America’s role in maintaining global stability is rooted not only in our economic, moral, and military strength, but the fact that U.S. interests touch every industry and sphere of influence in the world. U.S. interests can only be protected by active international leadership. At a time when we must tighten our fiscal budget dramatically, it has never been more essential to make the international conservation investments to prevent endemic economic dislocation and chaos at a global scale.
Natural capital is the foundation of local economies and the global economy. In developing countries, the reliance on natural resources for income and survival is much greater. According to the World Bank, 1.6 billion people rely directly on forests for their livelihoods, including for food, clothing, shelter and traditional medicine. About two billion people – 30 percent of the world’s population – use wood or other natural biomass for heating and cooking. These renewable resources are being depleted at an unsustainable rate in many places.
We have seen in the past, and we are seeing now, that the loss of critical natural resources is a factor that can lead to instability and eventually conflict. Depleted fish stocks in the Gulf of Thailand sent Thai trawlers into the waters of other nations’ exclusive economic zones, resulting in a series of violent altercations with Burmese, Indonesian and Vietnamese fishermen. In Madagascar, a deal to lease almost half of the country’s arable land for the direct export of food to South Korea contributed to political unrest and coup d’etat in 2009. Additionally, many of the areas that are most reliant on natural resources for their economy are also the least equipped with the political and social institutions needed to cope with serious environmental stress.
In regions critical to U.S. interests, American leadership from the public and private sectors is needed to build the capacity to conserve natural resources and enforce legal resource extraction. Afghanistan’s across-the-board environmental degradation – from the clearing of 70 percent of their forests to the limited availability of clean water – has decimated their economic prospects. President Obama’s March 2009 strategic review of Afghanistan correctly described “sustainable economic development” – specifically “restor[ing] Afghanistan’s once vibrant agriculture sector” – as a vital to America’s overall security mission. “It’s cheaper…to help a farmer seed his crops than it is to send our troops to fight.”
In an era of globalization, domestic security and international security are inextricably intertwined. The fallout of failed states and destabilized regions inevitably reverberates to the United States, whose interests touch every industry and sphere of influence in the world. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that over the past 60 years, 40-60% of conflicts have links to resource scarcity, and that this link doubles the risk of a conflict relapse within five years of settlement. Military and humanitarian responses, while important, only address the surface of the issue, and the situation tends to relapse over the following few years. For key regions in Asia, North Africa, and elsewhere, securing and managing the resource base for sustainable economic development is necessary to ameliorate drivers of conflict and prevent the need for costly military and humanitarian responses.
Poor natural resource management around the world has a direct impact on the American economy. Illegal and irresponsible resource extraction depletes the total resource base of the global economy and that of the value chains of multinational American businesses.
Just as today's sovereign debt crisis is threatening to derail the global economy, a global natural debt crisis caused by systematic over-borrowing from the planet's "natural capital" and asset base is looming that could be drastically more damaging. Current mismanagement of natural assets is currently costing the global economy today around $6.6 trillion a year—the equivalent of 11% of global gross domestic product. Worldwide, illegal fishing is estimated to be about one-fifth of reported catches and cause economic losses between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually. These numbers represent lost opportunities for U.S. companies and higher prices for American consumers.
American businesses are being affected directly as well. Illegitimate extractors of natural resource products undercut competitors and flood the market with cheap, unsustainably harvested goods. Illegal logging, for example, costs the U.S. economy up to $1 billion a year. Illicit traders often have connections to other types of organized crime, and profits can end up in the hands of insurgent groups or criminal syndicates.
All economic activity depends on biodiversity and ecosystem services, directly or indirectly. American businesses are taking steps to mainstream sustainable use of natural capital and remove the space occupied by competitors who seek short-term advantage by exploiting resources today at the cost of long-term growth.
For both economic and national security reasons, there are many countries whose interests intersect with ours, but do not have the capacity to implement or enforce natural resource conservation programs. In these cases, it is a matter of good foreign policy to work with them to establish natural resource wealth management™ programs and enlist them in our long-term efforts to promote freedom prosperity, and stability throughout the world.
Natural resource vulnerabilities can serve as opportunities for positive engagement, and through cooperation we can establish the basis of trust with populations who see the direct benefits of conservation. Assisting in education, training, and capacity building can both achieve American natural security goals and advance a state toward the maturity of their own resource management capabilities.
Developing a lasting connection with the peoples of the world is complementary to, and distinct from, our relationships with their governments. Helping communities take ownership of their natural resource wealth and cultivate it to create new jobs and opportunities is the most important step we must take to combat the disinformation that has been distorting the image of the U.S. abroad. The true image of the U.S. as an enabler of political and economic freedom has been forgotten in many parts of the world, which now threatens our influence and security.
Representatives of conservation NGOs are often the first Americans that people from developing countries meet; positive experiences generate goodwill and help our long-term foreign relations. American agencies and NGOs who are helping establish sustainable resource practices in developing nations are paving the way for receptive markets for American businesses and building a foundation for dialogue, consensus building, and cooperative policy formulation.
One-half of all modern medicines and more than 90 percent of traditional medicines are based on natural sources like rainforest plants and marine sponges. Ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss are restricting future development and supplies of new medicines and treatments. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that at today’s extinction rates, one major new drug will be lost every two years.
Human health is also adversely affected by deforestation, loss of ecosystem services, unsustainable and irresponsible agricultural practices, disruption of water flows, and other factors linked to loss of biodiversity. The World Health Organization reports that more people die from waterborne illnesses today than from war, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction combined. This is a direct result of the degradation of the natural systems that filter our water and remove the organisms that thrive in water sources contaminated by raw sewage.
Nature provides the many things that we need for healthy lives: clean water and air, abundant foods, and medicinal plants that are the basis for global health care. However, irrevocable damage to the ecosystems that provide these resources is threatening the health and welfare of the world’s population. It is important for us to understand these links and act now to protect these natural systems on which our lives depend.
A BRIEFING ON WATER