Gretchen Daily’s conservation quest with the Natural Capital Project

Colombia’s Gulf of Morrosquillo is home to thousands of mangroves. Their roots arc downward into

Colombia’s Gulf of Morrosquillo is home to thousands of mangroves. Their roots arc downward into salty seawater while their limbs climb upward — a mesmerizing entanglement of branches and leaves.

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But the mangroves must compete with hotels, resorts and other financial ventures in the tourist-dependent area, which spans 325 miles of Caribbean coastline. One study found that between 1960 and 2011, the mangrove population in Colombia dropped by more than half, largely due to human activities such as development or trash dumping.

The burgeoning tourist destination of Rincón del Mar, for instance, is one of many towns along the gulf that was built on land cleared of the trees. And because there is no central garbage collection system, people’s wrappers, bottles, bags and other refuse often end up in the mangroves that still stand.

In early 2020, the government signed a five-year, $300 million pact to promote tourism in the gulf area, where approximately 350,000 Colombians live. It called for, among other initiatives, building hotels, a hospital and aqueducts to alleviate a dearth of drinking water that threatens the growth of the tourism sector. But the plan could also put even more pressure on the mangroves, as well as the sea grasses, coral reefs and fisheries offshore.

For Gretchen Daily, threats like these are also moments of opportunity. “Nature is often just seen as kind of in the way of prosperity,” she said. “What we’re saying is that nature is crucial to prosperity.”

Daily is a professor of biology at Stanford University and a pioneer in a field known as “natural capital.” The term refers to the soil, air, water and other assets that nature has to offer. As a conservation model, it is rooted in the idea that nature has a measurable value to humans and that protection efforts must go far beyond walled-off reserves and be broadly integrated into development practice and planning.

She has spent more than 30 years developing the scientific underpinnings of natural capital and is the co-founder of the Natural Capital Project, which has grown to include a group of 250 partners around the world. The organization has integrated science into its cornerstone computer program to help governments and other stakeholders prioritize conservation.

“Nature is often just seen as kind of in the way of prosperity,” says Gretchen Daily, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “What we’re saying is that nature is crucial to prosperity.” (Helynn Ospina for the Washington Post)
“Nature is often just seen as kind of in the way of prosperity,” says Gretchen Daily, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “What we’re saying is that nature is crucial to prosperity.” (Helynn Ospina for the Washington Post)

By the time Daily and her team had identified the potential for impact in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, the coronavirus pandemic had confined the 56-year old to her home in Stanford, Calif. Zoom — which is decidedly not her natural habitat — became the norm.

But within a matter of months, the Natural Capital Project put together a report for the Colombian government detailing that more than a third, or 118 miles, of the coastline had high exposure to flooding and coastal erosion. Protecting and restoring mangroves, the authors said, could help with that issue — especially along two specific stretches of the coast, including Rincón, where local activists say they’ve removed many tons of trash.

Mangroves, the report highlighted, also nurture robust fisheries for local communities and sequester carbon at a rate two to four times greater than tropical rainforests. Left in their current state, the Morrosquillo mangroves will store 62 million tons of carbon by 2030 — the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off the road for a year — which could help the country toward its commitments under the Paris climate accord.

“Until now we didn’t have the specific information in a simple way to show the importance of maintaining the mangroves,” said Santiago Aparicio, director of environment and sustainable development for the Colombian department of national planning. He added, “you don’t protect what you don’t value.”

The next step, he said, is to take the information to mayors and local officials to incorporate that value into their development plans. Aparicio says he would like to see them use the Natural Capital Project’s work to, for instance, avoid building a bike path through priority mangroves. Another “ideal situation” would be using mangroves instead of cement walls as barriers against rising sea levels fueled by climate change.

A recovered mangrove indicates there is hope for the recovery of other mangrove ecosystems in the territory.
A recovered mangrove indicates there is hope for the recovery of other mangrove ecosystems in the territory.
Many species of birds feed from the snails and crabs found in the environment. A juvenile little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) looks for food in the mangrove.
Many species of birds feed from the snails and crabs found in the environment. A juvenile little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) looks for food in the mangrove.
In the Gulf of Morrosquillo, there are various hectares of mangroves. Many are polluted due to local garbage disposal.
In the Gulf of Morrosquillo, there are various hectares of mangroves. Many are polluted due to local garbage disposal.

For Daily, the work in Colombia has met all three of the criteria she uses when deciding whether to pursue a project: There must be a policy window that allows change; partners on the ground must be committed to that change; and the change must be scalable.

“I’m always looking for the win-win-win type situations,” said Daily, whose colleagues say her optimism and charm are at the core of her success. The Natural Capital Project says it has now worked on some 1,700 projects around the world, and its open-source software has been downloaded in more than 185 countries.

She has been widely recognized for the work, including with the 2020 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. She’s also helped mentor the next generation of natural capital researchers and practitioners.

“There are many people who define themselves as ecosystem services scientists now,” said Taylor Ricketts, one of the hundreds of people Daily has taught or advised over the years. “That’s what she lit the spark for.”

The town of Rincón del Mar lacks a garbage collection system. In recent years, locals have started their own initiative to pick up waste.
The town of Rincón del Mar lacks a garbage collection system. In recent years, locals have started their own initiative to pick up waste.
Corporimar is a community-based organization that was created to manage trash in the town of Rincón del Mar. The garbage is brought to a central location, where a bigger truck can then transport it to the Municipality of San Onofre.
Corporimar is a community-based organization that was created to manage trash in the town of Rincón del Mar. The garbage is brought to a central location, where a bigger truck can then transport it to the Municipality of San Onofre.
Every day Corporimar goes through different neighborhoods collecting garbage and raising environmental awareness in the community. Waste is picked up, sorted, recycled and composted. Whatever cannot be recycled is then given to the garbage trucks of the San Onofre municipality.
Every day Corporimar goes through different neighborhoods collecting garbage and raising environmental awareness in the community. Waste is picked up, sorted, recycled and composted. Whatever cannot be recycled is then given to the garbage trucks of the San Onofre municipality.

Daily’s own scientific curiosity dates back to middle school — or rather, she says, to her walks on the way to school.

In 1977, Daily and her family lived in Kalbach, West Germany, where her father was stationed in the military. Then a 12-year-old, Daily and her sister would walk about a kilometer to class. It wasn’t far. But the route passed a coal plant.

“You could taste the acid on the tongue,” she said of the pollution. The smell of coal permeated the air. “That turned me on to science.”