The opportunity cost of conservation

Colombia becomes first case study on how to balance biodiversity goals with limited economic resources

April 14, 2022

In 2019, a landmark report gave the world its first report card on biodiversity loss. There was one crystal clear conclusion: Human actions threaten more species with global extinction than ever before.

According to the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report, currently 25%, or 1 million species, are threatened with extinction. The drivers of change have only accelerated in the past 50 years. The human population has doubled to 8 billion, contributing to climate change, land and sea-use change, overexploitation of resources and pollution. Two-thirds of the oceans are impacted. Eighty-five percent of wetlands have been lost. The Amazon river dolphin. Colombia possesses a unique geography and natural beauty as the only South American country with combined coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Seas. Human actions now threaten the only freshwater species of its kind, the pink river dolphin. A new ASU-led study developed a prioritization map that permits policymakers to target conservation actions toward regions where conservation benefits are the highest and economic impacts are low — giving the biggest ecological bang for the buck. Image courtesy Creative Commons Download Full Image

As a result of these stark data findings, the IPBES agreement fingered human land-use changes as the primary culprit.

Now, an ASU research team has developed the first-of-its-kind study that combines conservation with practical economic tools for a case study of Colombia, South America, a high-priority but underfunded country for biodiversity conservation.  

“We focused on the case study of the country of Colombia to demonstrate an approach to maximize the biodiversity benefits from limited conservation funding while ensuring that landowners maintain economic returns equivalent to agriculture,” said Leah Gerber, who was lead author of the IPBES report, and is a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State University.

While they found that Colombia would need to substantially increase its conservation spending, the study developed a prioritization map that permits policymakers to target conservation actions toward regions where conservation benefits are the highest and economic impacts are low — giving the biggest ecological bang for the buck. 

To do so, Gerber teamed up with Colombia native Camila Guerrero-Pineda, who, just three years ago, left her home country to join ASU and be mentored as a graduate student by Gerber and Gwen Iacona, assistant research professor at the School of Life Sciences, to ultimately make a difference back home.

“It’s fair to categorize that Colombia is a megadiverse country,” Guerrero-Pineda said. “It arguably has some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, given its size, and a lot of scientists and academics in Colombia fear the ecological consequences of human actions.”

Now, she is a first-year ASU School of Life Sciences and Conservation Innovation Lab graduate student and the first author on a paper detailing their results in the prestigious journal Nature Sustainability.

Cattle, coca and biodiversity 

Lead author Camila Guerrero-Pineda

Colombia native Camila Guerrero-Pineda.

Colombia ranks among one of just 17 megadiverse countries in the world.

Colombia possesses a unique geography and natural beauty as the only South American country with combined coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Seas, along with the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which at 13,000 meters, is the world’s highest coastal mountain range.

Human actions now threaten the only freshwater species of its kind, the pink river dolphin.

Also, the cotton-top tamarin; the Orinoco crocodile; the 100-pound, giant capybara rodent; the spectacled bear; plants (flor de mayo orchid); amphibians (golden poison frog); and butterflies (Colombian eighty-eight): all unique species to Colombia. And all could vanish.

In the South American continent, Colombia stands out as a region that has retained its biodiversity, one of the few silver linings due to a long history of violent, human conflicts. Prior to a 2016 peace agreement, Colombia had government instability and a decades-long guerrilla war led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and other minor groups.

“FARC had a lot of control over the forests, and it prevented a lot of economic development,” Guerrero-Pineda said.

Since FARC controlled the forest for coca leaf (the plant used to produce cocaine) production and the drug trade to finance five decades of asymmetrical warfare, one effect was to prevent unbridled development — and inadvertently preserve biodiversity. 

In the ASU-led study, they found that the probability of transformation to cattle and other crops decreases with distance to roads, while the probability of transformation to coca increases. These results suggest that coca crops are grown in more isolated areas, away from roads, compared with cattle.

The presence of FARC was the most influential variable determining the fate of the deforested area, as the odds of forest conversion to coca crops over conversion to cattle or other crops in areas with presence of FARC is 308.04% higher than the odds in areas without FARC. 

“It also prevented a lot of scientific monitoring because scientists were afraid of going into the forests,” Guerrero-Pineda said.   

