by Larry Smith
In January 2009, the container ship Westerhaven ran aground and destroyed about an acre of Belize’s 180-mile barrier reef – the world's second largest. Fifteen months later the Belizean Supreme Court ruled that the ship’s owners had to pay the government $6 million in damages.
Their ruling was based on scientific studies showing that coral reef- and mangrove-associated tourism contribute 15 per cent of Belize’s gross domestic product. And when shoreline protection is considered, these ecosystems provide an extra $347 million in avoided damage every year.
With a similar population to the Bahamas, Belize has protected more than a third of its total land area of just under 9,000 square miles in one way or another, as well as about 13 per cent of its marine area.
In fact, this little, out-of-the-way nation (formerly known as British Honduras) is recognised today as a world leader in conservation and ecotourism, and there has been a lot of research on the value of Belize's protected areas.
One of the scientists involved in this research is 32-year-old Venetia Hargreaves-Allen, who has a doctoral degree from Imperial College, London. She was the principal investigator for the Marine Managed Area Economic Valuation in Belize that was recently produced by Conservation International as part of a global initiative involving hundreds of researchers.
Last year, Hargreaves-Allen produced a similar valuation for the Bahamas, using the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park and the Retreat Gardens in Nassau as case studies. Tough Call was able to review her 100-page report in advance.
"There is a vast sense of pride that people come from all over world to see their reefs and other natural resources. The same could be true for the Bahamas, where there is far too much emphasis today on sun, sand and casinos. Ecotourism could be a significant revenue earner for many Bahamian islands."
For example, Hargreaves-Allen (working with The Nature Conservancy's Bahamas office on another study) has demonstrated that ecosystems on Andros are worth about $260 million a year - 5 per cent derived from forests, 23 per cent from wetlands and 7 per cent from reefs. Commercial fishing (including crabbing and sponging) generates $70 million a year, while tourism produces $43.6 million.
"From our work, it is clear that 60 per cent of the Androsian economy is linked directly to the island's natural resources - which is astonishing," she told me. "The long-term impact of depleting these resources will affect everyone's livelihood, so their future security needs to be addressed by protecting forests, reefs, creeks, crabs and bonefish."
All this research is part of a $10 million Global Environment Fund-sponsored project aimed at underpinning our national protected area system, which now exists mostly on paper.
The BEST Commission, the Bahamas National Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Marine Resources are working to implement the government's commitment to effectively protect 20 per cent of our marine resources by the year 2020. Both the Andros study and the BNT parks study undertaken by Hargreaves-Allen are major components of this ongoing work.
The economic value of protecting the environment is not always considered by many Bahamians, who often feel they should be able to do as they please without regard for the future health and security of our natural resources.
Currently, about 19 per cent of the land area but less than 1 per cent of Bahamian marine areas are protected. The main marine example is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, established in 1958 and designated a no-take zone in 1986 to curtail overfishing. The BNT was formed in 1959 specifically to manage this park, which was the first of its kind in the world.
In her 2010 report, Hargreaves-Allen notes that healthy ecosystems are key to a sustainable economy, and protected areas are an important tool to maintain healthy ecosystems. However, hard data is often lacking to support this linkage. Her report provides this backup in detail for two specific parks in the Bahamas.
"The economic impact of protected areas is a crucial question," she writes. "It is important to quantify the benefits of protected areas in order to understand the benefits of conservation investments. This report also explores potential income sources for better management, and threats which may undermine the economic benefits of (these parks)."
Some benefits accrue directly to those who use and visit protected areas and also to businesses that cater to these users, the report says. Other benefits are enjoyed indirectly through the contribution of protected areas to ecosystem health and services, shoreline protection, open space, and fishing outside of the protected area.
Global estimates of coral reef net value are on the order of half a million dollars per square kilometre per year, while the management costs of marine protected areas can be less than $800 per square kilometre per year - a pretty good bargain.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef, for example, is worth more as an intact ecosystem than as a fishing ground. As the world's largest reef system, it attracts more than 1.8 million tourists a year who spend billions on reef-related industries.
Caribbean reefs generated net revenues of $2 billion in 2000 from dive tourism alone. Reef fisheries are estimated to be worth as much as $150,000 per square kilometre per year, while mangrove forests have been shown to provide more than $100,000 per square kilometre per year in American Samoa and $3.5 million in Thailand.
But it is also true that marine protected areas don't work without some level of investment - in planning, monitoring, enforcement, equipment and public education. In the case of the Exuma park, its size and the inclusion of inter-related habitats is part of the reason for its success, Hargreaves-Allen says.
The 186-square-mile land and sea park includes shallow water seagrass, sand flat, mangroves, creeks, patch reef and other habitats on the Great Bahama Bank, as well as offshore reefs and deepwater habitats. It is home to endemic, rare and endangered species of birds and other animals. And there are larger numbers of charismatic species that are popular with divers, such as turtles, rays and sharks.
But the park has a single warden (based at Warderick Wells) with limited surveillance and outreach capability, and the BNT's authority does not extend above the high water line on private property within or around the park.
Hargreaves-Allen's study required a prodigious amount of data collection, including interviews with BNT staff, academics working in or around the park, dive shop operators, hotel owners and employees, as well as local community leaders. Focus groups with fishermen were held in the settlement of Black Point, and the relevant academic literature was scoured. A visitor survey was also undertaken, both inside the park and online.
The report identified three key economic benefits from the park - improved commercial fisheries outside its borders (for conch, lobster and grouper); tourism; and development on private cays within the park (which generates some $14 million a year in property taxes and overheads).
As presently organised, the Exuma park generated some $9 million in measurable economic impact in 2009, directly supporting over 100 jobs and almost 20,000 visitors. Taking into account the secondary economic impacts from this spending, we arrive at a range of $12-20 million in economic impacts in 2009 - or as much as $374 million over the next 25 years.
The 11-acre Retreat on Village Road is a different kettle of fish. Originally the home of a colonial official and his Bahamian wife, the property was donated to the BNT in the 1980s and is one of the few large green spaces left in this part of the island. The park has six permanent staff and an annual budget of $250,000. It is the main site for the BNT's public and fundraising events.
Data collection for this case study included interviews with BNT staff and visiting academics, stakeholder workshops to identify values and sources of data, a workshop on funding with BNT staff and their partners from government departments and other organisations, scouring published research and internal reports, and conducting face-to-face visitor interviews inside the Retreat Gardens .
The study found that the direct economic impact of the Retreat was more than half a million dollars in 2009 (almost two thirds of which was captured by the BNT itself). Taking into account secondary impacts, the total economic impact over the next 25 years would be close to $10 million.
The Retreat is the only BNT park to generate a large profit, and its full revenue potential has yet to be reached.
"I am especially interested in how conservation can benefit people," Hargreaves-Allen told me on Sunday, "and how we go about encouraging good behaviour towards the environment. Do we use a fortress approach and try to keep people out, or do we use incentives?
"In reality, we probably need to apply both. You can't just push people out of the way who have used an area for years, but there are creative ways to compensate them."
Her research clearly shows that our protected area network is a thing of great value as well as great beauty. But it is seriously underfunded and needs increased protection and enforcement.
"There is a fine balance that must be struck between enabling development and protecting heritage," she said. "From looking at all the research I've done, the most promising strategy would be a landscape approach - zoning areas in the islands for commercial development, fishing, multi-use, wilderness, etc. Elsewhere this has been shown to generate large benefits for different groups."
The bottom line is that haphazard development must be avoided at all costs. And Hargreaves-Allen hopes that her work will help to better inform the land use plans that will be developed for Bahamian islands under the government's new Planning & Subdivisions Act.