The Department of Environmental Affairs has reportedly initiated a study of the “goods and values” derived from South Africa’s ecosystems and rich biodiversity to correct the current depreciation of this natural capital in the country’s national accounts.
These services range from the contribution of wetlands to human livelihoods through the prevention of flooding and silting downstream to the role that coastal vegetation plays in offering a buffer against sea surges – and far more beyond those two examples.
Fully reflecting this economic contribution is, to my mind, a positive development and one that should be embraced by business. That’s because the initiative should materially improve the country’s visibility of the costs and benefits involved in pursuing other uses for land, such as agricultural, mining or industrial developments.
Having access to such information should also improve the capacity of the country to begin integrating traditional engineered infrastructure with emerging green infrastructure solutions and what is now being described as the country’s ‘ecological infrastructure’.
South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) bioregional programmes chief director Kristal Maze has described such integration as ‘landscape thinking’, whereby the economic, developmental, job creation and environmental outcomes are optimised through joined-up planning.
Attributing an economic value to South Africa’s ecosystem also gels neatly with the work Sanbi has already done to map South Africa’s priority biodiversity zones in a way that is sensitive to the need to balance the country’s economic and developmental imperatives with its ecological necessities.
These digital maps are already freely available for use by environmental- impact assessment practitioners, the designers for mine environmental management programme reports and for municipal and provincial spatial planners.
Through the careful application of science, the maps show that there is indeed still space available for employment-generating minerals and industrial development. But they also highlight those ecological hot spots whose protection, or remediation, is vital for continued ecosystem, as well as human, health and welfare.
Armed with this information, government and the private sector also have an opportunity to end the perceived competition between the environment and human enterprise. It even opens up the prospect for government and entrepreneurs to begin more fully exploiting the latent jobs potential that lies in maintaining and reclaiming ecological infrastructure.
Currently, South Africa is investing about R2-billion yearly in natural resource management programmes, such as the removal of alien vegetation and the protection of wetlands. These schemes are already creating a large number of job opportunities.
However, it appears there is potential to create even more jobs through projects specifically designed to build and maintain ecological infrastructure. In fact, there may well be more employment prospects in some of these activities than in the mass deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions. It is also possible that there are more jobs to be gained in some of these programmes than will be the case in allowing the land to be used for more conventional business activities.
In light of the fact that employment creation remains South Africa’s biggest challenge, it is gratifying to see an initiative that moves beyond a narrow, yet vital, call for environmental protection and seeks to also deal with the county’s enormous socioeconomic imperatives.