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Report assesses promises and pitfalls of private investment in conservation

Leading scientists, lawyers, investors and economists explore how privately financed conservation projects can generate both financial returns and positive conservation outcomes

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) have released a report entitled “Innovative Finance for Conservation: Roles for Ecologists and Practitioners” that offers guidelines for developing standardised, ethical and effective conservation finance projects.

Public and philanthropic sources currently supply most of the funds for protecting and conserving species and ecosystems. However, the private sector is now driving demand for market-based mechanisms that support conservation projects with positive environmental, social and financial returns. Examples of projects that can support this triple bottom line include green infrastructure for stormwater management, clean transport projects and sustainable production of food and fibre products.

“The reality is that public and philanthropic funds are insufficient to meet the challenge to conserve the world’s biodiversity,” said Garvin Professor and Senior Director of Conservation Science at Cornell University Amanda Rodewald, the report’s lead author. “Private investments represent a new path forward both because of their enormous growth potential and their ability to be flexibly adapted to a wide variety of social and ecological contexts.”

The report examines the legal, social and ethical issues associated with innovative conservation finance and offers resources and guidelines for increasing private capital commitments to conservation. It also identifies priority actions that individuals and organisations working in conservation finance will need to adopt in order to “mainstream” the field.

One priority action is to standardise the metrics that allow practitioners to compare and evaluate projects. While the financial services and investment sectors regularly employ standardised indicators of financial risk and return, it is more difficult to apply such indicators to conservation projects. Under certain conservation financing models, for example, returns on investment are partially determined by whether the conservation project is successful – but “success” can be difficult to quantify when it is defined by complex social or environmental changes, such as whether a bird species is more or less at risk of going extinct as a result of a conservation project.

Another priority action is to establish safeguards and ethical standards for involving local stakeholders, including Indigenous communities. In the absence of robust accountability and transparency measures, mobilising private capital in conservation can result in unjust land grabs or in unscrupulous investments where profits flow disproportionately to wealthy or powerful figures. The report offers guidelines for ensuring that conservation financing improves the prosperity of local communities.

According to co-author Peter Arcese, a professor at the University of British Columbia and adjunct professor at Cornell University, opportunities in conservation finance are growing for patient investors who are interested in generating modest returns while simultaneously supporting sustainable development.

“Almost all landowners I’ve worked with in Africa and North and South America share a deep desire to maintain or enhance the environmental, cultural and aesthetic values of the ecosystems their land supports,” Arcese said. “By creating markets and stimulating investment in climate mitigation, and forest, water and biodiversity conservation projects, we can offer landowners alternative income sources and measurably slow habitat loss and degradation.”

Rodewald sees a similar landscape of interest and opportunity. “No matter the system – be it a coffee plantation in the Andes, a timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest, or a farm in the Great Plains – I am reminded again and again that conservation is most successful when we safeguard the health and well-being of local communities. Private investments can be powerful tools to do just that,” said Rodewald.

The report is No. 22 in a series of reports published by the Ecological Society of America that use commonly understood language to present the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. Previous reports in the series are available at https://www.esa.org/publications/issues/.

Report: Amanda Rodewald, et al. 2020. “Innovative Finance for Conservation: Roles for Ecologists and Practitioners.” https://www.esa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ESA_IssuesInEcology_no.22.pdf

Header image: Ancient Haida mortuary totems at SGang Gwaay llnagaay, Haida Gwaii, which are protected under the Constitution of the Haida Nation and commemorated by the Government of Canada as a National Historic Site. In 2009, a reconciliation protocol established co-management of the islands by the Haida Nation and the Province of British Columbia. The Haida Nation subsequently purchased a large forest tenure and established a Nation-owned and operated logging company that follows strict environmental and social standards for responsible forest management. The investment was supported by funding from Coast Funds (www.coastfunds.ca), an Indigenous-focused conservation finance organisation that invests in First Nations-led sustainable business development initiatives. Credit: Brodie Guy.

Provided by the Ecological Society of America.