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Making Economic Valuation Count for Coastal Ecosystems in the Caribbean

People and economies across the Caribbean are dependent on coastal ecosystems—including coral reefs, mangroves, and beaches. These ecosystems provide critical habitat to commercial fisheries, attract tourists from around the world, and protect coastal communities and infrastructure from the ravages of tropical storms.

But despite their importance, these ecosystems are under threat from overfishing, pollution, coastal development, and other human pressures. Roughly 75 percent of the Caribbean’s reefs are currently considered “threatened,” and a quarter of the region’s mangrove area has been lost since 1980.

To help save these reefs and mangroves, governments, businesses, development agencies, and NGOs are increasingly turning to economic valuation. This process makes the economic case for protection and sustainable use of natural resources by showing the monetary, employment, and infrastructure benefits ecosystems provide—metrics that are easily understood by decision-makers. In recent years, economic analysis has become a widely used approach to inform investment and development decisions.

Yet while the number of coastal ecosystem valuation studies is increasing, a recent review by WRI and the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership shows that not all of these valuations are generating real impact on the ground. Of more than 100 economic valuations conducted for the Caribbean’s coastal ecosystems, we only identified 16 which have actually helped to inform policy, management, or investment decisions, though it is possible that others have had influence.

The Need for Change: New Guidance for Coastal Ecosystem Valuation

So, what can researchers do to increase the likelihood that their valuations will lead to better decision-making and protection of valuable coastal resources? We seek to answer this question in our new guidebook, Coastal Capital: Ecosystem Valuation for Decision Making in the Caribbean.

The guidebook grew out of conversations with a broad partnership of organizations working on the protection and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems in the Caribbean. It is intended for economic valuation practitioners—both economists and non-economists—who would like to conduct coastal ecosystem valuation to achieve influence and inform real-world decisions. We lead readers through the three main phases of valuation—Scoping, Analysis, and Outreach—providing insights and lessons learned on enabling conditions that increase the prospects of influencing decision-makers.

We build upon existing economic valuation guidelines and tools to fill three main gaps in the literature:

  • Step-by-step advice on conducting coastal ecosystem valuation with a specific emphasis on informing decisions

  • Examples of best practice studies that use valuation to address the most pressing coastal policy questions in the Caribbean

  • Best practice reporting guidelines for new coastal valuation studies

4 Steps for More Effective Ecosystem Valuations

The guidebook recognizes that a sound, science-based analysis is a pre-requisite for an effective economic valuation. But this alone is not always sufficient to inform policy, investment, and other real-world decisions. Some best practices also include:

  1. Identify a clear policy question. Explicitly tying the valuation to an impending decision helps ensure that the study will be policy-relevant. In Bonaire, for example, several studies specifically examined divers’ willingness to pay for marine park management in order to help maintain coral reef quality. These findings justified the Bonaire National Marine Park’s adoption of park entry fees in 1992 and subsequent fee increase in 2005. The park is now one of the few self-financed marine parks in the Caribbean.

  2. Work closely with local stakeholders, including decision-makers. Close collaboration with “end users” of the valuation study—such as government agencies or resource managers—can help ensure use. For example, WWF and the Natural Capital Project worked with the Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute and local communities to design a valuation that informed Belize’s new Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan. Closely involving stakeholders can help identify realistic ways to manage development pressures and minimize environmental impacts.

  3. Report all results transparently. Transparency increases credibility among decision-makers. Rather than boiling down results to a single number, it is best to report on a range of possible values—being clear about the inherent uncertainty in valuing ecosystems. For example, WRI’s work in Belize gave low and high estimates for the value of reef- and mangrove-related tourism, fisheries, and shoreline protection, while also noting that because these are only three of many services provided by coastal ecosystems, the results should be regarded as a lower-bound estimate. These results prompted Belize’s government to tighten fisheries regulations and ban offshore oil drilling. The government also used the valuation to support a damage claim after a cargo ship ran aground on the Belize Barrier Reef.

  4. Communicate strategically. Valuation practitioners can maximize uptake of a study’s recommendations by providing non-technical summaries, metrics, and messages that resonate with the specific decision-makers they’re trying to reach. In the Bahamas, the Conservation Strategy Fund showed that in addition to generating more than $100 million in revenue each year, Andros Island’s natural resources provide income and employment for 80 percent of the island’s population—a compelling message for elected government officials. These findings helped the government justify protection of the west side of the island.

Economic valuation can be a critical tool for safeguarding natural resources for generations to come—if it’s done effectively. WRI and partners will provide virtual and technical assistance to economic valuation practitioners in the Caribbean to pilot-test this guidebook.

Read more here.

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