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Sun 23 Jan 2005

How much is natural heritage worth?

Category : articles

"How much is natural heritage worth?" By Lee Poh On, The Sunday Times, 23 January 2005 [pdf].

"...nature areas have intrinsic value, which can be given more weight by quantifying in dollar terms the benefits they afford.

After all, it is not impossible to attach a dollar value to our natural heritage given the economic tools that are available to price such areas. There are various well established methodologies which have been applied to valuing environmental amenities, and have been used in Singapore in the past as well.

What conservationists need to do now is to deploy them more rigorously to persuade policymakers that a new development project may adversely affect Singapore's well-being.

When quantified costs and benefits of the conservation option against the development option are put in their hands, policymakers can make better judgments as to the trade-offs between them.

I urge local conservationists to now carry out some form of monetary valuation to persuade policymakers and the public that natural areas matter to our collective well-being."

Economic valuation or environmental economics is being examined reasonably vigorously. You will realise that the lack of an exact science has not inhibited attempts to provide an economic valuation of biodiversity.

'Undervalued and ill-treated, Southeast Asia's coral reefs face collapse unless more is done to highlight just how valuable they are. This stark warning was given by reef specialist Jack Ruitenbeek of the University of Victoria during the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) conference in Singapore, 1999.'

"One way to improve the situation is through good economic research in particular, valuation of the reef resource. We need to signal to policy makers that there is a management problem right now, which is generating a loss of economic value, he stressed, underlining his belief that if governments and communities realize that they are being hurt in their wallets, then they are more likely to act. This is part of the communication role that environmental economics can play.

For Dr Ruitenbeek, key economic losses include the decimation of sustainable fisheries, tourism potential, and genetic value, which result from reef destruction. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, harbours a billion dollar annual tourism industry. In addition, more than 30 drugs derived from marine species were under pre-clinical investigation in early 1999 a potential multi-billion dollar drug treasure-trove. "

- "Highlighting the Importance of Coral Reefs: An Economics Research Agenda." By. R. Bellamy. IDRC Reports, 1st October 1999.

  • The economic loss associated with coral reef degradation. In: "Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia, 2002." By Lauretta Burke, Liz Selig, & Mark Spalding. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK.
  • Proceedings of the ARCBC Third Research Conference on Biodiversity Valuation: Approaches and Case Studies, 17-19 June 2002. See in particular Annex 6: The Economic Argument for Biodiversity Conservation.
  • EEPSEA: Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia - webpage.

Getting the message across

Research efforts since the late 1970's have demonstrated the importance of mangroves and coral reefs for protection, fisheries etc. The need for sustainable use has also been well studied, demonstrated and advocated.

Yet this message has taken decades to seep into common knowledge. Even the lessons of the devastating Orissa cyclone of October 1999 remained a blip on the radar for a relatively short time.

It took the tsunami disaster of 26th December 2004 to effectively suggest to governments that maintaining mangroves and coral reefs are actually a cheap and neccessary option for the long term - though only from the perpective of coastal protection, ironically ignoring the more predictable issues.

And not all disasters are predictable. Even experts (not all, though) were surprised that the Indian Ocean was subject to tsunamis. This suggests a holistic or intgegrated approach is needed to manage natural resources rather than a cartesian approach stimulated by disasters.

What about EIAs?

Economic valuation is a slippery path to traverse. Singapore has a weaker case for direct economic use of natural resources. Academics will have to consume considerable money and time to attempt to quantify flood prevention, absorbtion of pollutants, temperature regulation, public health etc., and probably fail to evaluate the rehabilitative value natural areas provide to an urbanised community coping in a fast-paced world, or a citizen's pride in the country's conservation stance or the value of the inheritance we could pass to our children.

Instead, or perhaps in addition to this research, we need to demand for evidence that a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis is actually conducted before the thin spots and strips of our remaining natural heritage are written off for good.

"...the legal framework does not lay down guarantees such as mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures and public participation in decision-making. The law presently provides for EIAs to be conducted at the discretion of governmental officials...

- Tan, A. K. J., 2001. "Reconciling Environmental and Developmental Imperatives in Singapore and Cross-Border Environmental Protection in ASEAN." Paper presented at the International Law Conference on ASEAN Legal Systems and Regional Integration, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 2001. See also Alan KJ Tan, 1998. Preliminary assessment of Singapore's environmental Law. APCEL Report Environmental Law (ASEAN-10): Singapore, 15th September, 1998

Who bears the burden of proof?

Conservationists have responded similarly elsewhere, warning of Shifting Baselines.org and suggesting the adoption of the Precautionary Principle.

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." - Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, 1998.

"For years, the environmental and public health movements have been struggling to find ways to protect health and the environment in the face of scientific uncertainty about cause and effect. The public has typically carried the burden of proving that a particular activity or substance is dangerous, while those undertaking potentially dangerous activities and the products of those activities are considered innocent until proven guilty.

Chemicals, dangerous practices, and companies often seem to have more rights than citizens and the environment.

This burden of scientific proof has posed a monumental barrier in the campaign to protect health and the environment. Actions to prevent harm are usually taken only after significant proof of harm is established, at which point it may be too late. Hazards are generally addressed by industry and government agencies one at a time.

When citizen groups base their calls for a stop to a particular activity on experience, observation, or anything less than stringent scientific proof, they are accused of being emotional and hysterical."

- "The Precautionary Principle in Action, A Handbook." By Joel Tickner, Carolyn Raffensperger & Nancy Myers. Science and Environmental Health Network, 1999. See also "Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000", the European Environment Agency's Environmental Issue Report No 22 (2001).

No man is an island

The weather, overfishing, the haze, SARS, Nipah virus, Bird Flu and the Tsunami have each disrupted our health and menus. This has happened frequently enough recently for even Singaporeans to realise that regional environmental issues will threaten the food on our table. And we can't expect our neighbours to do what we fail to do ourselves.

Posted at 12:58PM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news