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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Just $1? Undervaluing conservation

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Good Growth is one of 7 projects under the "Fund for Nature" which is administered through Conservation International. As part of my work on Good Growth I spent a week in Ghana with some of the Conservation International crew and a bunch of other 'pro-nature' projects.

A lot to learn. Not just from the experiences of all the conservation folk but also by seeing first hand some of the stuff that was going on in Ghana.

This is NGO world. Tamale, where we were based, is NGO central*: high density Land Cruisers, Graham Greene bars, people with colourful pasts and dark secrets.

NGO world is not my world - but I really like being amongst so many people doing so many good things. And of course there were elephants.

The effort that goes into conservation is immense - and the issues are complex, whether it's protecting sea turtles in Colombia or finding a future for the rangelands in Botswana.

Making conservation sustainable is hard

We were in Ghana looking at how to put in place effective 'conservation agreements' - a mechanism that binds communities to specific conservation activities in return for a package of benefits. So it might constitute an agreement not to poach in return for several valuable things for that community such as funding a school teacher for example.

Getting a conservation agreement in place is a tricky thing anyways. But it's made harder because of the donor funding that goes into making such an agreement in the first place - which is finite.

There's a process to conservation agreements that looks a bit like this:

  1. do a feasibility assessment

  2. design the conservation agreement and get it in place and agreed

  3. implement

  4. monitor

  5. seek financial sustainability......

This is an uncomfortable sequence.

Bolting in financial sustainability later on is always going to be hard. If, like me, you're focused on how regeneration can be 'scaled' (wrong word but "done in many places" is what I mean) then replicability and viability are key factors upfront. Not later.

The commodity trap

The pursuit of financial sustainability normally leads to some kind of product, which needs to be "linked" to market in order to establish some kind of income certainty. And 9 times out of 10 that means some form of commodity chain.**

Which is where trouble starts.

Commodity markets look like big and attractive. Big yes, but good for nature they are not.

Shea butter

We spent a day in a community that has started a shea nut butter processing enterprise that is linked to their conservation activity. Shea butter is normally a cosmetic - but (I didn't know before) you can also eat it (apparently it's good for malaria).

Shea butter is sold by people like Space NK and Lush. They sell it for a lot of $.

Before we went around the plant there was a meeting with the villagers who make the butter. There was a bit of a formal discussion and then at some point one of the women who makes the butter stood up and said "we're not being paid enough".

It was all a bit uncomfortable. We were told that she probably didn't fully understand the 'factory model' on which payments were based, and that she was not paid for her time, but for her output, i.e. by the kilo.

But she was right. Not only are they not being paid enough, but the payment mechanism is contradictory to the conservation aim. An output based mechanism incentivises more output. Grow more shea trees, harvest more shea, produce more stuff.

The shea butter process is troubling. All the hard manual work is done by women. Men seem to be either supervising or involved in the other business of the village.

The end to end process of making the butter (and soaps) is all there. Growing the trees, harvesting the fruits, drying, roasting, sorting, mashing, stirring, separating, cooling, bagging.

This is end to end processing. Finished product. For which they get $1 a kilo.

Yet brands like SpaceNK and Lush are selling it for $26 for 120ML: $208 a kilo. Boots are selling non organic generic shea for £8/250ml: £32 a kilo.

Either end that's a jaw dropping mark up. The Ghanaian shea is organic, high end.

Even if you take into account logistics and packaging and branding and store rental costs.

Each woman has "her" batch of nuts. So not only is there origin value coming from that particular village, but with a few tweaks you could pretty much associate finished product with a named person.

All that story value is all lost though. By the time the product is boxed up all that remains is batch numbers and certification.

These people deserve a lot more than a dollar - a chain designed to amplify and reinforce origin value would be a very good start.

Tell their story through the product. That's not a commodity chain - that's a value chain.

Production vs sustainability

The introduction of a single commodity supply chain is a threat to the landscape. There's no cap on how many shea trees they plant. Without any checks or balances this could end up as a monoculture.

The payment system is output based. Transactional. The more you make the more you get. So the incentive is to plant and harvest more and more. And if you're only paying a dollar they are going to need a lot more trees.

This highlights a critical issue - the 'production' contract and the 'sustainability' contract are not integrated. This is a problem everywhere - the people who sign up to the conservation agreement and the people who sign up to the production agreement are not the same people.

There's also too much income risk for the community. There is no commitment to buy for the long term. This is exposing a fragile community to the vagaries of single commodity supply chains. See what happened when Green and Blacks wound up in Cadburys, then Kraft.....

"we've got to balance production and conservation"

It's an expression I really don't like. This gets back to the fundamental issue of human disconnection from nature, the idea that nature is a resource that we can use at will and without consequence.

This notion leads to my bugbear - the idea of "sustainable production" - which is massively comforting to procuring businesses. But if you stop to think about it for even a second..

It's hard to confront this, especially for the conservation organisations who rely on the donor funding that often comes from those very same procuring businesses. With money comes great power. And speaking truth to power ain't easy.

(For what it's worth there's not enough confidence in conservation world in articulating the value they deliver - these people do very good things).

We can't keep giving business a pass if we're going to fix the planet.

Too many animals or too little grazing?

Balancing production and conservation changes the lens we use.

Back to Botswana who have a degraded rangeland (just as we do in Mongolia). In the same story as we have heard in many places, farmed animal numbers have grown by a lot, which has put more and more pressure on the landscape.

So now there's not enough grazing for the livestock. Bush has encroached onto grasslands. To help make sure there's enough food for all the livestock a massive program of bush cutting needs to be put into place and funded.

But if you look at it the other way round - not through the production lens, there's too much livestock for the grazing. We're over exploiting the landscape. That's the real problem.

Value chain design needs more creativity and resource

Of course a big part of the answer is in designing value chains specifically for nature. Diverse, integrated with environmental imperatives hard wired in, built on reciprocal long term commitments and not on transactional fragility. Production subordinated to nature.

But these kinds of value chains are not where attention and resources are focused. Donor money goes into the landscapes, and investor money goes into brands and products, but the bit in the middle, the bit that is transformative for nature - and for value creation - gets zip.

What's needed for successful value chain design is not pushing all the responsibility onto the overworked conservation people - what's needed is for finance and business to get involved. Get collaborating.

Stuff I take out from all this:

  1. value chain design is the key to delivering sustainable environmental restoration. - but designing chains specifically to create value for nature is not easy. Directing the right funding - and people - at this crucial bit of the system would be transformational for nature, and us all.

  2. conservation is intrinsically valuable but a) doesn't articulate that value strongly enough (this is an emergency) and b) shouldn't be left to deal with the 'sustainable finance' part of the problem

  3. people living in fragile ecosystems need to be protected from commodity chains not pushed into dependency on them. This last one bothers me most - we can't be happy in a world where all the effort and risk earns just a single dollar on a product selling for $200.

*According to Google there are 32 NGO's operating there but I'm guessing that this is an underestimate as the one that was hosting us - - is not on the list.

**there's also a bit of wishful thinking on carbon offsets, but that's a whole other story


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