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Installing Meters at the Beach

Economic models can illuminate the monetary value of beaches and mangroves, but if local people aren't engaged in conservation, market forces — and coastal ecosystems — may be dead in the water.
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Pillows of warm sand, sparkling blue-green waves and the sun beaming over all — who doesn't love a trip to the beach? Whether it's California, Jamaica or Kenya, vacationers flock to these iconic interfaces between land and sea. Something about sun, sand and surf holds the human imagination captive.

Perhaps the best part: Beaches are usually free.

But should they be?

In addition to providing the obvious recreational opportunities to sunbathe, swim and fly kites, beaches buffer the coastline from erosion and provide habitat for marine creatures. These benefits are referred to as ecosystem services, and they have long been recognized in inland environments, not just theoretically but economically. Through payment for ecosystem services, also known as PES, forested land can bring its owners money for everything from timber to aesthetic value to the trees' removal of atmospheric carbon.

Is it time to extend the same concept to coastal land, like beaches, and even to the open ocean, where microscopic algae soak up carbon and produce oxygen in impressive quantities?

This question was the focus of the most recent meeting of the Katoomba Group, an international network of people and organizations working on PES. Brainchild of the conservation nonprofit Forest Trends and named for the location of its first meeting in 1999 in New South Wales, Australia, the Katoomba Group promotes PES through conferences, like February's meeting in Palo Alto, Calif., and through articles on its Web site, Ecosystem Marketplace.

Other Katoomba meetings have produced action plans and test projects, but for Katoomba's first foray into the marine arena, the February meeting was mostly an educational and networking opportunity for participants. The smorgasbord of panels, meant to showcase all possible applications of PES at sea, covered topics from fishery management to alternative energy to coastal development. Panelists came from around the world and included scientists, government officials, activists and private investors.

Despite criticism on both ethical and practical grounds, payment for ecosystem services is finding support among academic, public and private sectors. On land or sea, PES always struggles with two big questions: Who pays? And who gets paid?

People benefiting from ecosystem services can't give money directly to the ecosystem; a beach doesn't know what to do with a handful of greenbacks. So Erin Hughes, senior program officer at the conservation organization Winrock International, answers this way: "Whoever has the control and is damaging the resource — you pay them to stop."

Cash can also flow the other way. If the people with control over the resource are unwilling or unable to stop damaging it, then they can pay for the privilege of pollution, by giving money to cleanup efforts, or paying to conserve equivalent undamaged ecosystems elsewhere. That's roughly the idea between the cap-and-trade systems proposed for limiting greenhouse gases, and examples of both kinds of payment, and other schemes, can be found in The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative from the U.N.

In the case of California beaches, as anyone knows who has ever suffered the disappointment of a beach closure, or, far worse, gotten ill from swimming in contaminated water, plain old-fashioned sewage usually damages the ecosystem. Who should pay to clean it up? While there might be a single sewage handler, there isn't a single point-source polluter — sewage comes from all residents of the region.

"People have to vote to tax themselves, and that's hard," says Linda Sheehan, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. She has been frustrated by a lack of community involvement, a contrast to the sense of intense individual responsibility she recalls from Earth Day in 1970. Since then, she says, "there's been this gradual devolving of responsibility from the public to the government and to NGOs to take care of things."

But at least there are simple fixes for the California beaches if the money can be found: replace leaky beach bathrooms, repair old sewer lines, improve storm water drainage.

In other parts of the world, beaches face extinction from an unexpected problem with a more elusive solution: coral reef degradation.

Take the Dominican Republic, where millions of dollars have been spent on beach replenishment, carting loads of sand from one location to another. It is a losing battle. These beaches used to be protected from the ocean's fury by offshore coral reefs, but no longer. As the Dominican Republic's reefs have suffered from the now-familiar litany of coral abuses, so have their beaches.

This connectivity between ecosystems is a focus of University of Exeter biologist Peter Mumby. His research has illuminated intimate interdependencies between coral reefs — with their colorful fish and nearby bright sands — and other coastal habitats, particularly less charismatic mangrove forests.

Mangroves certainly aren't sunbathing, swimming or kite-flying destinations. But this collection of trees and shrubs along tropical coastlines offer a unique safe haven to young fish, which then grow up and move out to the reefs. Mangroves also buffer the coast against storm damage, and serve as remarkably effective carbon sinks.

And, as of 2001, they were being destroyed faster than rainforests or coral reefs.

Can mangroves be saved with market-based conservation? The Katoomba meeting rang with enthusiasm for this strategy. "In order to do PES, the first thing is to value the services properly at the right scale," Mumby says. He adds that, "Of any marine tropical system, we know most about the valuation of mangroves."

Mumby published a mangrove valuation model in the journal Theoretical Ecology in 2008 with economist Jim Sanchirico, who was also present at Katoomba. They constructed a mathematical model of the costs and benefits of coastal land-use decisions, based on the economic contribution of mangroves to fishery revenue. The destruction of mangroves so clearly decreases the value of fisheries that Mumby and Sanchirico suggested there are incentives for fishers to pay for coastal conservation or restoration.

It may be promising, but right now it's all theoretical. Many mangrove stories don't have happy endings, especially in places where fishers don't have the resources to pay off the source of ecosystem damage.

Africa's largest expanse of mangrove forest, the Niger Delta, has been devastated both environmentally and socially by the effects of oil extraction. Dredging to set up pipelines and facilities is a direct mangrove killer, while pollution from oil spills penetrates quickly into the soil and suffocates mangrove roots.

A valuation model could determine the economic costs of this habitat destruction — the loss of fishery revenue and storm protection. But can the academic model help the Niger Delta situation? According to Odigha Odigha, chairman/CEO of the Cross River State Forestry Commission in Nigeria, the primary problems are government corruption and exploitation by foreign companies. Massive oil profits are split between them, leaving little for the people whose land is despoiled. "What a paradox — they're born inside wealth, but live in penury and poverty," Odigha laments.

He fears that the tragic trajectory from environmental degradation to armed conflict will repeat itself in Ghana due to the recent discovery of oil there. Prevention, he contends, lies in engaging local people in negotiations from the beginning, rather than leaving it all up to government and companies.

"If you empower local people, for the first time elected officials have to be accountable," agrees Hughes, the senior program officer at Winrock who has seen this strategy work in a water management project in Bangladesh.

The need for engagement of local communities is echoed by Sheehan, based on her experience in California. "People assume the government is going to take care of it. If they think the government or NGOs are going to take care of it, they don't have to step up."

In fact, private involvement is a central tenet of all market-based conservation. The ultimate goal of those who advocate PES is not government regulation, but the recognition by ordinary people that "natural capital" has real value, and we're losing money by not taking it into account on our balance sheets. From Californians finding cash to keep their beaches clean to Ghanaians demanding compensation from foreign oil for their mangrove forests, private individuals — and the private sector — are an integral part of today's conservation business.

"We should not fold our hands and wait," Odigha says. "It's not Ghana's problem, it's our problem."

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