Dr Ralph Chami
Our friend of the month for December is Dr Ralph Chami of the IMF, who has done pioneering work on the economic value of Forest Elephants. Ralph will be speaking at our special online event on Africa’s Forest Elephants, to be held on January 26th 2022. We hope you enjoy Ralph’s ideas, and watch out for more details of the event in the coming weeks.
Please tell us a little about your childhood and education.
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon and went to the American University of Beirut. My parents installed in us a love of nature, music and scholarship. I left Lebanon because of the civil war in 1983, and went to the USA. I did an MBA at the University of Kansas and then a PHD in economics at John Hopkins University.
We understand you have worked with the IMF for many years. Were you gradually becoming more and more aware of environmental problems, or was it a sudden process?
I’ve been at the IMF since 1999, but am currently on a two year leave of absence to pursue my interest in developing a new economic paradigm with nature at its core.
I was introduced to the value of nature when I joined scientists studying the great whales in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico, some 4 years ago. I decided to help the scientists by translating the value of the services provided by these amazing creatures, through carbon sequestration, whale tourism, and protection of fish stocks, into the language that everyday people, policymakers and markets understand, i.e. the language of dollars and cents.
You set up an organisation, Blue Green Future out of this conviction that our current economic paradigm is flawed. We overlook the value of intact nature, and treat it as a limitless resource. So, using the example of elephants - we don’t give value to a living elephant, but only to the commodities that come from a dead one, like the tusks or meat. Is that a fair summary of the problem you’re trying to address?
If we were to pay a living elephant for the carbon sequestration services it provides, [elephants thin out young trees and reduce the density of vegetation, promoting the growth of taller and larger trees which store more carbon] we would find its value to be a minimum of $1.75 million. The ivory of an elephant killed by poachers might fetch $40,000. Living elephants, whales etc are all worth a lot more to our economy than their dead equivalents. So why do we continue to destroy them?
Of course, life is intrinsically precious. But, that realization has not been enough to stop the destruction of nature. So, I decided to help create markets around the services provided by nature, to show that these can generate more income, health, and shared and sustainable prosperity than dead nature. That's what I am working on: a new paradigm that values nature and puts it at the core of our decisions, and not as an afterthought, as we currently do.
How do you translate these ideas into effective policy for sustainable conservation?
I come from a markets and policy making world. So, if I am to engage the people in my world, I need to speak the language of dollars and cents. Climate risk and the risk of losing nature are upon us. The Titanic is sinking and we need all hands on deck. Financial markets and policymakers could be very powerful allies, if we can speak their language, rather than ostracize them or demonize them. The paradigm that I’ve created can be a win-win for all: nature, local communities and indigenous people, and governments.
We can now sell the services provided by elephants - in this case, carbon sequestration - to countries and companies looking to offset their carbon footprint. The money generated would help protect elephants in perpetuity, and provide sustainable employment and income to local communities. Nature benefits, local people benefit, and the world benefits. There has never been a better time to do this.
Finally, Ralph, we understand that you’re also a skilled guitarist and composer. Do you derive inspiration from the natural world?
Here's a song that I wrote about the trials and tribulations of an elephant, bewildered by the awful treatment that she is receiving from humans.
Here's the youtube link to my channel where you can find other songs that I have written and performed.