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Protecting Nature Is the Smartest Investment We Can Make

April 10, 2013

(Mark Tercek is president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and co-author of the book Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature).

Headshot_mark_tercekIn my work for the Nature Conservancy, I think a lot about how we can do more. How can we unlock new sources of capital, enlist more people to support our cause, and develop new alliances that will enable us to conserve nature at a scale never before achieved?

In my view, the answer is in putting ourselves in others' shoes -- whether those of a sugarcane grower in Colombia, a trawl fisher in California, or the executive of a global manufacturing company -- and focusing on why nature is important and valuable to them.

A simple but elegant solution to an environmental challenge in Colombia demonstrates this approach -- an approach that is leading to exciting new ways of structuring, funding, and discussing environmental nonprofit interventions.

The Project

In October 2011 I met with a group of sugarcane growers in Bogota, Colombia. They were warm and gracious hosts, affable dinner companions, and extremely proud of their beautiful lands and their booming business. They didn't see the world exactly the same way I do and they certainly didn't think of themselves as environmentalists. But they did agree with me on a simple point -- it makes great sense to invest in nature to protect water supplies.

Over the past decade, Colombia's sugarcane growers have become increasingly concerned about water supply in the Cauca Valley, situated near the country's Pacific coast and one of the richest cane-growing regions in the world. The farmers there need abundant water to irrigate their enormous fields.

The solution we arrived at together: protect the water supply by protecting the forested watersheds that feed the Cauca River.

Through an investment strategy called a water fund, cane growers, mill owners, and other water users in the region voluntarily pay into a fund reserved for forest conservation upstream. The idea is simple. Farmers, mill operators, and other businesses save money by preempting the need for more costly water treatment activities. Water resources are kept healthy and flowing for local communities. And healthy natural systems provide habitat for wildlife.

The Takeaways

As we are learning in places like Colombia, investments in "green infrastructure" or "natural capital" can produce very attractive returns. But the benefits of the approach go far beyond individual project sites.

Conservationists have long been dependent on and grateful for the help of generous philanthropists, foundations, and individual supporters. The support of such donors remains vital -- we would be nowhere without their generosity and passion. But we need even more people and resources on our side. If we can persuade government and business leaders that investing in nature will secure important benefits, we should be able to provide a powerful new source of capital for conservation.

Second, many people today are disconnected from nature and don't understand why they should care about protecting it. But these same people do care about what they need to survive and thrive -- clean water and air, fertile soil, timber to build homes, protection from floods and other natural hazards. Natural capital can be a powerful concept for spreading the word on why everyone should care about saving nature.

Third, environmentalists -- however well-intentioned -- often lecture society on what it "should" or "shouldn't" do. As a result, we have alienated potential allies. By focusing on the value of nature, we can shift the dialogue from hectoring lecture to win-win discussion. For example, instead of telling businesses not to pollute, isn't it more effective to demonstrate a lower-cost way of obtaining the clean water that sustains their bottom line?

Finally, as we are seeing in places like Colombia, relatively small philanthropic investments in natural capital can catalyze much larger investments by the beneficiaries of a project -- in some cases, even leading to a self-sustaining flow of conservation funding. For philanthropists seeking to maximize the impact of their funding, investing in natural capital makes compelling sense.

By making the connection between nature and basic human and business needs, conservation becomes more meaningful to millions of people around the globe. Natural capital investment won't solve all our environmental challenges. But when it does, the benefits will be many -- from new sources of capital, to more widespread support and constructive dialogue, to higher returns on philanthropic donations and gifts.

-- Mark Tercek

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