But Colombia now stands at a biodiversity crossroads. The 2016 peace agreement has now brought unprecedented development. During the past five years alone, GDP growth has been 5–6% every year. 

During that time, the deforestation rate rose by 44% after the peace agreement. Palm oil production, logging, mining and gas oil extraction are some of the leading culprits besides agriculture development.

Do nothing, and Gerber’s team estimates the current biodiversity loss rate could increase by 50% by 2033.

Paradise lost or opportunity cost?

ASU professor

Leah Gerber

But how does Colombia preserve its biodiversity while balancing the need for economic development? Gerber’s team thinks they found a new blueprint to not only aid Colombia, but also extend to other policymakers in other countries to help make a difference.  

For the first time, they applied a unique quantitative model that relates conservation investment to national biodiversity outcomes. 

“The methods developed here offer an approach to identifying areas of greatest conservation returns on investment by balancing cost of conservation action, measured as opportunity cost for agriculture, and biodiversity impacts,” Guerrero-Pineda said. 

When it comes to development, everything economically comes down to opportunity costs. 

An extreme example of the choices nations must make is often referred to as the “guns versus butter” model of economics. It refers to whether a country is more interested in spending money on war or feeding their people — but it can’t do both, and there are always going to be tradeoffs.

In Colombia’s case, it's economic development versus biodiversity outcomes. Or more colloquially, parks versus parking lots. Preservation versus development.

Their team modeled the opportunity cost of conservation to agriculture as an approximation of the expected cost of compensating a landowner for avoiding conversion of their property.

“Opportunity cost is what you're missing out on or what you're not doing because of a decision to do something else,” Guerrero-Pineda said. “What that means is that someone is not going to be able to use the land that is going to be used for conservation.”

They assumed in the modeling of a protection cost that deforestation can be counteracted by compensating the landowner, either by purchase, such as the setting the sale value of a parcel equal to its expected future cash flow, or as continued payments for ecosystem services.

To avoid this additional biodiversity loss, Gerber’s groups estimated that Colombia would have to invest $37–39 million USD annually in the best and worst-case scenarios of deforestation. According to them, this means an increase in its conservation spending of $7.69–10.16 million USD per year. Avoiding this decline (preventing further loss) would require $61–63 million USD annually, which is more than twice the conservation spending before the peace agreement.

“Our strategy for targeting conservation funding involves first identifying regions with a high risk of forest conversion to agriculture (such as cattle ranching or other crops),” Gerber said.

“More broadly, the research agenda is around incorporating cost into decision-making to achieve the most outcomes, given limited resources.” 

They found that the Andean region contains the highest mean opportunity cost of conservation, reflecting a very strong probability of agricultural conversion of the remaining forests. Following closely behind were the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Orinoquía regions. The Amazon region, the one with the lowest mean probability of agricultural conversion, had the greatest forest cover percentage and the greatest forest area, had a much lower opportunity cost of conservation.

“One of the things we're excited about with this work is that it's a demonstration of the potential of this idea of using return on investment for thinking about allocated conservation resources,” Iacona said. “And so, we took these two high profile approaches that are out there, called the Waldron Model and the Species Threat Abatement and Restoration (STAR) metric, and we put them together so country-level decision-makers can make the best-informed decisions at that type of scale.”

Their results can also assist in the planning of land preservation and national parks. In Colombia, the National Natural Park System is working to declare five new protected areas, and to expand three more. This builds on evidence showing that more effective and lasting conservation outcomes are achieved when governance empowers local communities and support their environmental stewardship, including indigenous communities, reserves and Afro-Colombian lands.   

More to come

“I think Camila’s work really sets us up to assist entities, whether they be countries or companies, in quantitatively measuring the impact of conservation interventions on different metrics, whether they need biodiversity or climate mitigation, or other types of conservation strategies,” Gerber said. “I'm optimistic that we'll be able to build and scale this to improve conservation outcomes more generally.”

“Camila, for example, in the summer, will be working on a collaborative USAID project with Conservation International in Peru, and we're going to be applying a similar approach to identify green economic growth pathways.” 

Their approach is another prime example of ASU’s commitment to advance research to finding practical solutions for today's urgent social, economic and environmental challenges.

