Learning from the world while in Mexico

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My favorite thing about being here in Merida at the 9th World Wilderness Congress — Wild9 — is the chance to learn from peers and colleagues from around the world who are pursuing the same goal of protecting wild places and the values they provide to people.

Our chief of economics and ecology reports from the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico.

Read more about why we're there.

Naturally, as an economist I tend to end up in sessions where I can learn about the economic relationships between people and wilderness. Like yesterday: The U.S. Forest Service put together a workshop on “payments for ecosystem services” and I had the pleasure of moderating a session on the value of freshwater, marine and biodiversity.

First up, Rafael Cardenas Ollivier described his work with Protección de La Fauna Mexicana, including an innovative project where municipal water users can make a voluntary contribution toward the protection and stewardship of the Sierra de Zapaliname — the mountains and forests that supply and filter their drinking water. As Señor Ollivier explained, this is an area with many economic needs, but tens of thousands of water users are contributing an average of 4 Pesos per month to protect the natural systems on which they depend. If my reckoning of exchange rates and recollection of some statistics from the U.S. Forest Service is correct, and if all the U.S. residents who rely on U.S. National Forest lands for their water supply were to make such a contribution, that would add up to about $6.5 million per year — perhaps a fund to support watershed restoration on our various Sierras.

Next up, Juan Bezaury Creel of The Nature Conservancy, Mexico, presented results from a study of the economic value of protected areas in his country. It was somewhat like the “Greater than Zero” study of economic values of wildlands within Alaska’s National Forest that The Wilderness Society published last year. But Señor Bezaury had an insight and an estimation technique that my colleagues and I had missed. Namely, that by limiting built infrastructure (roads, houses, commercial development, etc.), coastal protected areas are providing a benefit by limiting future loss of economic value, not to mention risk to human lives. The reason, tragically, is climate change: these protected areas will likely end up under sea water or otherwise at risk of damage in increasingly violent storms. So, reasons Bezaury, by not building things that will only be destroyed, the protected areas are saving us or our children from a lot of cost and a lot of suffering.

Finally, was Dr. Tundi Argady of Forest Trends, describing pioneering work in the use of ecosystem service valuation and payments to protect marine environments. Beyond the reminder of how inextricably connected our work in terrestrial systems is to the health of coasts and oceans, Dr. Argady’s thinking about the application of these new tools to marine conservation was inspiring. Back in grad school, oceans were taught to be the ultimate “open access resource” and, therefore, only manageable via regulatory means. But, I’m thinking, if there are effective ways of recognizing wild ocean’s economic value and creating incentives for their protection and sound stewardship, we would be able to improve our stewardship of forest, grasslands, rivers and other areas above sea level.

Well, there are 1,500 people from 51 countries here at Wild9. I’d better get back to learning from more of them.