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Cook Islands workshop envisions a brighter future through valuing nature

Stanford researchers collaborate with local officials and Asian Development Bank staff to incorporate nature into development decisions that promote tourism and local needs
The Cook Islands workshop sought to co-create a vision for implementing natural capital approaches in the Muri Lagoon and across the nation. Credit: Debbie Laker.

On March 7-8, the Stanford-based Natural Capital Project and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) co-hosted a workshop in the Cook Islands with the Cook Islands Government, through their National Environment Service and Ministry of Finance and Economic Management. The workshop convened participants from across government and civil society to discuss the various ways the island nation’s natural capital – its lands, waters, and variety of life – and the benefits these assets provide to the country can be accounted for in development planning and financing efforts. 

In the Cook Islands, reliance on revenue from the tourism sector makes the economy vulnerable to the impact of disasters. At the same time, tourism brings additional pressure on the islands’ resources and infrastructure, including sanitation and wastewater. The Muri Lagoon has long been the largest tourist attraction in the country, yet has suffered from severe pollution in recent years due to runoff from coastal development and wastewater pollution. Impacts to this ecosystem threaten the community’s livelihoods, fishing, recreation, and cultural activities, as well as the tourism revenue their economy relies on. 

In response, the Cook Islands and ADB have been working on a potential project based on a  centralized wastewater system to improve the water quality in Muri Lagoon. The Natural Capital Project and ADB are now helping with a natural capital assessment for the area to map and value some of the important benefits (e.g., drawing tourists, protecting from coastal hazards, providing local employment and livelihoods, storing carbon) that the Muri Lagoon and surrounding areas provide to people. Such an assessment will help community members and decision-makers alike understand the diverse values of nature and inform development decisions that have better outcomes for Cook Islanders, and the natural systems on which they depend. 

For more on natural capital approaches, see this explainer.

The workshop last week was a key step in mainstreaming natural capital approaches into the proposed ADB infrastructure loan and development processes, using the Muri Lagoon project as a pilot. This project may serve as a model for the rest of the Cook Islands, for other islands facing similar issues, and for finding new entry points for natural capital approaches within ADB projects throughout Asia and the Pacific. 

Despite ongoing concerns about the effects of development on the natural environment, the Cook Islands Government has struggled to find adequate funding to address sanitation and wastewater problems. ADB proposes that the use of natural capital approaches may bring in other co-financiers, by showing that addressing these issues can have co-benefits for climate change and the local economy. 

Through a shared visioning exercise to identify how natural capital approaches can support the Cook islands, workshop participants highlighted the need to start with a national-level natural capital assessment of both land and sea to reveal the hidden value of nature, and inform where to target management efforts and investments. The group also discussed the need to promote projects that center on people, nature, and culture, such as regenerative agriculture and aquaculture. These types of businesses can create jobs for locals that are anchored in traditional knowledge, secure nature’s benefits, such as food sources, and build island resilience in a changing climate.

The group discussed how spatial information can help move them towards solutions, and played NatCap’s Best Coast Belize game.

“This exercise really demonstrated the real-world challenges posed when making decisions without all the needed information, in this case environmental costs and impacts,” said Hayley Weeks of the Cook Islands National Environment Service. “Natural capital approaches enable us to have a much more balanced perspective so we can have truly informed and science-based options and decision making. This ultimately leads to a win-win scenario where development can still occur but within sustainable parameters, and provides a great example of how natural capital approaches can be applied in practical scenarios.”

A key aspect of the Natural Capital Project’s work in this pilot project is to create a tailored training program to develop local capacity for using these approaches into the future. Following up on the in-person workshop, the Stanford team will be meeting regularly online with participants interested in deepening their knowledge of InVEST® ecosystem services modeling tools. That work will build on new local knowledge-sharing efforts around relevant computer mapping skills (e.g., Geographic Information Systems, or GIS). Workshop participants discussed ideas for adding to the offerings at the University of the South Pacific, including through new degree programs. 

Local children playing near the Avana passage, Muri Lagoon, on the island of Rarotonga.
Local children playing near the Avana passage, Muri Lagoon, on the island of Rarotonga. Credit: Jade Delevaux.

“It is very inspiring to collaborate with our partners from the Cook Islands, to find ways for embedding traditional knowledge and values into natural capital approaches and develop training material that both resonate with and respond to their interests and needs in the Cook Islands,” said Jade Delevaux of the Natural Capital Project.

The Cook Islands Muri Lagoon pilot project is part of People, Planet, Prosperity, a global collaboration between the Natural Capital Project, the Inter-American Development Bank, the ADB, the World Bank, and 16 different countries. The other countries involved are Armenia, Belize, Chile, the People’s Republic of China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan. 

The People, Planet, Prosperity project is funded by the Global Environment Facility, the Moore Foundation, and PROGREEN, a World Bank Multi-Donor Trust Fund. The Natural Capital Project is based out of Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability and its Woods Institute for the Environment, and the School of Humanities & Sciences. 

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