Dollars and 'Sense': Paying for Our Planet

tigers in India
tigers in India

By Midori Paxton


Celebrating the International Day for Biological Diversity today serves as a strong reminder of the value of nature and ecosystems to human life and the well-being of our societies. We all depend on the complex and intricate web of life for our own living, but as some policy makers around the globe are coming to realise, it requires significantly more money than is currently being raised and spent to adequately protect and conserve our biological life support system.

Conserving nature requires more than loose change and handshakes, but the investment in ecological life support underpins the continuity of human civilization and thus enables the future that we want. So, yes, it is worth the investment. 

The theme of the Day is “Biodiversity for Sustainable Tourism” and today’s celebration coincides with the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. It is worth noting the role biodiversity and ecosystems play as the backbone of tourism in many places, and equally worth noting the crucial role that the tourism sector can play in conserving biodiversity. This is undeniably a nexus to pursue, particularly for financing effective conservation.  

I was lucky enough to spend many years living and working in Africa and Asia, regions where the interplay between biodiversity financing and tourism is strongly evident. 

In Namibia, tourism became the 2nd largest industry after mining, overtaking fisheries and agriculture in the 2000s.  In the country sustaining tourism means maintaining nature – the very tourism assets that draws visitors from around the world. While I was in Namibia working for strengthening national park management, the government commissioned an economic study.  The results showed that the government investment in enhancing national park management could yield up to 42% of economic return. 

Tourism in Namibia contributes to more than 20% of GDP and provides over 20% of the country’s employment. Community based tourism which is well advanced in the country, provides direct benefits and opportunities for entrepreneurship for people who live inside and around national parks. 

Similarly, in India a government commissioned 2015 study valued six tiger reserves at US$24 billion and $ 1.2 billion per year. The experts looked at a range of benefits tiger reserves bring to the country.  These included potential of employment generation and tourism, the monetary estimates of a range of ecosystem services including water provisioning, gene-pool protection, carbon storage and sequestration among other tangible and intangible benefits. 

People travel half the globe to see tigers. But what does it take for the Indian government and all other governments to ensure that there are sufficient financial resources to effectively manage protected areas based on sound science, ensuring vital ecosystem services to people, and ensuring sustainable tourism which communities can benefit from for generations to come? 

Finance is at the heart of all our conservation efforts. The Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offers an innovative way to tackle biodiversity finance. 

This global project supports 30 countries, through working directly with governments including ministries of finance and national development agencies and the private sector, to assess the national biodiversity finance landscape, map how much is being spent and where, find out the crucial financial needs and shortfalls, and finally identify and develop a plan for the best opportunities to close the biodiversity financing gaps. 

The foundation of the BIOFIN process is accurate knowledge through research. While some estimates say the global financial need for biodiversity conservation is between USD 150-440 billion every year, we need to gather more evidence at the country level to more accurately define the national financial gaps and specific needs. 

In the Philippines – one of the worlds biodiversity hotspots – BIOFIN's work with several government agencies found a gap of around US$378 million per year (or around 80% of current finance) to properly implement the official national plan to protect and manage biodiversity. The government is also investing in tagging biodiversity spending within its budgets to track what they spend on biodiversity across the varying ministries and agencies. 

The next step is identifying an appropriate mix of finance solutions to increase resources, decrease expenditure that has a negative impact on biodiversity (e.g. subsidies that encourage deforestation), and try to increase cost-effectiveness of fiscal instruments and expenditures. The prioritised finance solutions are included in a Biodiversity Finance Plan that will guide each country on how to reduce their biodiversity finance gap.

There are numerous traditional and innovative solutions a country can pursue. The Philippines, led by several biodiversity champions in congress, is seeking legislative reform to access money from the fossil fuel-derived Special Fund – better known as The Malampaya Fund – to increase finance for biodiversity initiatives. A small allocation of the resources from this fund would go a long way to reducing the country’s finance gap. 

In the Seychelles, a country entirely dependent on tourism, there is a strong business case made to the private sector about the importance of biodiversity leading to further development of the ecotourism sector. 

Hotel owners and tourism operators are now directly involved in, and committing their own resources towards eradicating invasive alien species, (such as rats and goats), protecting sea turtle nesting sites, restoring coral reef and mangrove ecosystems and other conservation actions that are not only good for the environment – they are good for business. The Seychelles Government is also making financing biodiversity a high priority, and is in the process of establishing a special resource mobilisation unit within the government. 

Furthermore, we are experiencing an “awakening” across governments to the peril and the financial needs for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.  The ever-present barriers that hampered government planning and dialogue are slowly being broken down.

In Kazakhstan, the Finance Ministry fully recognises that financing for conservation is everybody's job to deal with. And in Bhutan, the government is fully integrating the BIOFIN approach across poverty, climate change and biodiversity financing simultaneously and is led by the nations former Finance Secretary. 

But we still need greater support at the highest levels from both countries’ institutions and society. BIOFIN is beginning to catalyse this change.  In Thailand, the recently held BIOFIN Day gained the support of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who said conservation finance is not just the responsibility of the public sector. Producers and consumers and the private sector, all benefit from biodiversity, so should consider investments in protecting and restoring biodiversity resources. The private sector response and commitment was impressive, with several high-profile companies pledging support to the programme and conservation efforts more generally. 

With better knowledge of the state of investment in safeguarding natural capital and the right finance solutions combined, supported with strong advocacy from those who yield influence, we can mobilise the critical finance for biodiversity.  This is essential to support nation’s efforts to maintain and grow their natural assets for the benefit of people and future generations.  


Midori Paxton is Head of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Programme, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)