Ecosystem services and their valuation
The Nautilus report reassessing and revalidating the National Protected Area System of the Turks and Caicos Islands, undertaken in 2005/6, has been in local news again. Proposals have been put forward by government to significantly reduce the size and scope of a number of protected areas - primarily for the purpose of allowing (or providing retrospective approval for) further development of luxury villas, condos and other tourism infrastructure that is not otherwise compatible with protected area status. The Nautilus report is being cited as a key point of reference to argue the case for continued maintenance of the current conformation of national parks, and natural and heritage protected areas.
The report provides the rationale and evidence for continued protection - in various forms and to various degrees - of large sections of the terrestrial and marine environment that form the natural and cultural heritage of this small island country (an enlightened protected area system that was drawn up locally in the 1970s, and entered into legislation in the late 1980s). It is now being brought to the fore to head off proposed changes to the parks and reserves system that, it is argued, would adversely alter the balance between maintaining the integrity of the resilience and economic contribution of the natural environment versus promoting more luxury housing, condos and other tourism related infrastructures. It revisits fundamental issues relating to when tourism-related development (by far and away the mainstay of the country's economy) becomes over-development.
The protection is needed because the many and various features of this natural environment provide the physical buffers to absorb the impacts of naturally occurring extreme events (notably storm surge and coastal erosion), and the negative impacts of development (notably removal and reduction of precious top-soil, leading to erosion and loss of biodiversity, and contamination of the crucial freshwater lens - the underlying reservoir of freshwater typical of these low lying limestone / coral islands). This underpins the natural productivity of these ecosystems, and builds in the resilience of these islands that allows and sustains settlement of this fragile tropical archipelago. But more particularly, as a globally top ranking holiday destination, it is these very characteristics - supporting blue water lagoons bordered by white sandy beaches and great water sports (on and below the sea surface) - that make the country such a great place to visit. These same features also act as a honey-pot for developers wishing to profit from these locations and the high qualities of the surrounding environment - and so the ongoing tug of war between long and short-term interests, local and offshore investor interests, plays out.
The Nautilus revalidation report is once again serving the purpose behind its commissioning - providing that evidence based reference point for informed debate. It is also supported by a number of valuation studies that Nautilus conducted prior to the revalidation report - which focused on how to bring about convergence between economic and natural resource management policies, how to identify and rank the roles and contributions of the environment and ecosystem services, and how to, where appropriate and necessary, place a monetary value on the contribution of such services. A number of practical worked examples illustrated these methodologies - including the benefits of maintaining the health and integrity of barrier reefs and coastal lagoons, not least in helping to protect coastal areas and property from the adverse effects of storm surge associated with tropical storms and hurricanes.