In 2019, a landmark report gave the world its first assessment of biodiversity loss. There was one crystal clear conclusion: Human actions are threatening more species with global extinction than ever before.
According to the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report, currently 25%, or 1 million species, are threatened with extinction. The drivers of change have only accelerated over the past 50 years. The human population has doubled to 8 billion, contributing to climate change, changing land and sea use, overexploitation of resources and pollution. Two-thirds of the oceans are impacted. 85% of wetlands have disappeared.
Following these austere data findings, the IPBES agreement identified human land use change as the main culprit.
Today, an ASU research team developed the first-of-its-kind study that combines conservation with practical economic tools for a case study of Colombia, South America, a high-priority but underfunded country. for the conservation of biodiversity.
“We focused on the country case study of Colombia to demonstrate an approach to maximizing the biodiversity benefits of limited conservation funding while ensuring that landowners maintain economic returns equivalent to the ‘agriculture,” said Leah Gerber, who was lead author of the IPBES report, and is a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes (CBO) at the Arizona State University.
While they found that Colombia should significantly increase its conservation spending,
the study developed a prioritization map that allows decision-makers to target conservation actions to regions where conservation benefits are highest and economic impacts are low, yielding the best ecological value for money.
To do this, Gerber teamed up with Colombian native Camila Guerrero-Pineda, who just three years ago left her home country to join ASU and be mentored as a graduate student by Gerber and Gwenllian D. Iacona, assistant research professor at the school. life sciences, to ultimately make a difference at home.
“It’s fair to categorize Colombia as a megadiverse country,” Guerrero-Pineda said. “It has arguably one of the greatest biodiversities in the world, given its size, and many Colombian scientists and scholars fear the ecological consequences of human actions.”
Now, she is the first author and a first-year graduate student from the ASU School of Life Sciences and Conservation Innovation Lab who contributed her findings to the journal. Natural durability.
Cattle, coca and biodiversity
Colombia ranks as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world.
Colombia has a unique geography and natural beauty as the only country in South America with combined coasts of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Seas, as well as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which at 13,000 m , is the highest coastal mountain range in the world.
Human actions now threaten the only such freshwater species, the pink river dolphin. Pinched tamarind. The Orinoco Crocodile. The 100 pound giant capybara rodent. The Spectacled Bear. Plants (flor de mayo orchid), amphibians (golden poison frog) and butterflies (Colombian eighty-eight) too.
All species unique to Colombia. And everything could disappear.
On the South American continent, Colombia stands out as a region that has been able to preserve its biodiversity, one of the few good sides due to a long history of violent and human conflicts. Prior to a 2016 peace accord, Colombia experienced governmental instability and a decades-long guerrilla war waged by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other minor groups.
“The FARC had a lot of control over the forests, and that prevented a lot of economic development,” Guerrero-Pineda said. Since the FARC controlled the forest for the production of coca leaves (the plant used to produce cocaine) and the drug trade to finance five decades of asymmetric warfare, one of the effects was to prevent unbridled development – and inadvertently preserve biodiversity.
In the ASU-led study, they found that the likelihood of transformation into livestock and other crops decreases with distance to roads, while the probability of transformation into coca increases. These results suggest that coca crops are grown in more isolated areas, away from roads, compared to livestock.
The presence of the FARC was the most influential variable determining the fate of the deforested area, as the chances of conversion of forests to coca crops compared to conversion to cattle or other crops in areas where the FARC are 308 .04% higher than odds in FARC-free areas.
“It also prevented a lot of scientific monitoring because scientists were afraid to go into the forests,” Guerrero-Pineda said.
But Colombia now finds itself at a biodiversity crossroads. The 2016 peace agreement has now brought unprecedented development. In the past 5 years alone, GDP growth has been 5-6% each year.
During this period, the rate of deforestation increased by 44% after the peace agreement. Palm oil production, logging, mining and diesel extraction are among the main culprits in addition to agricultural development.
Do nothing, and Gerber’s team estimates that the current rate of biodiversity loss could increase by 50% by 2033.
