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The Challenges of Ascribing Value to Natural Capital

Guest blogger Sonal Pandya Dalal shares Lessons from Conservation International’s Shift in Mission

by Sonal Pandya Dalal last modified Nov 27, 2013 10:43 PM
Recently, Conservation International flipped its long-held message of biodiversity conservation on its head: nature does not need people; people need nature to thrive. But creating sustainable landscapes that result in economic and social benefits for communities requires valuating natural resources. Guest author and conference speaker Sonal Pandya Dalal explores how she and her organization are tackling this often daunting challenge.
The Challenges of Ascribing Value to Natural Capital

Conservation International works with the President of the Republic of Kiribati as part of its Pacific Oceanscape framework | © Conservation International/photo by John Martin

Oct 22, 2012 Conference

Guest author Sonal Pandya Dalal, Senior Advisor for Corporate Leadership Strategies at Conservation International, will be facilitating the Natural Capital and the Application of Valuing Ecosystem Services workshop at next week's 2012 Net Impact Conference.

For most of its 25-year history, Conservation International has focused on protecting biodiversity in the places of highest conservation value. It has been a mission that has allowed us to protect more than 200 million hectares of land and seas around the world—an area equivalent to a strip around the equator that is 30 miles wide. It’s energized a passionate team of field biologists, conservationists and partners in more than 30 priority geographies around one goal: to protect biodiversity at a massive scale.

About five years ago however, our CEO, chairman and co-founder Peter Seligmann recognized that this wasn’t enough. With the ever-increasing demands of a soaring population and middle class, we’re losing ground.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study, in just the past 50 years, about 60 percent of the Earth’s critical natural capital has been degraded and with its loss has come a dangerous downslide in the ecosystem services that we all rely on for our health, security, and quality of life. Although we may take these freely available services for granted, they offer people a wealth of quantifiable benefits, such as food, fiber, fuel, water purification, climate stabilization, crop pollination and recreation, which would be expensive – if even possible – to replace.

Given these sobering facts and challenges, the leadership of Conservation International instituted a change not only in our mission, but in our compositional DNA – one that flipped its long-held message of biodiversity conservation on its head: nature does not need people; people need nature to thrive. Our focus now is on supporting human well-being by helping societies integrate the value, restoration and maintenance of renewable natural capital into their development decisions, rather than pursuing these goals along parallel tracks.

Ensuring economic & social benefits through healthy landscapes

For Conservation International, that means taking a more holistic approach in the creation of integrated, sustainable landscapes that result in economic and social benefits for communities. Through the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, for example, we are bringing together farmers, governments, NGOs, donors and the private sector to understand viable ways that ecosystem health, water, human health, energy, biodiversity and climate change can be addressed simultaneously. In parallel, we have worked with our partners to design one of the most ambitious ocean conservation initiatives in history: the Pacific Oceanscape, a collaborative management framework for the exclusive economic zones of 15 members of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Of course, this approach is not without challenges. The way I see it, a few things need to happen before we’ll be able to fully empower societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity:

  1. We must create standards for natural capital accounting.
    If we’re going to fund landscape-based approaches, the market has to be better developed for natural capital accounting. We have internationally accepted standards for carbon offsets, but we need to expand this to other services such as water. Initiatives such as the TEEB for Business Coalition are doing their part to develop standards and values for these “externalities.”
  2. We need to build consensus.
    Creating a consortium of diverse stakeholders with different interests and priorities and getting them to agree on, commit to, and work toward one purpose and goal is far from easy. To facilitate this vital process in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Conservation InternationaI and the Government of Botswana, led by His Excellency President Ian Khama, co-hosted a Summit for Sustainability in Africa, where 10 African nations exchanged ideas and voiced their support for including natural capital in national accounting by signing the Gaborone Declaration. We are also working with the World Bank’s WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) initiative to ensure that national accounts include natural capital as they plan for economic growth.
  3. We must test and scale models.
    Since changing our mission, we’ve been testing models to protect natural capital through our Sustainable Landscapes Partnership and the Alto Mayo REDD+ initiative. To achieve our goal, we ultimately have to move beyond testing and put together a framework for scaling the successful practices we’ve learned in many landscapes across the globe.

Adjusting internally while working externally

Some of these needs are dependent on influencing external forces, but Conservation International has also had to and is still currently doing a lot of work internally to shift our focus. For example, we’ve conducted a GAP analysis to figure out what skills and knowledge we most need, we’re refining and socializing a new organizational strategy, and we’re assessing where we place our technical expertise so as to best support the game-changers from national, regional and global agents. These practices need not be unique to our nonprofit model.

As the private and public sectors are beginning to see that valuing natural capital is in their long-term, enlightened self-interest, we at Conservation International see our organization’s role as one of convener, trusted advisor, and influencer for this new way of thinking and approaching conservation. We innovate solutions to development challenges and field test them to prove concept, but then we work with key change agents to scale up these solutions for greatest possible impact. I hope you’ll join me at the Net Impact conference next week to learn more about some of these case studies and how you can also be part of creating a more sustainable future.



Sonal Pandya Dalal serves as a trusted advisor to Conservation International’s corporate partners, working to minimize their impact on ecosystem services and making business a positive force for nature conservation, green economies, and human well-being. Ms. Dalal holds a B.A. in Biology from the Drew University, an M.S. from the University of Maryland. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.

Add a Comment Comments
Emily Benson

Hi, I'm writing from the Green Economy Coalition. We'd like to reprint this article on the GEC website (obviously with all links / refs to your site). Would that be ok? Many thanks
Emily Benson

Jess Sand

Hi Emily,

I'll check with Conservation International and let you know!

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