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An ethical dilemna

At the core of Biodiversity Solutions International’s product is biodiversity – we determine the value of biodiversity and help to widen the conservation impact investment universe. However, in order to facilitate this, it needs to be understood that effectively, directly or indirectly, biodiversity would need to be used to generate returns to investors – this can lead to philosophical debates as to whether it is ethical to utilise nature for profit. BSI, however, purports that it is not a matter of making a profit from nature but how the profit is made.

Ethical reflection

Two aspects must be considered in this debate: what is considered ethical, and what is considered profit from nature. The challenge is that moral principles define ethics and differ from person to person. Based on that each person must define, through proper and accurate gathering of relevant information, what they consider ethical.

When it is considered that ethics is the moral principle that governs a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity, one must realise that ethics and the interpretation of it differs from nationality to nationality. In general, modern project teams have a multi-national make-up.

As far as profit from nature is concerned, there are two avenues through which profit can be realised – consumptive and non-consumptive. For expediency sake we will limit both the explanation and examples of both avenues to one each – additional information and examples can be provided on request.

Consumptive profits can be attained in the harvesting of individuals of a species. Harvesting can either be live sales of individuals or the hunting of selected individuals. In general, critically endangered species would be too low in numbers to justify hunting. However, harvesting live animals could be justified under certain circumstances.

For example, a project is breeding a critically endangered species at an in situ location. The project is running out of carrying capacity at the location. An adjacent property with suitable habitat is for sale, but developers are interested in it. By overstocking the current location, you risk breeding depression or total cessation of successful breeding as well as disease outbreak that could wipe out the whole population. From a sustainability perspective and ensuring species survival, it would make sense to split the current population into two viable breeding groups and relocate one to a alternative location with suitable habitat. This would reduce the risk of the single population being decimated by disease or a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake, fire or floods. Through the selling of the viable breeding group a profit is realised. How the profit is utilised would be up for consideration by the investor and/or the project manager. The additional land can be bought, dividends can be declared, operational budget can be enhanced, or a combination of the mentioned options and/or additional options.

Non-consumptive profits can be realized through tourism, products and services and the like. It can further be separated into invasive or non-invasive utilisation. Tourism, whereby people visit a project and get the opportunity to see the animals, will generate revenue. This can be classified as invasive. However, it is a well-known fact that certain species will become habituated to the presence of humans without affecting their natural behaviour. The ethical option would be to limit the number of people allowed each day and/or the time of day visits take place.

An example of products would be stuffed toys or other items related to the species that can be sold to realize a profit for the project. Other items could include the collection of elephant or rhinoceros dung that is made into paper and sold. Also, curios can be regarded as non-invasive profits. Another example of non-invasive services is placement of cameras throughout the habitat and even in the breeding area or nests, depending on the species. People join a pay-to-view system online that allows one to view activity and behaviour without disturbing the animals in question

Final thoughts

Even though the profit concept could be regarded as questionable with regard to nature, it is important to realise that, where there is an incentive to conserve, people will take ownership. Where there is no incentive to conserve, the system or species will fall under ‘the tragedy of the commons’ where nobody takes responsibility. This is especially evident but not limited to third world countries where people have limited resources and are only concerned with survival not aesthetics. It also holds true that many high biodiversity areas with endangered and critically endangered species are located in third world countries.

Then the question arises – is it ethical not to create a system whereby local communities and/or investors can realise a profit, either in services or assets, from nature?

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