Paradise lost or opportunity cost?
But how does Colombia preserve its biodiversity while balancing the need for economic development? Gerber’s team believe they have found a new plan to not only help Colombia, but also reach out to other policymakers in other countries to help make a difference.
For the first time, they applied a unique quantitative model that links conservation investments to national biodiversity outcomes.
“The methods developed here offer an approach to identify areas of greatest returns on conservation investment by balancing the cost of conservation action, measured as the opportunity cost to agriculture, and the impacts on biodiversity,” said the study’s lead author, Camila Guerrero-Pineda.
Economically, everything in development boils down to opportunity costs.
An extreme example of the choices nations have to make is often referred to as the “Guns versus butter” economic model. It refers to whether a country is more interested in spending money on war or feeding its people – but it can’t do both, and there will always be trade-offs.
In the case of Colombia, it is economic development versus biodiversity outcomes. Or more colloquially, parks versus parking lots. Preservation versus development.
Their team modeled the opportunity cost of conservation (OCC) for agriculture as an approximation of the expected cost of compensating a landowner to avoid converting their property.
“Opportunity cost is what you miss or don’t do because of a decision to do something else,” Guerrero-Pineda said. “What this means is that someone will not be able to use the land that will be used for conservation.”
They assumed in modeling a cost of protection that deforestation can be thwarted by compensating the landowner, either through purchase, such as setting the sale value of a plot equal to its expected future cash flow, or in the form of ongoing payments for ecosystem services.
To avoid this further loss of biodiversity, Gerber’s groups estimated that Colombia would need to invest $37-39 million per year in best- and worst-case deforestation scenarios. According to them, this means an increase in its conservation expenditure from $7.69 million to $10.16 million per year. Avoiding this decline (preventing further losses) would require $61-63 million per year, more than double the conservation expenditures before the peace accord.
“Our strategy for targeting conservation funding is to first identify areas of high
risk of conversion of forest to agriculture [such as cattle ranching or other crops]“, said Gerber.
“More generally, the research agenda is about integrating costs into decision-making to achieve maximum results, given limited resources.”
They found that the Andean region contains the highest average OCC, reflecting a very high probability of agricultural conversion of remaining forests. The Pacific, Caribbean and Orinoco regions follow closely behind. The Amazon region, the one with the lowest average probability of agricultural conversion, had the highest percentage of forest cover and the largest forest area, had a much lower OCC.
“One of the things we’re excited about with this work is that it’s a demonstration of the potential of this idea of using return on investment to think about conservation resources being allocated,” the co-author said. Gwenllian D. Iacona. “And so, we’ve taken these two high-level approaches that are out there, called the Waldron model and the Species Threat Reduction and Restoration (STAR) metric, and we’ve put them together so that decision makers at the national level can make the most informed decisions at this kind of scale.”
Their results can also help in land preservation planning and national parks. In Colombia, the National Natural Park System is in the process of declaring five new protected areas and expanding three others. This builds on evidence showing that more effective and sustainable conservation results are achieved when governance empowers local communities and supports their management of the environment, including indigenous communities, reserves and Afro-Colombian lands.
“I think Camila’s work really prepares us to help entities, whether countries or companies, to quantitatively measure the impact of conservation interventions on different metrics, whether they need biodiversity or climate mitigation, or other kinds of conservation strategies,” Gerber said. . “I’m optimistic we’ll be able to build and scale this to improve conservation outcomes more generally.”
“Camila, for example, this summer will work on a collaborative USAID project with Conservation International in Peru and we will apply a similar approach to identify pathways for green economic growth.”
Their approach is another great example of ASU’s commitment to advancing research to find practical solutions to today’s pressing social, economic and environmental challenges.
“So in that sense, Camila’s foundational work is not only new, but also represents a practical basis for broad applications on a global scale,” Gerber said. “We are exploring applications in several other countries and for other Sustainable Development Goals. Combining this work with market-based incentives, this work proposes to rapidly accelerate our ability to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.”