How much would it cost to save some of our natural ecosystems? Perhaps only US$8-10 billion would be needed to provide adequate finances for reserve protection worldwide. To expand reserves to a minimum of 10% of land area (a generally agreed-upon conservation goal) would be economically feasible; even strict protection of this 10% and the maintenance of the “multiple use” reserves now existing (4.7% of land area) is not unmanageable. This might cost an additional sum of $16.6 billion per year over 30 years (including the cost of land purchase and reserve management). Additionally, compensation must be paid to those – local communities, mainly – who would suffer economically by loss of available resources from the assumption of land into reserves. These “opportunity costs” might reach $5 billion per year. Biodiversity also must be protected beyond the limits of the reserves, in agricultural lands, aquatic and marine environments and forests. Because so much effort would be required to make agriculture environmentally sound, $290 billion might be necessary for this protection. (Figures are from James, Gaston and Balmford, 1999). Pimm, et al., (2001) suggest that establishing a network of reserves of 15% of terrain in tropical countries (about two million hectares) would be relatively inexpensive, since the desirable areas are sparsely populated and land values are low. They estimate about $10 per hectare for purchase and management; adding another two million km2 of land and providing adequate management for this land and the two million km2 already protected might cost US$4 billion. Where biodiversity hotspots are heavily populated, the cost will be higher.

Although the sums required for conservation of land and biodiversity appear high, it is considerably less than the amount of money being spent by governments on projects detrimental to the environment. There are subsidies to agriculture, fisheries, energy production, road transportation and other industries, all of which cost governments between US$950 billion and $1.45 trillion a year (US$2 trillion, according to Pimm, et al., 2001, and almost that according to Balmford, et al., 2002). Since these maintain the prices of resources at less than market levels, exploitation is assured. In the European Union, $82,500 is spent per square kilometer on agricultural subsidies and, in the U.S.A., $16,100, while governments can spare, on average, only $2000 per square kilometer on parks and reserves. And this sum is considerably less in tropical countries. Zimbabwe spends US$132, Tanzania, $27, and Cameroon, $20 (Inamdar, et al., 1999). Supporting nature reserves would cost about 2% as much as these harmful subsidies, and a global conservation program would consume only about 20% as much as the subsidies. The problem is not “affording” to protect our essential ecosystems, the problem is to engender the political will to do so. The obstacles to sustainability are social, institutional, and political. Environment as well as economics must be combined in the making of public policy. As Pimm, et al., (2001) point out, his figures for reserve protection fall well within the range of the worth of some of the wealthiest individuals, and amount to approximately 1/1000th of the value of the ecosystem services which we obtain from the biodiversity of the planet. (The recent tax rebate given to the American taxpayer by the US government cost almost US$40 billion.) Is it worth to spend less than US$30 billion a year for the purchase and maintenance of reserves, in order to receive goods worth more than US$30 trillion (Costanza, et al., 1997)?

But the developing countries, with most of the world’s rainforests, cannot afford the costs of preservation. A transfer of capital from developing countries to developed countries is now occurring, which results in a transfer of the environmental costs of global development and growth to the developing countries. In 1989 this cost was estimated at $14 billion. This figure did not include resource depletion costs, only environmental pollution costs (MacNeill, 1989). Although it is essential for developing countries to maintain their resources for future use, they have instead been depleting them at a rapid pace. The result is that they bear the environmental costs of the use (pollution and loss of watersheds, for example) as well as the depletion of the resource, for the advantage of people in developed countries.

But economics alone cannot establish value for our rainforests and other natural ecosystems. As Krutilla (1973) put it: “There may be substantial commercial value in preserving wild species and natural environments, but the market cannot communicate [this value]. The conventional market operation does not provide adequate information or rewards to ensure the preservation of rare and irreproducible natural phenomena.” And Goodland (1995) says, “For natural life-support systems no practical substitutes are possible, and degradation may be irreversible. In such cases . . . compensation cannot be meaningfully specified.” The wealthier countries must now make the commitment to invest in resource preservation, rather than depletion, for the benefit of everyone and for the future well-being of the planet.