Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 29 August 2011

Why we should conserve hills and Nature

The revived controversy on the old Penang Hill project should raise awareness on the economic and social benefits of conserving or sustainably using Nature, which is one aspect of the Green Economy.


The revival of interest over the Penang Hill project proposed in 1990 has again focused attention on the benefits of preserving the environment, contrasted with the pressures for approving development projects.

Media reports in the past week have given differing accounts of the sequence of events in the early 1990s surrounding the Penang Hill project.

The project was given a go-ahead in a memorandum of understanding by the state government and the developer in 1990 and then stalled by the Department of Environment’s rejection of the environment impact assessment reports submitted by the proponent.

Subsequently the state government decided that a local plan for the Penang Hill area should be drawn up instead of implementing the project, and invited the developer to come up with new proposals, if it so wished, after the local plan was finalized.

These are the bare bones of the project’s history.  But the real story lies in the campaign by local groups to “save Penang Hill.”

That campaign raised the awareness of a generation of Penangites and Malaysians about the importance of forests, especially in hill and mountain areas, and more especially if they are water catchment areas.

There were vital social and environment lessons from the whole episode, which may need reviving for a new generation.

Most local people involved in the campaign wanted to save the hill to preserve the quiet and serene ambiance, having had fond memories of the times they had spent in hikes, holiday stays in the rented government bungalows, and simply enjoying the breathtaking views of the island and the forests. Quite a few wrote or spoke of how they had proposed to their spouses on romantic evenings up the hill.

Scientists prepared reports on the environmental importance of the hill in cloud formation and maintaining the rainfall pattern, in retaining and recycling water which is captured and supplied to the urban population.  If the hill is damaged, the supply of water to the island would be affected.

The hill also conserves soil, preventing landslides and preventing soil eroding into rivers that could otherwise block the natural drainage system.  Without this function, there would be greater flooding downstream in the town areas.

These environmental and social services that forested hill areas provide are often invisible and under-appreciated, until disturbance to the ecology by logging or a project causes a range of problems.  These include soil erosion, river and drain blockage, floods, landslides and reduced flow to reservoirs and to household water supply.

For years, ecologists have struggled to get recognition for the value of the “environmental services” that nature, left to itself, provides, and for these to be fully accounted for when assessing the costs and benefits of a proposed commercial project.

The “green economy” initiative that is being given a boost through the UN Summit on sustainable development next year (popularly dubbed Rio Plus 20), seeks among other things to raise awareness worldwide about the economic value of nature that would be wiped out if forests, water catchment areas, river and coastline systems are destroyed.

Recent studies have compared the benefits of conserving or sustainably using natural resources to the revenues from exploiting Nature in a careless way that maximises short-term profits.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment pointed out that biodiversity (such as forests and mangroves) provides provisioning services (foods, crops, water, medicines), regulating services (filtration of pollutants by wetlands, climate regulation, pollination and protection from disasters), supporting services (soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling), and cultural services (recreation, education, spiritual and aesthetic values).

Maintaining or augmenting the stocks of natural resources enables the continuous flows of these ecological services, whilst depleting stocks imply reduced flows of services in future, with adverse effects on human well-being.

Examples of the economic benefits of conserving or sustainably using nature are given in a UN Environment report on the economics of biodiversity:

  • A 2007 study in Southern Thailand on conversion of mangrove into commercial shrimp farms showed net private economic returns of US$1220 per hectare per year, while the cost of restoration after the pond is abandoned after 5 years of exploitation was $9318 per hectare.  But the estimated benefits of retaining the mangroves instead totaled US$12,392/ha, comprising $584/ha for collected forest products, $987/ha for providing nursery for off-shore fisheries and $10,821/ha for coastal protection against storms. 

  • The Te Papanui Conservation Park in New Zealand provides the Otago region with water for free that would cost NZ$136 million if the water is brought in from elsewhere.  The park is a natural water catchment supplying NZ$31 million of water flows for hydroelectricity, NZ$93 million for urban water supply and NZ$12 million for irrigating 60,000 hectares of farmland. 

  • Halving deforestation rates by 2030 would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 to 2.7 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, thereby avoiding damages from climate change estimated at US$ 3.7 trillion in net present value terms.  This does not include the many other benefits of forest ecosystems.

  • The over-exploitation of fish stocks has reduced income from global marine fisheries by US$50 billion annually compared to a more sustainable fishing scenario.
The lesson is that the usefulness to society of conserving Nature or making use of resources sustainably should be given its proper weight in making decisions on the alternative uses of land and natural resources.