Today’s Green Antilles interview is with Esther Wolfs, an environmental economist who has worked across the Caribbean, from Bonaire to Belize to the Cayman Islands. She is the founder of Wolfs Company, a consulting company that focuses on incorporating the value of natural capital in decision-making for sustainable development.
For people who are not familiar with the term, how would you explain the concept of “natural capital” and why it’s important for the management of natural resources and the environment?
Natural capital is all renewable and non-renewable environmental resources and processes that provide goods or services that support the past, current or future prosperity of an economy, well-being or an individual organization. It includes stocks such as air, water, land, minerals and forests, in addition to services, such as water purification and carbon sequestration. By managing these natural resources sustainably not only we, but future generations, can also have access to the benefits the services of nature provides, such as fisheries, recreational activities and coastal protection.
What first sparked your interest in working in the environmental field? And more specifically, what got you interested in environmental economics?
I travelled to many places and witnessed environmental degradation at an enormous pace. I wanted to do something about it. My background was in commerce; therefore, it was logical for me to try to bridge the private sector and nature conservation worlds by trying to speak the same language. That language turned out to be rooted in environmental economics. When starting to work in this field, it became clear that we could also contribute to sustainable development by working with the public sector in supporting sustainable policy.
Please tell Green Antilles a bit more about the kind of work Wolfs Company does?
The focus of our work is to support public, private and financial sectors, and civil society organizations in maximizing, measuring, and communicating the benefits of investing in development that is sustainable in the long term. Natural, social and economic aspects are strongly linked and Wolfs Company demonstrates how well-managed natural capital provides the building blocks of a healthy, growing economy. This is especially relevant for small island developing states.
My previous work experience with nature conservation organizations and in the private sector provided me with a wealth of knowledge on the importance of incorporating natural capital into business strategies. Recent hot topics, such as sustainable financing, contribution to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and monitoring and reporting on impact are some of the areas that require a solid grounding in natural capital. An important part of our work is to intermediate between the private sector, governments and nature conservation organizations in raising awareness and making evidence-based decisions for sustainable development. Our company executes international ecosystem valuation research projects and sustainable development strategies, with a focus on the Caribbean and Latin America.
Tell us about some of the projects you have worked on in the Caribbean.
We have realized several valuations of ecosystem services throughout the Caribbean, among which the Dutch Caribbean and the UK overseas territories. We have built capacity on natural resource valuation with government officials and nature conservation managers in Belize. Valuing ecosystem services raises awareness on the economic contribution of these services. These insights support development of sustainable financing mechanisms, such as allocating funds for nature conservation management. For example, 7.5 million euros was secured for the Caribbean Netherlands as a result of our advice, money was allocated from a Trust Fund on the Turks & Caicos’ islands. Decision makers can often be informed about positive and negative externalities through our research, resulting in, for example, the decision to extend a Marine Protected Area in the Cayman Islands. Integrating ecosystem service values and measuring their contribution to the SDGs has assisted Aruba with its sustainable development strategy too.
We’re seeing an increased interest in environmental economics and natural capital concepts in the Caribbean. What do you think is motivating that?
The Caribbean, especially small island developing state economies and the well-being of its residents, depend strongly on the services their natural environment provides, such as services to the fishery sector, tourism and also to local recreational activities. Moreover, healthy ecosystems can mitigate impact from extreme weather events. Healthy mangroves can absorb wave energy when heavy storms hit the islands. To make these benefits clear, raise awareness and incorporate them in wise and sustainable decision-making. A valuation of the ecosystem services is a great tool in this process.
What are some of the challenges for the adoption of natural capital approaches in the Caribbean?
My feeling is that there are several challenges depending per island, country. Issues can include a lack of budget, difficult governance, politics and available time. Most governments face a plethora of priorities and limited capacity. Luckily, most of the island entities do acknowledge the importance of their natural capital.
What are your hopes for the adoption and integration of natural capital approaches for sustainable development in the region?
My hope is that each island will have strong leaders who build and secure local capacity that create a real and grounded path towards a sustainable economy for the well-being of its current and future residents.
Finally, what message would you like to leave with Green Antilles readers about why and how everyday people should help to protect the environment in the Caribbean?
The message should be that we need to make sure that we leave a good place for our children to thrive in, whether we do that by being sustainably active in our own household, for our city, or for the island community or region.
Thank you for the interview, Esther! You can find out more about the work Esther does and has done in the Caribbean (and elsewhere in the world) at the Wolfs Company website.
[Interview responses have been lightly edited. Images: courtesy Esther Wolfs. ]