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Our Hidden Wealth 

Photographers and scientists bring eco-services into focus


Picture us as nobles, if you can. Like royalty, we are waited upon by invisible hands. We get to eat because bees pollinate and invisible multitudes create nutrients in soil. We get to hike in shade and savor our exercise because trees protect the ground from erosion and scrub the air for us to breathe. The list goes on. Nature contributes to our contentment and our economy in the way that mothers do—taken for granted and not included on the spreadsheet of commerce. But take away these unpaid services and what happens? Things fall apart.

Scientists estimated 15 years ago that in 1995 dollars, nature provided roughly $33 trillion in annual services to humankind. Ho hum, said the humans, and politicians' dealings continued to ignore eco-services. Among the costly mistakes made in countries around the world was deforestation, now understood to be responsible for the release of more greenhouse gas emissions than any other human activity. Still yawning? Then count yourself among many of the world's legislators, unmoved by the facts.

Enter the photographers, with pictures to pick up where statistics fall short. The right photo can tell a story better than any writer or lobbyist. This is enough to motivate Cristina Mittermeier, director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), who spoke last week in Marin.

The Mexico-born Mittermeier is on a book tour, part of her agency's mission to inform the public of eco-service value. Mittermeier became a scientist in the first place to advocate for nature. Now she takes pictures. "Somewhere along the way," she explained, "I realized that we didn't need more science." She shifted from being a biochemical engineer and marine biologist to being a conservation photographer. "I didn't feel like I was stepping down," she said. "I simply felt it was a better way for me to contribute to the conservation agenda." She now helps partner photographers with scientists to get the most critical photographs taken. "I still contribute to the scientific literature," Mittermeier said, "But I am now educating policy makers all over the world by showing them pictures and helping them understand the value of nature. Photography is a great way to burn into the collective consciousness images that do not need translation. We take these pictures to legislators and use the images to start a conversation."

By partnering photographers with scientists, the ILCP promotes conservation in an apolitical way. With funding from Cemex, the world's largest cement manufacturer, the ILCP produces a book each year with photographic subjects assigned by scientists. This year, the scientist-authors are from Conservation International, and the book is The Wealth of Nature: Ecosystem Services, Biodiversity and Human Well Being.

"The book shows that ecosystem services, things we take for granted, have an intrinsic value," Mittermeier said. "But they are not given economic value. Countries don't have a line item for pollination, so if it's suddenly gone they can't say how much it will cost to replace the service."

Mittermeier claims photographs can make a huge impact. "Not only do they inform and inspire," she said, "they are able to retain people's attention. For people who will never visit these places, the images are the only way they will get a glimpse, perhaps try to connect the dots and make better decisions. Haiti is a country that committed ecological suicide by cutting down all its trees. If you squander your ecologic services, a tragedy that would be bad under any circumstances becomes brutal."

Mittermeier points out how the squandering of ecosystems impoverishes people, pointing to the 90 percent loss of forest cover in Madagascar caused when the former president sold land to Koreans to raise rice and beef. "The little forest that remains holds some of the greatest biodiversity on earth," Mittermeier said, emphasizing that ecosystems provide medicines, psychological solace, food, water and even religious and cultural identity.

"I think a lot of countries just don't see it yet, but healthy ecosystems support healthy economies." To those who remain blind, Mittermeier and her colleagues plan to show just the right images.

"Photography and science," she promised, "are a powerful combination."

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