Alistair Morrison – Director-General, Department of Conservation, New Zealand

Bridging the gap between the intrinsic and economic value of nature

New Zealand fur seal (arctocephalus forsteri) Photo: Holcim

The conservation movement in New Zealand has been almost solely reliant for support on the notion that nature protection is intrinsically valuable – that we should protect nature for its own worth. It is an attractive value set that the public understand and readily support across the political spectrum and it has served us relatively well.

The problem is it is a cost-based model. It fits in to the policy framework that only wealthy countries can have healthy natural environments, and that therefore we have to get the economy right first to get the money to spend on the environment. Many, if not all of us, have been experiencing what that means in the context of the global financial crisis, but even in the good times how many of us have seen sufficient investment in improving the health of natural environments and biodiversity?

What we have been endeavouring to do in New Zealand is hold on to the intrinsic value proposition while challenging the orthodox economic view. We have been arguing that healthy ecosystems supplying natural capital are critical to our nation's prosperity, and that protecting and enhancing them therefore has beneficial/economic value.

There is nothing unique to New Zealand about following this path of thinking. Over the last month I have been in the UK and Europe talking to politicians, government officials, scientists and academics about conservation and why protected areas are important. My reflection is that we are all struggling with the same argument. Environmental policy thinking has been shifting internationally in that direction in the wake of climate change, the degradation of biodiversity and the limits to growth that is creating, and increasing public/consumer demand for environmentally friendly goods and services and issues around population growth and poverty. Many are commenting that in the wake of the global financial crisis, however, governments are stepping back to the orthodox view that jobs and growth come first and the environment will have to wait.

Over the last seven years as Chief Executive of the Department of Conservation, I have been focused on how we can shift our thinking, structures, systems and processes to organise around an ambitious strategy to achieve more for conservation in New Zealand. It is about engaging all New Zealanders across all of New Zealand in sustainable natural resource management. The programme of change is now almost complete. It has been a rocky and controversial transformation, and I have made the call that once the changes are in place in September, it is time for me step aside for new leadership and a fresh approach. The programme of change has the Government's support and I am confident that my successor will move it forward, and will be able to contribute some valuable thinking from our experience to the World Protected Areas forum in the future.

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