From its vast savanna to its rugged coastlines, to its flower-rich montane grasslands, South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province is rich in natural beauty.

But those ecosystems are more than just alluring – they provide services to people by trapping carbon, filtering water, and performing a host of other essential functions. Now, for the first time, a study has mapped a suite of the services provided by KwaZulu-Natal’s natural systems and placed a monetary value on them. It’s a key step, experts say, in helping to protect the province’s wild spaces.

“The services provided to humanity by nature are often undervalued, or not valued at all,” said Salman Hussain, the coordinator of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, which is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “But by showcasing the services that natural systems provide to our economies and societies, we can further the argument for protecting habitats and restoring ecosystems that have already been impacted by development.”

KwaZulu-Natal has the second-largest economy of South Africa’s provinces, contributing around 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. It also has a broad array of ecosystems and a wealth of biodiversity. The new report found those ecosystems played an important role in storing carbon, retaining soil, preventing floods, improving water quality, promoting pollination, and providing recreational value. In 2011, the combined value of those “essential ecosystem services” was 33.4 billion South African rand, equivalent to 7.4 per cent of the province’s economic output. But values of many of the services have decreased over time, particularly in the grassland and savanna biomes, partly as a result of their conversion to intensive land uses, such as cultivation.

The report’s findings are based on what’s known as natural capital accounting, which measures the often hidden services that ecosystems provide to the economy and society. This allows governments and businesses to take into account the benefits of these services when making decisions about things like where to locate industry, what agricultural systems to emphasize, and which areas to protect.

“Natural capital accounting helps decision makers to go beyond gross domestic product and traditional economic measures, to gain a finer perspective on the environmental impacts of development, and the implicit trade-offs being made,” says Hussain.

South Africa has long been at the forefront of this movement. The country held its first national Natural Capital Accounting Forum in July 2019. An array of decision makers discussed how natural capital accounting could support South Africa’s move towards a green economy, one in line with the country’s National Development Plan and the global Sustainable Development Goals.