Making natural capital accounting an institution in Uganda

After joining a workshop to hear about some of Uganda’s recently completed natural capital accounts, Rosalind Goodrich reflects on what it takes to make this approach a fixture in government policy and process.

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Insight by 
Rosalind Goodrich
Rosalind Goodrich is head of research communications at IIED
11 December 2020
Boat on a lake and a waterfall in the background

In Uganda, 10 national parks and two wildlife reserves form the centre of the tourism accounts (Photo: Venture Uganda Travel via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

I’m hooked on natural capital accounting. It’s an odd confession to make, but the more I learn about it, the more I wonder why every country isn’t investing in better tracking the state of their environmental assets and how the many benefits they provide flow through the economy.

Listening to the discussion in a recent workshop taking place in Uganda, it was clear that people in government there get it. The workshop was organised by the National Environment Management Agency with the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics, National Planning Authority, other government ministries, and UNEP-WCMC and IIED in the UK, as part of a Darwin Initiative project funded by the UK government. I was there in my role of providing communications support to the project.

Two years on from the project inception meeting, we were hearing about the first findings from newly completed natural capital accounts (NCA) for fisheries, land and soil improvement, and wildlife tourism, and discussing how this work could be replicated and embedded in government institutions.

Interesting story or technical turn-off?

Project team members shared data tables and charts, and rattled off figures: 10 national parks and two wildlife reserves forming the focus of the tourism accounts; 1.1 million hectares of land further degraded by more areas being given to crops; 80% (345,800 metric tons) of the total national fisheries harvest in 2018 – the lowest total harvest in five years – coming from capture fisheries.

Ever alert to how information is communicated, I was happy to hear consultant Moses Masiga talk about the importance of ‘simplifying’ messages and using data to tell interesting stories.

As he presented key findings from the land and soil improvement accounts, the standout message for me was that overall, average reductions in soil nutrients from crop cultivation and other factors could be up to eight times higher than additions from fertilisers, manure or biological nitrogen fixation.

The probable effect of this net soil degradation? Between 2008 and 2018, only banana and cassava yields have increased. For maize, millet, rice, beans, groundnuts, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, yields have gone down.

Other accounts shared similarly strong stories. Take tourism: in 2017/18, national and regional tourists to Uganda spent between US$15 million and $20 million on national park entrance and guiding fees. But when other products and services these tourists consume as part of their visit are considered, the economic activity supported by these natural capital assets could be four times that amount.

Embedding NCA in national processes

Collecting this valuable natural capital accounting data has taken tremendous effort, but what next? The meeting participants agreed: this mustn’t be a one-off endeavour.

Natural capital accounts must become the norm. They need to be properly resourced and embedded in government departments and decision-making so that they can contribute over future decades to policymaking that is informed by a rich and consistent evidence base, and help to achieve better results for biodiversity, the economy and the Ugandan people.

To institutionalise the accounts, technical experts need to work with policy analysts and communications specialists to create ‘value chains’ of information – a topic the 'Connect' project in Uganda is also exploring.

Policy analysts must be well informed about national priorities, to see how the evidence from NCA can link – in Uganda’s case – to poverty alleviation, job creation and national security.

And technical experts must acknowledge the seemingly obvious but frequently underestimated fact that policy and decision-making are not always informed by evidence but are often politically driven. Messaging about natural resource management needs to be timely and show it understands this, while stressing the added value of natural capital accounting data.

For me, this emphasises the importance of an approach to communications that, like IIED’s, focuses on building relationships and creating listening opportunities through engagement as well as pushing out messages to raise awareness and profile.

The route to institutionalisation

Such efforts are rarely quick and always require clear direction. During the workshop, participants began developing ‘roadmaps’ for institutionalising biodiversity-related NCA in the fisheries, tourism and agriculture sectors, guided by six critical questions put forward by IIED senior associate Steve Bass:

  1. What’s the biodiversity vision we could work towards in the sector?

    Then, having decided this…
  2. What decision processes do we need to target?
  3. Which decision-makers and influencers should we engage with?
  4. What timing is critical?
  5. Who will play what roles in sector NCA and how will they be coordinated?
  6. What capacities and resources will be needed for sector-based NCA?

Participants identified their sector aims and requirements, but also recognised significant capacity and resource constraints. Having a roadmap does not always mean the journey is straightforward, especially when the endpoint is ambitious.

There’s no doubt progress has been made over the past two years and participants in the Uganda workshop see the potential of NCA. Perhaps we all need to be hooked on natural capital accounting – the future health of our natural environments, economies and societies depends on it.