Studies show that strategic investment into a country’s ecological infrastructure can enhance and extend the life of existing built infrastructure and reduce the need for additional human-made infrastructure, while offering considerable job-creation potential.
For this reason, experts are calling for an institutionalized acknowledgment of the services acquired from South Africa’s ecological infrastructure and for this to be included in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the country’s growth and development policies.
A concept familiar to those in the biodiversity and environmental management sector, but somewhat unknown beyond it, ecological infrastructure refers to natural ecosystems that deliver tangible services to people and underpins sustainable socioeconomic development.
Unpolluted mountain catchment areas, rivers, grasslands, wetlands, coastal dunes and natural habitat nodes and corridors that form a network of interconnected structural landscape elements are examples of eco logical infrastructure, the value of which is seldom captured in market transactions and remains largely unacknowledged.
“Until we have built something on a piece of land, or extracted something from it, it is not perceived to hold value. This is a perception that we are challenging,” argues development funder the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) strategic operations divisional executive David Jarvis.
The ‘Green Jobs Report’, a paper compiled jointly by the Industrial Development Corporation, the DBSA and research body Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, states that, while in certain instances there may have been some economic gains associated with the loss of biodiversity, such as growth in the agriculture, fisheries, mining and forestry sectors, the loss of biodiversity is also associated with material costs that are not always fully considered.
“When we seek to increase investment in this natural infrastructure and the environment as a whole, it must be done with a view to linking it to society. While it may cost more, the long-term financial, social and health benefits of investing in it make it an essential consideration for the national development agenda,” explains National Planning Commission secretariat member Kuben Naidoo.
While most stakeholders, including the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), are in agreement that ecological infrastructure can and should play a greater role in the NDP, difficulties have emerged around exactly how this should be achieved.
The NDP will see the roll-out of R4-trillion in infrastructure investment over the next 15 years, with R3.7-trillion allocated to strategic integrated projects, which may include dedicated ecosystem preservation initiatives.
During a recent debate organised last year by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) consensus emerged that there needed to be stronger evidence of the benefits of investment, particularly around job creation, service delivery support, ecological damage aversion and economic contribution.
Key elements of ecological infrastructure such as catchments, corridors or tracts of natural vegetation, are often located in rural areas and this fact, coupled with the restoration or maintenance of this infrastructure, may contribute to the diversification of local livelihood alternatives and the strengthening of economic sectors such as sustainable farming and ecotourism.
While research in this field is expanding, further information and evidence will also be required to firm up the argument for institutionalised ecological investment, which can then be fed into political and planning processes.
Several State policy approaches to the enhancement of ecological infrastructure investment and preservation are currently under development and include environmental fiscal reforms, such as innovative tax models and fiscal incentives, as well as draft policy on biodiversity offset mechanisms and the positioning of South Africa as a biodiversity economy in the global market.