In essence this is a bit similar to the carbon credits concept that has been bounced around of late. Basically, the WWF is looking at the relationships between human society and nature, where ecosystems support economic development in a variety of ways; and then establish an economic model where those who benefit from the ecosystem would compensate those whose responsibility it would be to maintain the ecosystem. Well, here's an excerpt from their web site to explain it further:
Natural Capital: Putting a Price on Nature
By Dr. Taylor Ricketts
Sometimes pushing the limits of conservation means changing our perspective on a problem or challenging established assumptions. Doing so can unlock whole new approaches to conservation and lead to waves of success on the ground.
Assumption: Conservation and economic development are by nature at odds - a family can either earn money off their land or set it aside for conservation. With colleagues at Stanford University and The Nature Conservancy, we decided to turn this assumption on its head: What if people could be rewarded for conserving their land through payments from other people who value the "ecosystem services" that land provides? Could those who use the water that is cleaned when it flows through wetlands pay the owners of the wetlands to conserve that ecosystem? How cool would that be? That's how the Natural Capital Project was born.
To be fair, the concept of ecosystem services - and payments - has been around for a while. The goal our three organizations now share is to make them an operational force for conservation. We have set up experimental sites - in China, Tanzania, the Mesoamerican Reef, California and Hawaii - to test valuing ecosystem services in explicit economic terms. Some say it is politically dangerous to put a price tag on nature; others say it can't be done. Both could be true, but we believe the venture is worth the risk, as the rewards could be huge.
In Tanzania's Eastern Arc Mountains. Ancient forests here sustain thousands of species unique to the area. They give birth to half a dozen rivers providing water and electricity to more than 4 million people. Local villagers depend on the forest for firewood, medicinal plants, building materials and food. But in recent decades over 70 percent of the forest has been destroyed by logging, fires and farmland conversion. River flows have declined, interfering with hydropower and leading to increasingly frequent rolling blackouts in Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam. In short, the links between nature and human well-being are as tightly forged here as anywhere on Earth.
My WWF colleague Dr. Neil Burgess and I are working with international researchers, local experts and decision makers to calculate the forest's economic value to local, national, and global populations. With funding from the Packard Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust, we're creating maps that plot the value of ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, water purification, flood control, crop pollination, and harvested forest products. Only a few months into a five-year project, we've hit the ground running. Teams are in the field collecting data on water purification, carbon sequestration and timber. By the time you read this, we'll have met with leading decision makers to ensure our research is as useful as possible. In early 2008 we'll use the data and software we're now developing to publish our first maps. We already see clear political support and interest in using our products: The Tanzanian government has commissioned a task force on ecosystem services, based in part on the technical advice Neil has provided them for years. The Natural Capital Project is simply the most exciting initiative I've been involved with at WWF. Combining powerful research with strong and immediate application, we aim to break new intellectual ground and achieve big conservation results. It is experimental, with all the uncertainties that go along with any experiment. But we have the right partners, wonderful support from our leaders, and a powerful idea: making conservation economically attractive.
You can learn more about this and other WWF projects by visiting their web site, one of the most comprehensive in the conservation field.