Skip to main content

Connecting natural capital to the rural economy through rewilding

Connecting natural capital to the rural economy through rewilding

8 December 2021

Green and resilient land?

In light of discussions about the impact of natural capital, and natural capital accounting, at COP26, the view of November’s NICRE Resilient Rural Reading Season, where this was discussed, was to remain engaged but sceptical and wary, writes Chris Short, associate professor, and Aimee Morse, PhD student, both at the Countryside and Community Research Institute.

The focus of the session was a new report from Rewilding Britain (RB), Rewilding and the Rural Economy, an attempt to connect the narrative on natural capital to the rural economy in order to explore the opportunities, an approach very much at the heart of NICRE. Beginning with the worldwide ‘30 by 30’ initiative, RB sets out a challenge that nature needs primacy in land management decisions in order to recover, positioning nature-based economies as the backbone of the argument. The RB report is based on the UNESCO biosphere model, of which there are very few in the UK, the North Devon example being the most well-known (pictured), where the region's marine environment is covered by a local marine plan which was developed using a natural capital approach.

There is recognition that silos concerning agriculture, forestry and nature separate connected issues and any change will only work if it makes sense economically. Here the report pledges that the private sector can make a positive impact by investing in nature. An important question remains as these investments begin to gather pace: for whose benefit is the investment being made? A nature-based economy will be a place-based approach combining the social and economic alongside the ecological. The answer will reveal not just what investment is being made but the expectations and the impacts that are foreseen and what is understood in terms of profit. 

The suggestion of ‘core rewilding areas’ with ‘minimal or no human impact or extraction of resources’ stand out, not least, as while the engaged and thriving communities remain, RB sees revenue options as being limited. Unless those living and working in these spaces can see and feel the benefits of nature recovery it is difficult to frame the debate around thriving communities. We’re still a species in an ecosystem, we will meddle and fiddle, but this can also aid nature recovery. It is also unclear what time period or which ‘nature’ these areas are returning to, since many have been influenced by humans for thousands of years. 

The importance of working with rural communities

Again, we must ask: who decides? It is well known that there are layers of decisions based on what we ask of the land. Nevertheless, the need for local communities to have a voice and feel that they are developing their own destiny is growing as the likelihood of distant and anonymous private investment grows too. Thankfully, the RB approach is not to reinforce the nature: culture binary, but to embrace the need for a new economy which will provide opportunities for rural communities. We must ensure these opportunities offer people more than just employment in an often seasonal service sector. 

What nature means to these communities is perhaps the fundamental, and often unexplored, question. As rural studies scholars have observed for at least 30 years, ‘community’ is not benign, coherent and untroubled by local power differences and elite capture. The report fails to consider these issues, nor those related to natural capital. If we are to sincerely operationalise the concept of nature-based economies, we must apply innovative thinking, working with rural people to conceive diverse, sustainable rural economies that support good lives, livelihoods and local natural, and indeed cultural and human, capital.

The next reading session on Friday 10 December focuses on resilience in agriculture at a time of transition for the sector – book a place.







Find out more about NICRE