Putting a Price Tag on Nature’s Priceless Gifts

The value of nature’s goods and services that local people living in Asia’s mountains depend on is several times more than their average household income. In other words, if things such as fresh water and productive grasslands provided by the ecosystem were lost, it would spell ruin for these communities. These are the results of the first-ever scientific valuation of the goods and services that Asia’s snow leopard habitats provide.

When local communities, government authorities, or businesses and corporations decide how to use land – e.g. whether it should be protected, or opened to activities like mining or infrastructure projects such as railways, roads or hydro-power stations – they often make a simple calculation: how much wealth will be created? They speak of revenue, of jobs, of opportunities.

Indeed, when roads and railways are built, or power plants or mines are established, they result in new jobs and accelerated economic growth – while nature and wildlife bear the cost.

Talvan Tolgoi, a massive coal mine in Mongolia’s South Gobi province. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The loss of nature and wildlife is often irreparable from an environmental perspective, but it’s rarely regarded as an economic cost of development.

Healthy, intact ecosystems are not just essential for the survival of snow leopards and other wildlife. They also have immense value for human wellbeing, providing renewable resources like clean water, productive pastures, medicinal plants, fungi and other goods and services.

A barley field in Kibber, Spiti Valley. Photo: SLT

When an ecosystem is degraded, or destroyed, these values tend to be lost – and yet, they rarely figure in cost-benefit analysis of land-use decisions.

Perhaps it’s because they are rather poorly understood. A new study by researchers of the Snow Leopard Trust and our partner organizations aims to change this. For the first time ever, it examines the economic value of ecosystem services that local people depend on for their survival in snow leopard habitats.

The study has just been published in the scientific journal “Ecosystem Services”.

What’s the Value of Nature’s Gifts?

Ecosystem services are grouped into three types: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulatory, such as the control of climate and disease; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

“We first catalogued the all the ecosystem services used by the local people of Spiti Valley in India. Then, we did an economic valuation of the provisioning services; putting a price tag on them, so to say. The ultimate aim of our research program is to assist local communities, governments, and the industry better understand the extent to which humanity is actually dependent on nature”, says Ranjini Murali, Ph.D. student and the study’s lead author.

Local communities’ livelihoods depend to a large degree on Ecosystem Services. Photo: Munmun Dhalaria.

Being able to quantify the actual cost of damaging human development can be critical for wildlife conservation. While their monetary value may only be one facet of the overall importance of ecosystems – there are cultural, social, religious, and moral values as well – it is a potentially powerful metric in today’s world.

“Of course, nature and wildlife are priceless. They have immense intrinsic value that can’t be measured or expressed in a dollar figure”, says Charu Mishra, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Science & Conservation Director and co-author of the paper. “The idea of this approach of an ecosystem services valuation is not to replace other arguments for conservation, but to add another way of looking at these questions; one that many decision makers in politics and business who are concerned with economic development or wealth creation can relate to.”

wild cat spiti
Some values can’t be expressed in monetary terms. But bringing economic arguments into the conservation debate can be helpful. Photo: NCF India/SLT

The concept of Ecosystem Service Assessments is not new – but no such assessment had been done in a snow leopard landscape before Ranjini’s study. “We interviewed members of about a quarter of the families in 10 villages distributed across Spiti Valley. In total, we conducted more than 150 detailed interviews. This allowed us to assess which goods and services people use, and with what frequency. Finally, we looked at local market prices for these things, for instance water, fodder and medicinal plants,” Ranjini says. “We found that the monetary value of goods and services provided by nature at no cost to a household in Spiti is almost four times higher than the average local household income.”

Ranjini Murali is interviewing a group of local herders in Kibber village. Photo: NCF India

On the market, a typical family in Spiti Valley would have to pay around $3,620 a year for the goods and services nature provides them at no cost. This is about 3.8 times more than the average household income of $955/year.

Real World Impact

Besides the study in Spiti that has just been published, Ranjini and her colleagues have done similar ecosystem service assessments in five other snow leopard habitats in India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. Those assessments, which have been published in a report, resulted in even more staggering numbers: In Tost, a mountain range in Mongolia’s South Gobi, the value of goods and services provides by the ecosystem annually to local people was a whopping 40 times higher than the average household income!

There are very few sources of income available to the people of Tost, in Mongolia’s South Gobi province. As a result, they depend almost entirely on nature’s goods and services. Photo: SLT

These calculations might sound abstract, but they’re not merely an academic exercise. “Take the example of Tost, in Mongolia. Here, almost the entire mountain range was designated for mining until recently”, Charu Mishra says. “If these mines had been opened as planned, the habitat of a dozen snow leopards would have been destroyed, and the supply of fresh water and grass for hundreds of herders in the area would have been cut off. These people, and ultimately the entire country, would have lost these goods and services provided by nature, which would have translated to the loss of a significant and sustainable economic foundation on which the local people depend.”

In large parts due to the presence of the endangered snow leopard, the community of Tost was able to gain Protected Area status for this precious ecosystem in 2016. Photo: SLCF/SLT

Thanks to almost a decade of conservation efforts by the local community and our Mongolia partner organization, Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, Tost Mountains were put under protection in 2016 and declared a State Nature Reserve.

True Values May Be Even Higher

Like any framework, the economic valuation of goods and services provided by ecosystems has its limits. “The market value of a specific resource can’t be our only metric. We need to also take into account how important the resource is to the community. For instance, take water, or medicinal plants. They don’t cost very much, but are absolutely essential to the well-being of the people of Spiti – and they would be extremely difficult to replace if they were lost or degraded”, Ranjini explains. “Their true value is much higher than the price tag suggests.”

Another limitation has to do with the scale of the study, as Ranjini points out: “We looked at these questions on a local scale; asking what local people use and consume. If we looked at a regional or even global scale, the value of these ecosystem services would increase exponentially. For instance, Asia’s mountains serve as a key water tower for nearly half of humanity. The Spiti River, which flows through Spiti Valley, is an important tributary of the Sutlej, a major river of the Indus basin that drains the fertile agricultural plains of north India and Pakistan. If this water supply were to be compromised, the price tag would skyrocket.”

The high mountains of Asia provide fresh water for more than half of the Earth’s population – a truly priceless resource. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

For Charu Mishra, Ranjini’s work underlines why snow leopard conservation across the cat’s range is so critically important. “The snow leopard is the icon of these mountains, the flagship around which people rally. Many of the people who make our work possible with their donations mainly do so because of this magnificent cat. But by supporting the snow leopard, they achieve something much larger: they are conserving a priceless natural treasure on which billions of people depend.”

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Acknowledgments

Ranjini Murali’s PhD work is generously supported through Continuation Funding by Fondation Segré, managed by the Whitley Fund for Nature, and through the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Sidney Byers Scholarship.

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