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Valuing Nature


As economies around the world boom, a key question is how to balance conservation with growth. Without balance, the natural resources—forests, oceans, wildlife and more—we rely on for such things as food and jobs can suffer.

How, for example, can we guide decisions about where to build new roads so they don’t cut through forests that are prime tiger habitat? How can we convince developers not to cut down mangroves when they build a seaside resort—as doing so will make people along the coast highly vulnerable to storms and will damage fish nurseries?

And how can these questions be answered now so that the continued overexploitation of nature is lessened?

One way is to take stock of the natural resources in a country or region, as well as the benefits (or “ecosystem services”) they provide to people before decisions are made about their fate. Doing so uncovers ways to restore and protect nature more effectively and at a larger scale than ever before—even while allowing economies to grow.

Stock-taking can include assessing and mapping the contribution—under different development and climate change scenarios—rivers and forests play in providing clean water for drinking, bathing, farming, and other household needs. Or asking where mangroves provide vital natural barriers that help buffer coastal communities when major storms hit.

These are important concerns for developing world countries and even for the developed world, as Californians stressed by a cycle of drought, fires, and floods know all too well. They are also important to address because natural resources, when managed to accommodate change and not just for persistence, help build a country’s resilience to the disruptive impacts of climate change. As more intense heat waves, droughts, and storms affect forests, rivers, and streams, the way we manage these resources must change if we are to continue to benefit from the services they provide to people, wildlife, and businesses.

Devil's claw: an organic remedy to economic hardship

Devil’s claw has been used by the Khwe people of southern central Africa for as long as anyone can remember. Prized as a remedy for aches and pains, the fleshy tuber’s popularity as an alternative treatment has led to severe overharvesting. So the relative abundance in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park is precious—as is the organic, sustainable harvesting business the Khwe people are now building around devil’s claw.

Women looking for Devil's Claw_Devil's Claw Story_1281

Why It Matters

  • Provide Clean Water

    When forests are degraded by agriculture, mining, and the construction of roads, soil erodes and washes into rivers and streams. The result is poor quality drinking water for humans, damaged habitat for many freshwater species, reduced energy generation efficiency in hydropower plants, and more. This is particularly problematic in areas with steep slopes or frequent and intense storms that are due to climate change. Healthy forests and other natural vegetation play a key role in reducing or slowing the amount of erosion and chemicals that reach waterways.

  • Provide Enough Water

    Rivers and streams flow fast during the rainy season. The rainwater is soaked up by trees and plants, stored underground and released during the rest of the year. If forest land is degraded—which happens, for example, when roads are poorly built—that cycle can be broken. Healthy forests, therefore, are critical to ensuring there is enough water year-round for household use and agriculture.

  • Prevent Flooding

    Forests soak up water during heavy rainfall. They need it to survive. But when their soils become too saturated with water or cannot absorb water, flooding usually occurs. This often happens when forests are cleared to create impervious surfaces, such as roads, or degraded by illegal logging and other activities.

  • Protect Coastlines

    Mangrove forests, coastal vegetation, and coral reefs—all which line the coast—act as a physical barrier between land and shore, helping to protect people and property from cyclones and storm surges. They also provide food and habitat for a large variety of fish, shrimp, and other species that are an essential food source for people living along the coast. Protecting the natural resources along the coast is more important than ever, given that large increases in the frequency and magnitude of flooding are projected as sea levels rise and storms grow in intensity and frequency.

  • Absorb Carbon Dioxide

    When trees are cut down, the deforested land becomes a source of harmful greenhouse gases instead of serving as an important “sink” that absorbs carbon dioxide. Emissions from deforestation account for approximately 15 percent of global carbon emissions. This is more than the total combined emissions from all cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships in the world. Carbon sinks are lost, too, when peatlands are drained and turned into palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, for example, peatlands store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world.

  • Provide Habitat for Life on Earth

    The same forests, mountains, oceans, and rivers that are beneficial to people often are ideal habitat for a wide array of species. But much of their habitat is under threat. When roads are built through forests, for example, poaching and vehicle collisions with wildlife can increase. Maneuvering and migrating through the forest becomes challenging, too, making it harder for wildlife to find food, mate, and more. No species—including people or wildlife—benefit from the habitat under these conditions.

What WWF Is Doing

Two men with their boat on the beach in Mozambique

Over the last 10 years, WWF has been a leader in educating people about why nature matters, creating tools and approaches for them to take stock of their natural resources, and helping them use information generated through this process to grow their economies responsibly. We are now shifting to using the tools and approaches to make the biggest changes possible. We are doing so with a variety of partners, including The Natural Capital Project—which includes WWF, The Nature Conservancy, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota.

Read reports and peer-reviewed publications about Valuing Nature. 

Spatial and Development Planning

WWF helps countries and regions take stock of their natural resources, then use this information to inform and inspire better decisions on how to grow. For example, in Indonesia, Belize, and Myanmar we have worked with our Natural Capital Project partners and others to assess the benefits nature provides under different development and climate change scenarios. This is moving development planning toward a green economy approach—one in which the sustainable use of natural resources is integrated into a country or region’s plans and policies for the economy, energy, agriculture, land use, foreign investment, and more. The assessments are also used to conduct environmental impact studies for proposed projects; decide where and how much to invest in protecting a country’s natural resources or building new roads and dams; create plans to make coastal communities more resilient to climate change; and more.

A man throws a fishing net in Myanmar

Business Supply Chains

Salad crops growing in Dorset.

WWF works with companies to raise awareness about why and how to factor the value of nature into business planning and investments. WWF participates in the Natural Capital Coalition, a group of more than 200 entities motivated by the notion that investing in nature can help reduce risks to their business models and supply chains.

Commodity Standards

Sugar cane

Through comprehensive research, WWF works to ensure that commodity standards help the public and private sectors reduce risks, meet environmental and development targets, and protect valuable natural resources. For example, WWF works with Bonsucro and a wide range of stakeholders to model how the sugarcane certification advances conservation goals, as well as what can be done to strengthen the standard for more sustainable sugarcane cultivation and processing. As one of the world’s thirstiest crops, sugarcane has a significant environmental impact on many critical regions, from Southeast Asia’s Mekong River Delta to Central America’s Mesoamerican Reef.

Funding for Protected Areas

Two monkeys in the Amazon

WWF and its partners use an innovative funding approach—called Project Finance for Permanence (PFP)—that ensures the long-term financial stability of protected areas or networks of protected areas. It is a means for permanent and full funding for protected areas. The results from natural resource assessments are used to inspire government leaders to support the creation of this type of fund and public and private sector donors to contribute to the fund. For example, a WWF-led assessment of natural resources in the Brazilian Amazon showed that maintaining and adding protected areas across that region could result in a 12 percent increase in water volume available for hydropower production by 2050. This information helped build support for creating a $215 million fund to properly manage forests in the Brazilian Amazon.


  • The Natural Capital Project

    The Natural Capital Project—a partnership among WWF, The Nature Conservancy, University of Minnesota and Stanford University—works to provide decision makers with reliable ways to assess the true value of the services that ecosystems provide.

  • Greening Myanmar

    Myanmar is brimming with opportunity. This Southeast Asia country is coming out of 50 years of isolation. Foreign investment is pouring in at a staggering pace and laws are being rewritten across the board. A key question for the country now is how to balance growth with conservation.

View More Projects


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