Measuring Nature’s Value to Make Informed Government Decisions in Colombia

October 15, 2013

  • The WAVES global partnership seeks to promote natural capital accounting (measuring the economic value of natural assets) in national planning and decision-making.
  • Colombia, together with Costa Rica and Guatemala, are core implementing countries for this partnership in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Other countries in the region are looking with great interest at Colombia’s experience.

Many people would agree that Tota Lake, the largest lake in Colombia, is beautiful. At just over 3,000 meters above sea level, it is surrounded by lush countryside and rolling hills.

But what is it worth? How can one measure the wealth that it brings to the country and to the local communities? And how can one measure the loss of wealth that its degradation entails? Or what evidence is needed to manage it in a way that it continues to benefit Colombia for years to come?

Lake Tota is the water source for 250,000 Colombians and contains a type of ecosystem that regulates water resources, said José Ricardo López, Director of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Boyacá, the environment authority of the lake’s region. But it is also near onion fields that produce 70 percent of the onions consumed in Colombia, which greatly stresses the environment, according to López.

The Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystems Services (WAVES) global partnership will work with the Colombian Government to quantify all the functions the lake provides, such as water for drinking, agriculture, tourism, and fishing, and provide evidence for decision-making with the leadership of the National Department of Planning in Colombia.

Supported by the World Bank, WAVES’ partners include governments, international institutions, academia and non-governmental organizations. The program’s objective is to promote sustainable growth by incorporating natural capital accounting (NCA) into national planning systems. This allows countries to measure over time the value of nature and of different ecosystems, so that governments can make informed policy decisions.

Natural capital includes not only water and timber resources, but also more invisible assets, such as water filtration or flood protection that are not traditionally taken into account when designing policies.

A tool for better information gathering

Most planners are often struggling with different trade-offs—to conserve a rich ecosystem, use it for agriculture to support livelihoods, or build a road for tourism. NCA can provide the data and evidence to help make these difficult decisions.
“We want to reach the decision-makers who are outside the environment community, the mainstream economists and decision-makers who may not always take into account the full value of natural resources,” said Glenn-Marie Lange, a senior environmental economist at the World Bank and WAVES program manager.

Colombia is one of the pioneer countries engaged with the WAVES program, together with Costa Rica, Botswana, Madagascar and the Philippines—and newcomers Rwanda and Guatemala. In Colombia, WAVES is focusing on three sites: Tota Lake, the Suarez River and Chinchina—in the coffee zone of Colombia, and is considering broadening the scope to strategic river basins. They all represent different ecosystems and serve as pilot projects in the country.

“We see it as a great opportunity, because it is a valuable tool that will allow us to have and gather information with more order, prioritize information gathering and keep it in an orderly and classified manner, so we can use it better for decision making,” said López.

Interest grows in Latin America

Other countries in Latin America are looking at Colombia’s experience with interest. This interest was heightened during a recent workshop in Bogotá on the WAVES Partnership and its methodology. International specialists and Colombian Government officials gathered to talk about the advances in the country and the road ahead.

“Seeing Colombia’s experience, I am much more enthusiastic to bring to my country the infinity of progress they have made, and how we can go in that direction too,” said Isabel Castañeda, an economic valuation specialist for the Ministry of Environment of Peru.

Two big environmental issues in Belize are deforestation and waste management, said Pat Weizman from the Belize Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development Ministry.

“All the concepts (of WAVES) apply directly to Belize, which can be very instrumental to help us move forward with regards to environmental issues and other issues that will help us with sustainable development,” he added.

“We are committed to give the natural heritage the importance and the value it deserves,” said Castañeda, “but with the objective of designing environment policies that allow us to keep this capital stock as a benefit to the population that uses it.”