Let’s get to work! Role of for-profit private sector players in conservation

Figure 1: Marine Protected Area in Honolulu, Hawaii. Image from DipNote

When you think about conservation projects, what is the one thing they seem to lack more than anything else? The answer is often resources – capital, human, or both. A recent study looked into the management practices of 433 marine protected areas (MPAs) across the world (Figure 1). The study observed that around 65% of these MPAs were suffering from inadequate budgets and 91% were suffering from a lack of qualified staff to conduct key management duties. MPAs that had sufficient staff and financial resources had a far greater net positive impact on the biodiversity than those that did not. Many non-profit organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund, have also called attention to this issue, expressing concerns over the dearth of resources available for conservation projects.

Science institutions are not able to cover most of the requirements for their conservation projects while government support fluctuates based on the priorities and policies of the party in power. We recently saw such fluctuations in government support for conservation programs during the administration changes in the United States. While President Obama was keen on assisting environmental projects and providing funding for wildlife conservation efforts, President Trump is not. Under the current administration, we have seen multiple proposals to cut budgets for critical agencies like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Sea Grant College Program which supports several universities across the US in research, education and training on topics pertaining to ocean and coastal issues, including climate change.

Figure 2: Some key MPAs across the globe, image taken from Wikipedia

The private sector players utilize various ecosystem services and thus, have vested interests and influence in protecting these resources by and reducing their environmental and social impacts and risks. Therefore, in this era of globalization and privatization, these players should take a more active role in the global conservation effort. Given the funding gaps faced by science and governmental institutions, the private sector players have the resources that can augment the support available for conservation projects.

The private sector can provide support to conservation initiatives in several ways. One common option is through direct financial contributions. For example, in 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) received $1.2 million (USD) from the multinational automotive manufacturer, Toyota Motor Corporation (Figure 2). These funds were given to improve the scope of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the largest online resource on wildlife conservation status. In 2018, the entertainment giant Disney, provided a staggering sum of approximately $70 million (USD) to projects such as the California Condor Nest Guarding Program.

Figure 3: The power of private sector engagement for biodiversity conservation through funding. Images taken from Pixabay and Flickr.

Promises of long-term security of ecosystem services, improved public relations, and corporate social responsibility benefits may not be enough to entice these players to participate in conservation projects. Some for-profit players may more readily support projects that not only benefit biodiversity, but also provide direct financial benefits. Impact investing is one way that for-profit actors are channeling funds into addressing environmental and social challenges. For example, Althelia Ecosphere recently launched a $100 million Sustainable Ocean Fund, which will invest funds from banks and other entities in marine and coastal sustainability. Encourage Capital channels investment funds into fisheries sustainability projects. Then you have members of the private sectors that conduct operations that can have an element of marine ecosystem conservation or work towards a similar goal. The Ocean Council is one such organization that has been developed by and for the private sector that brings together various stakeholders of the ocean so that they may tackle issues and collaborate on projects regarding responsible and sustainable use of ocean resources.

Figure 4: Divers and Sharks in Shark Reef Marine Reserve with Beqa, Fiji. Picture from Flickr.

Another example of private sector support for conservation is through tourism. Marine conservation tourism falls under the umbrella of ecotourism. In these tourism programs, the tourist travels to a destination where they participate in activities and experiences that have a net-positive impact on the marine biodiversity of the region and then return home. A similar definition was coined by Buckley (2010, pp 2) who stated that conservation tourism is “commercial tourism which makes an ecologically significant net positive contribution to the effective conservation of biological diversity.”  Such approaches have been taken up by a few countries. The Republic of Palau, an archipelago of over 500 islands which is part of the Micronesia region in the western Pacific Ocean, released a policy which would integrate marine protected area management through Tourism. However, in the case of private sector involvement, the is one such program. Running along 40 km of the southern coastline of Viti Levu, the marine protected area itself is owned by the community but is funded by the privately-owned dive tourism operations. The company, Beqa Adventure Divers, struck an agreement with the villages that owned the reef, Waniyabia and Galoa, where the villagers agreed not to fish in certain parts of the reef while the company agreed to pay a daily levy of $10 USD per diver. This agreement was formalized by the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries in 2004. When a third village joined the agreement in 2007, the villagers decided to ban shark hunting completely. Between 2004 and 2008, the tourism levies paid to the villagers was around $58,000 and has been growing since!

In conclusion, private sector players have the resources to assist conservation programs in their effort to curb biodiversity loss. Such programs also have the potential to provide monetary and public perception benefits to these players. One can hope that through appropriate marketing strategies and foresight from the employees in the sector, we see the private sector players take their place in the struggle to save our wildlife.