Revaluing Tropical Diversity

Why clear vast swathes of rainforest, with up to 75,000 tree species per kilometre, and replace it with a single species of oil palm? Why are custodians of a vast amount of cultural knowledge forced to live in poverty on the sidelines of society? The short answer is because there is a huge difference between the intrinsic value of the diversity of the tropics and its current economic value. Business destroys diversity when it does not value it. Government  alone cannot hold stop the loss – we need to fight fire with fire as it were, and create innovative business models that change the incentives for tropical decision-makers. We need to create incomes from sustaining, and not destroying, tropical diversity.

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The tropics are the most biologically and culturally diverse part of our planet. Tropical forests make up 7% of our land area but contain half the world’s species. Coral reefs take up less than 1% of the ocean’s floor but contain 25% of marine life. Just as the tropics are the treasure house of nature’s unique forms, so is it the home of the vast majority of the variety of human cultures – most of the world’s linguistic diversity occurs in just two parts of the world: West and Central Africa; and in an area running from India, through Southeast Asia to the Pacific, together holding 3,929 languages. This parallel biological and cultural diversity – or biocultural diversity – is the hallmark of the most precious area of earth.

However, we know this incredible diversity is shrinking fast. Already, half of our tropical forests have been cleared, and 40% of rainforest species are predicted to become extinct within the next century. Cultural extinction is occurring in parallel with biological extinction, with 90% of currently spoken languages predicted to die by 2050. This two-pronged loss is driven by the way profit is made in the tropics – it pays to clear forest and sell wildlife products, while the incentives to maintain traditional knowledge are lost, as it no longer sustains individuals in a capitalist world.

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To save this diversity, we cannot rely on government subsidy and protection in poor countries with low government capacity. Even strong government alone isn’t the answer – Australia continues to see species go extinct and has some of the fastest dying languages on earth. This doesn’t mean it is hopeless – there are many stories of cultural revitalisation, ecosystem recovery and endangered animals rebounding from near extinction, including the Hawai’ian language, Sea Otters and Costa Rican rainforests. It does, however mean that we need to rethink our approach.

We need to attract resources and change incentives in ways that have not been done before. This has to be driven by business because of the scale of the challenge. Capitalism drives destruction of diversity on this scale precisely because it keeps seeking improved and new ways to make money – it’s continually growing and replicating succesfull business models. Yet if we can harness this power for good, we can create a virtuous cycle that can use the power of business to sustain tropical diversity, beyond the reach of government and philanthropic funding alone.

The answer to how we can harness capitalism’s power of scale lies in the core driver of business – value. How do we translate intrinsic value (the value of something existing) into market value? How do we change the way traditional knowledge is valued – or what it is valued for? In a business sense, something has value if someone is willing to pay for it. One thing – say an acre of rainforest – can have value in diverse ways, from an oil palm plantation, to a carbon sink, or a sustainable source of products for the beauty industry. The challenging thing is to make sure the right values win. By identifying, innovating and articulating these values, we can harness the power of business to protect and promote the unique places, species and cultures of the tropics.

Designing and articulating better ways of valuing tropical biocultural diversity is going to be what saves our tropics. I am going to use this blog to explore the latest thinking on how we do this over the coming months.

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