Across the Caribbean, national economies are heavily dependent on coastal ecosystem services. Coral reefs, mangroves, and other coastal ecosystems provide fish habitat, attract tourists, and protect shorelines from storm damage. However, coastal habitats continue to degrade due to local and global pressures. For example, more than 75 percent of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are currently threatened by human activities. These threats to coastal ecosystems stem from both a lack of awareness of the benefits these ecosystems provide and the costs of insufficient protection, and a lack of political will to protect and sustainably manage these ecosystems. Many of the activities that damage coastal ecosystems arise from shortsighted and poorly informed decisions that fail to take long-term ecosystem values and the full range of benefits from coastal ecosystem services into account.
Economic valuation can contribute to better informed and more holistic decision making about resource use and identify opportunities for effective conservation. Over the past 30 years, the economic valuation literature on the Caribbean’s coastal and ocean resources has increased substantially. More than 200 coastal economic valuation studies of the monetary value of marine ecosystem goods and services in the Caribbean currently exist. However, despite this wealth of valuation studies and estimates, it is not clear whether these efforts have had a meaningful impact on policy or decision making concerning the management and use of these valuable natural resources; to date, there has been no assessment to address this critical question. It is also not immediately clear why some valuations have been more influential than others.
To get a more complete picture of the influence of past coastal valuations in the Caribbean, and to identify the key “enabling conditions” for valuations to influence policy, management, or investment decisions, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership (MESP) conducted semi-structured interviews with more than thirty marine conservation and valuation experts. Several of these interviews took place in the five countries where WRI had conducted coastal valuations. WRI also reviewed past valuation studies in the Caribbean that informants identified as influential. The findings of this review are based on expert opinion and documented cases of influence. Given the large number of total valuations and the difficulty of tracking influence, this review is not exhaustive. This paper identifies a number of variables that likely influence policy, management, and investment outcomes; however, it does not identify the extent to which each variable contributes to influence. We encourage future research on this topic.
Overall, we found that although valuation studies have helped raise awareness about the economic importance of coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean, few have actually had a positive influence on conservation and management- oriented policy, legislation, or investment in the region. We identified only 13 valuation studies that have influenced policy. For example, valuation helped to convince the government of St. Maarten to establish the country’s first national marine park, and the government of Belize to legally ban bottom trawling. Still, these success stories highlight the potential for economic valuation to have influence. We were able to draw out key contextual, procedural, and methodological conditions that likely led to success.
The elements increasing the likelihood of policy influence included:
- a clear policy question;
- local demand for valuation;
- strong local partnerships and stakeholder engagement;
- good governance with high transparency;
- opportunities for revenue-raising;
- effective communications and access to decision makers and/or media; and
- a clear presentation of methods, assumptions, and limitations.
This analysis suggests that getting the methodology right—a principal concern of economists—is only part of the equation. Valuation practitioners who aspire to achieve impact must also consider wider contextual and procedural factors (such as governance and stakeholder engagement) when assessing the likelihood that their valuation will be influential. Furthermore, absolute accuracy is not always essential, as many stakeholders use valuation results as a ballpark figure to guide decision making. For this reason, valuation should be done on a scale appropriate to the policy question, minimizing costs as far as possible. More precise valuation may be necessary for questions relating to fees and taxes. In all cases, clear presentation of methods, assumptions, and limitations is critical in order to address critiques and legitimize results.
In the Caribbean, interest in ecosystem valuation to inform smart choices about coastal resource conservation and management and associated land use continues to grow. However, based on the results of this analysis, it is clear that valuation practitioners need to do much more to ensure that valuation studies have greater influence. In order to achieve more meaningful impacts, greater effort is necessary to strategically choose, design, and execute valuation studies; communicate valuation results to target audiences; and share successes and failures of influence with other practitioners. We conclude with next steps for building on this analysis, including:
- Conduct further consultations with experts and decision makers in the Caribbean and beyond to enlarge the catalog of valuation success stories, and explore additional opportunities for qualitative and quantitative analysis of trends and causality.
- Develop standardized approaches to monitor and evaluate the influence of coastal valuations.
- Research the “return on investment” of economic valuation for coastal conservation and management in relation to other conservation tools.
The results of this review will inform WRI and our partners’ efforts to produce a standardized framework for economic valuation of coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean. A standardized valuation framework would help produce comparable and credible values across the Caribbean, legitimizing their use among decision makers and increasing their uptake. Drawing from this review, the framework will also contain advice on how to make future economic valuations as influential as possible, so they can realize their potential to catalyze positive changes in policy, management, and investment—helping both to restore the productivity and increase the economic contributions of coastal resources, while safeguarding the Caribbean’s valuable coastal and marine resources for future generations.