construction. Along with supporting diverse marine and migratory bird species, the Yangtze is also the source of food and water for more than 400 million people.

Nat Cap worked with Chinese officials to map out and assess the value of the various services the Yangtze provides to both people and nature -- and the impact development activities will have on these services. Local agencies are now using the information as they create their development and zoning plans to pinpoint landscapes where conservation makes the most sense and where development makes the most sense.

In Colombia, the tools helped locate forests and other natural areas that support clean flows of water to local communities. The information will guide local water utilities, sugar cane growers and others that rely on these water supplies as they determine where and how they should invest to conserve these areas and where development activities can proceed with the least impact downstream. They understand that it is a lot cheaper to keep these forests standing than it is to build water filtration plants.

In the United States, as proposed budget cuts threaten conservation funding, it is more important than ever that the conservation community collaborate with diverse sectors to make the business case for investing in nature. The tools developed by Nat Cap are instrumental in making that case.

As I meet with thought leaders at the TED conference next week, I plan to talk about the growing need for businesses and the conservation community to collaborate. Such collaborations can no longer be viewed as "radical". The goals of human well-being and healthy natural systems need to come together if we are to meet the growing needs of society.

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