“So, in that sense, Camila’s foundational work is not only novel, but also represents a practical foundation for broad applications globally,” Gerber said. “We're exploring applications in several other countries and for additional sustainable development goals. By coupling this work with market-based incentives, this work offers to rapidly accelerate our ability to achieve sustainable development goals.”

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


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Arizona's public universities need investment to prepare workforce

3 university presidents look for support on preparing state's workforce.
April 14, 2022

ASU, NAU, UArizona need support of business community, presidents say

The presidents of Arizona’s three public universities said that their institutions flourished during the pandemic, but the post-COVID changes in the economy will require more support from the business community and the Arizona Legislature.

The three leaders spoke at an event sponsored by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Thursday.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow said that his institution “never missed a beat” during the pandemic.

“We graduated more students in 2020 than in 2019, and more in 2021 than in 2020,” he said.

“For us, the pandemic has been very disruptive, driving our innovation even more quickly.”

ASU added 50 new online degree programs; launched Dreamscape Learn, a virtual reality biology lab course; added 11 international university partners, including in Kyiv; and created a donor-funded program for Afghan women who have been displaced from education, he said.

José Luis Cruz Rivera, the new president of Northern Arizona University, said that although Arizona is drawing high-paying jobs, the state’s low rate of educational attainment will keep those jobs out of reach for Arizonans. A current ninth-grader in Arizona has a 17% percent chance of getting a bachelor’s degree by 2029, he said.

“We have to make sure the current generation of Arizonans has the opportunity to contribute to the economic growth of the state,” he said.

Cruz Rivera said that NAU will soon formally announce a new initiative in which students who are admitted who come from families with a household income of $65,000 or less will get free tuition.

“We expect this will do wonders for the aspirations of high school students from underserved communities across the state who may not have thought that there was a possibility of higher education in Arizona,” he said.

Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, said that investment in early childhood education is vital for the success of the universities.

“While most universities saw a decrease in enrollment, we’re seeing increases in enrollment and the most accomplished and diverse class we’ve ever had,” he said.

“But a lot of the decreased rate of high school attainment, which affects what we do in higher education, can be traced back to early childhood education. If, by the age of 4, you don’t have a certain number of words in your vocabulary, you’re pretty much destined not to go to a university.”

Crow said that the business community needs to step up its support of higher education in order to prepare the state’s workforce for jobs that will require post-secondary credentials.

“In many states, the universities are important to the business sector. They’re prized,” he said.

Pres. Michael Crow talking to other university presidents at an event

ASU President Michael Crow speaks at the Greater Phoenix Chamber’s Valley Voices event on April 14. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

He said the universities need two things from the state legislature with the support of the business community.

“We need half the cost of attendance of students from the state of Arizona, and we’ll keep the cost in the lowest 10% of research universities,” he said.

“But no one will agree to that.”

Second, the universities need funding for special projects to benefit the state, which the legislature funded in 2021 – the first positive investment since 2008, he said.

Arizona’s per-capita investment in higher education ranks 49th, which will not prepare the workforce for the changes ahead, he said.

“The business community should see the bargain we’ve got here, and they don’t see it. Their interests are too narrow. They’re not playing the long game,” Crow said.

Cruz Rivera said that he’s still trying to figure out the education funding model in Arizona, after working in higher education systems in California and New York.

“If we agree that we need more people with post-secondary degrees to make this a wildly competitive economy, then why is it our third-year nursing students are funded $2,500 less than a third grader in Arizona, and we know that our third graders are underfunded,” he said.

Crow said that despite the drumbeat of negativity from cable news stations, most residents agree on what’s important. A statewide survey by the Center for the Future of Arizona last year found several key issues on which the majority of respondents agreed.

“People want jobs with dignity for their children, pathways to attainment for family members, blue skies and clean water,” he said.

“We need the business community and the education community and the not-for-profit community to come together and set the goals for the future of Arizona. Would we like 90% of the population graduating from high school, or would we like to pay the bills for only 75% graduating from high school?

“We haven’t decided what we want to be.”

Top photo: From left to right: Arizona State University President Michael Crow, Northern Arizona University President José Luis Cruz Rivera and University of Arizona President Robert Robbins attend the Greater Phoenix Chamber’s Valley Voices event on April 14 at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Chamber President and CEO Todd Sanders (right) moderated the discussion. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News