Studies show that strategic investment into a country's ecological infrastructure can enhance and extend the life of existing built infrastructure and reduce the need for additional human-made infrastructure, while offering considerable job-creation potential.
For this reason, experts are calling for an institutionalised acknowledgment of the services acquired from South Africa’s ecological infrastructure and for this to be included in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the country’s growth and development policies.
A concept familiar to those in the biodiversity and environmental management sector, but somewhat unknown beyond it, ecological infrastructure refers to natural ecosystems that deliver tangible services to people and underpins sustainable socioeconomic development.
Unpolluted mountain catchment areas, rivers, grasslands, wetlands, coastal dunes and natural habitat nodes and corridors that form a network of interconnected structural landscape elements are examples of ecological infrastructure, the value of which is seldom captured in market transactions and remains largely unacknowledged.
“Until we have built something on a piece of land, or extracted something from it, it is not perceived to hold value. This is a perception that we are challenging,” argues development funder the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) strategic operations divisional executive David Jarvis.
The 'Green Jobs Report', a paper compiled jointly by the Industrial Development Corporation, the DBSA and research body the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies states that, while in certain instances there may have been some economic gains associated with the loss of biodiversity – such as growth in the agriculture, fisheries, mining and forestry sectors – the loss of biodiversity is also associated with material costs that are not always fully considered.
“When we seek to increase investment in this natural infrastructure and the environment as a whole, it must be done with a view to link it to society. While it may cost more, the long-term financial, social and health benefits of investing in it make it an essential consideration for the national development agenda,” explains National Planning Commission secretariat member Kuben Naidoo.
While most stakeholders, including the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), are in agreement that ecological infrastructure can and should play a greater role in the NDP, difficulties have emerged around exactly how this should be achieved.
The NDP will see the roll-out of R4-trillion in infrastructure investment over the next 15 years, with R3.7-trillion allocated to strategic integrated projects, which may include dedicated ecosystem-preservation initiatives.
During a recent debate organised last year by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) consensus emerged that there needed to be stronger evidence of the benefits of investment, particularly around job creation, service delivery support, ecological-damage aversion and economic contribution.
Key elements of ecological infrastructure – catchments, corridors or tracts of natural vegetation – are often located in rural areas and this fact, coupled with the restoration or maintenance of this infrastructure, may contribute to the diversification of local livelihood alternatives and the strengthening of economic sectors such as sustainable farming and ecotourism.
While research in this field is expanding, further information and evidence will also be required to firm up the argument for institutionalised ecological investment, which can them be fed into political and planning processes.
More Work Needed
“Additional work is required to support credible valuation of ecosystem services and the development of a common language for biodiversity communication between the environmental community and the public sector to ensure its effective integration into development planning,” notes Department of Water Affairs water ecosystems chief director Ndileka Mohapi.
DEA biodiversity specialist monitoring and services chief director Wadzi Mandivenyi adds that the recognition of biodiversity as a public good is critical to its inclusion in the national development agenda and that an ongoing challenge remains the negotiation of a sustainable balance between environmental protection and the country’s economic and social development imperatives.
Several State policy approaches to the enhancement of ecological infrastructure investment and preservation are currently under development and include environmental fiscal reforms, such as innovative tax models and fiscal incentives, as well as draft policy on biodiversity offset mechanisms and the positioning of South Africa as a biodiversity economy in the global market.
In addition, national discussions around the establishment of innovative financing schemes for the payment of ecosystem services (PES) by the private sector is gaining traction as a viable source of funding for ecological preservation initiatives.
National intent in this regard can most notably be observed through the establishment of the Green Fund.
The objective of the State-sanctioned, DBSA-implemented Green Fund is to lay the foundation for the transition of the South African economy to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and climate-resilient development path delivering high-impact economic, environmental and social benefits.
In addition, the fund aims to provide catalytic finance to facilitate investment in green initiatives that will support the transition to a green economy through funding windows that includes the PES approach.
“PES is an incentive-based approach to protect ecosystem services by compensating landowners or managers who adopt practices that are favourable to an ecosystem,” explains Indian Institute of Technology Associate Professor Haripriya Gundimenda in a report by global ecosystem initiative The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.
“Simply put, those who use ecosystem services pay those who provide them and when providers are compensated, conservation becomes more attractive,” she says.
The PES includes a wide variety of services, including water flows to carbon sequestration and storage, biodiversity protection, landscape beauty, salinity control and soil erosion prevention.
Stakeholders are encouraged, through incentives, to conserve or engage in less-environmentally damaging activities on a voluntary basis.
Indicative of such environmental management schemes is their vast job-creation potential, which is perhaps where the alignment of environmental preservation efforts with national development goals are most evident.
The Green Jobs Report estimates the job-creation potential of the green economy, states that the majority of the jobs related to the green economy are likely to emerge from natural resources management as opposed to those from, for example, the renewable-energy sector or green technological development space.
This potential is evident in established and well-lauded South African conservation and ecosystem restoration programmes, such as the Working for Water Programme, which is considered an example of international best practice in the conservation and rehabilitation of ecosystems and their biodiversity.
The Working for Water Programme, initiated in 1995, is a multidepartmental initiative administered by the DEA and aims to tackle the issue of invasive plant species threatening local water networks, while also providing work for thousands of previously unemployed individuals, with a long-term view to create more than 100 000 jobs.
In addition, the report suggests that there is potential to enhance the programme through the extension of the value chain to include the manufacturing of sustainable biomass fuel.
Moreover, the mainstreaming of such programmes and new biodiversity management models and initiatives into major production sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, urban development and coal mining, may increase their likelihood of success.
A bioregional and ecosystem programme that is currently working towards this goal of integrating biodiversity objectives into South Africa’s production sectors is the Grasslands Programme.
This initiative aims to influence policy, support its implementation, pilot payments-for-ecosystem-services projects and promote knowledge sharing and awareness with a view to sustaining the country’s grasslands biome – a suite of ecosystem services that underpins livelihoods and the major production sectors at the heart of South Africa’s economy.
The grasslands biome is the second largest biome in South Africa, covering 29% of South Africa and eight provinces, including Gauteng, Limpopo, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, North West and the Northern Cape.
Grassland Programme director Anthea Stevens adds that, owing to the overlap of industry and ecologically sensitive areas, integrated development planning, with cooperation among industry, labour, government and environmental interests is critical and must be accompanied by the realisation by all parties that trade-offs are inevitable.
The programme is operating in collaboration with major economic sectors to incorporate biodiversity goals into their corporate policies.
In addition, market-level initiatives to direct the development footprint away from high-priority biodiversity areas and the incentivising of green production practices are being developed with partners in the Grasslands Programme, while biodiversity stewardship initiatives in strategic development areas are aimed at preserving key biodiversity on privately owned land.
“With less than 2% of its area formally conserved, the grasslands biome is identified as a priority area in need of conservation intervention. Much of the remaining biodiversity is, however found in production landscapes on private or communal land. It is, therefore, essential to work with these sectors as custodians of land to ensure the ongoing delivery of benefits and services to communities and the economy,” she says.
Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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