‘High seas’ treaty & hidden economics of nature

Express News Service

Sitting on the icy beaches of Cape Cod, the north-east ocean frontier of the US, Philip Hoare, writing for ‘Down-To-Earth’ of The Guardian, celebrated the sighting of a magnificent 18-meter, ‘right’ whale flipping over barely 30 meters off the coast. Less than 350 of these endangered mammals remain, but conservation efforts have slowly seen the species return to the plankton-rich feeding habitat.

Hoare has been observing whales for the last 20 years and has written the acclaimed book ‘Leviathan, or the Whale’ documenting how in the 20th century over 3 million whales – sperm, fin, blue and right – had been hunted down to near extinction; and how the US and the other rich nations had failed miserably to protect the oceans from over-exploitation.

But now Philip Hoare and others have reason to celebrate. Last Saturday, at the UN headquarters in New York, 200 countries signed a treaty to safeguard marine biodiversity. Being negotiated for over two decades, ‘The High Seas Treaty’ seeks to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 by regulating shipping lanes and creating sanctuaries to restrict overfishing and deep-sea mining.

Barely a week before the nations signed the High Seas Treaty, in Mumbai, Pavan Sukhdev, the Switzerland-based environmental economist, was predicting the treaty to protect 30% of the oceans would come through. But the devil is in the detail: Can the army of environmentalists muster the forces to see the terms are implemented?

Rainwater comes free

Speaking on the ‘Hidden Economics of Nature’, Sukhdev was delivering the first Darryl D’Monte Memorial Lecture in honour of the Mumbai journalist credited for pioneering environmental journalism in India.

Nature, he said delivered value, but it is not appreciated because there is no visible ‘invoice’. The Amazon rain forests of South America, 6.7 million square kilometres and twice the size of India create 20 billion tonnes of water vapour annually. The vapour rises up the Andes mountains and precipitates over Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

This water system sustains a $250 billion agricultural economy, but what is the payout to the ‘State of Amazon’? Pavan Sukhdev catches the answer from the audience. “Zero,” he says. That is the problem. Nature delivers huge value, but does not send an invoice. The bee does not for instance deliver an invoice at the end of flowering season for ‘pollination services’. “We fail to understand value unless it is expressed in economic terms.”

Three sectors worldwide are directly dependent on nature – Agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Comparing data from three countries – Indonesia, India and Brazil, Pavan Sukhdev said 99 million or 19%  in Indonesia, 352 million or 16% of the population in India and 10% or 20 million in Brazil were directly dependent on agriculture. Though agriculture constituted only 8% of the conventional GDP, these ‘nature-related’ sectors of the economy had to be nurtured as they sustained the livelihood of a vast majority of rural folk.

Talking about the depletion of the world’s fish assets, Sukhdev said subsidized deep-sea trawling had over the years meant boats going deeper and further into the ocean wilderness. The size of the catch had been proportionately reduced with a loss in productivity pegged at $50 billion, “which is big for a $110 billion industry.”All it needed was to let the female fish be there and not fish them out before they lay their eggs. That way there will be more fish.” It’s simply a lack of lens on the invisible economics of nature, he added.

Fish sanctuaries

Cape Cod, he said was once a flourishing habitat for the ‘Cod’ till they were fished to extinction. Now there is a plan headed by the scientist Dr Andrew Rosenberg to save the ‘Haddock’ by creating marine protected areas (MPAs). Rosenberg was attacked by the trawler owners as an enemy of the fishing community, but later events proved him right.

The fish sanctuaries were created but unfortunately, the fish were not informed. So they bred and thrived in the MPA zones but swam and crossed the boundaries where the trawlers waited for them and fished them out. The growing catch only proved that in the long run, such sanctuaries were in fact beneficial to the fishing industry.

Unravelling his final narrative – the food system gone awry – Pavan Sukhdev said the cycle of huge investments in technology to extract more water from the soil, adding chemicals to produce larger harvests, and finally, the huge outlay on transporting the food was having a complex and destructive impact. A broken food system generated a 56% share of the carbon footprint; and if the food chain were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to waste.

The final spin-off: bad diet has become the world’s No.1 cause of disease, even as 422 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, a four-fold increase from 1980. The cost of treatment for diabetes is estimated at $850 billion annually.  

On the other hand, a pilot project in Andhra Pradesh with 7,500 farmers using natural farming techniques had shown a 49% increase in production, a drastic reduction in chemical fertilizer and 20% increase in employment.“The dragonfly was back. We showed it was possible to have nature make a comeback,” concluded Sukhdev.

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