Nature’s role in economic development

11 October 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 5 min.
Prof Edwin Muchapondwa says the environment and nature conservation have a critical role to play in economic growth.

Developing some of the most beleaguered economies in the world doesn’t rest solely with reducing unemployment and breaking the cycle of inequality; the environment has a massive part to play too.

This was Professor Edwin Muchapondwa’s message during his inaugural lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Wednesday, 9 October, hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. Muchapondwa, a professor in UCT’s School of Economics, delivered the sixth and final VC’s inaugural lecture for 2019.

His research focus area homes in on economic questions around the interaction between protected areas and adjacent communities. He pointed out that economic role players the world over tend to prioritise people-centred objectives like poverty and inequality.

Yet, he said, nature conservation and the environment are not prioritised equally.

“Economics is important, and we need to talk about it, even though my main interest is around nature and the environment,” he quipped.

Spending money wisely

“Suppose you had half-a-million rand; how would you spend the funds?” Muchapondwa asked the audience.

He limited the spending options to two activities, and an overseas holiday wasn’t one of them. Instead, he asked attendees to choose whether they would spend the money on a youth unemployment reduction programme or installing waterholes at a national park.


“[Most people] would think youth unemployment is a major problem and doing something to solve it would take precedence. But think about it carefully.”

“[Most people] would think youth unemployment is a major problem and doing something to solve it would take precedence. But think about it carefully.”

If installing the waterholes will provide water to roughly 100 elephants that would otherwise have crossed a village in rural Limpopo to get their water, and in the process ruined the crops used to feed about 1 000 people, should the youth unemployment reduction programme still be the most popular choice, he asked.

“Think about it, without the waterholes there will be destruction to crops. But with the waterholes, the villagers’ source of [sustenance] will be saved. Therefore, it is important for those who work in the environmental sector to show the relevance of other economic issues [such as this one].”

Environmental goods and services

Environmental goods and services include the air we breathe, recycled nutrients in the soil, and even the weather we’re exposed to every day, Muchapondwa explained.

“These are important services; they come from the environment and should not be ignored. Economists should know that the environment produces goods and services which will help satisfy the wants of people.”

He told the audience that treasuries and finance ministries in developing nations around the world are fixated on the formula for reducing poverty and inequality, and growing gross domestic product (GDP). Almost all the time, the measures they come up with to get this right are “devoid of nature”.


“Poor households depend heavily on environmental and natural resources. Nature is making a huge contribution [to the way they live their lives].”

He encouraged economists to think differently.

“Poor households depend heavily on environmental and natural resources. Nature is making a huge contribution [to the way they live their lives]. This means nature tends to help poor people more, so it is important to invest in it. There are many unreported and unrecorded contributions already made,” he said.

Government has a role to play

Developing nations might not invest too much into, or care too much about nature and the environment, he said. But marginalised communities in developing nations do. It’s how they secure their livelihoods.

He urged national treasuries and finance ministries to think less about the dollars, or rands and cents when making decisions about resource allocation, and more about the environment and the role it has played and continues to play in various sectors.

“Conservation has a meaningful and inevitable role to play, and government must play its part and allocate the necessary resources to this sector,” Muchapondwa said.

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The Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture Series


Inaugural lectures are a central part of university academic life. These events are held to commemorate the inaugural lecturer’s appointment to full professorship. They provide a platform for the academic to present the body of research that they have been focusing on during their career, while also giving UCT the opportunity to showcase its academics and share its research with members of the wider university community and the general public in an accessible way.


Nature’s role in economic development Professor Edwin Muchapondwa delivered this yearʼs sixth and final Vice-Chancellorʼs Inaugural Lecture on Wednesday, focusing on the role the environment can play in economic development. 11 Oct 2019
Decoding genomes to improve Africa’s health Professor Collet Dandara’s inaugural lecture provided a brief overview of how African genomes can be decoded to unlock a deeper understanding of patients’ responses to treatment. 30 Sep 2019
Rattling conventional thinking on evolution Research by Professor Rebecca Ackermann shows that our huge diversity results from two other major evolutionary forces, in addition to natural selection. 19 Aug 2019
Fighting the power in hip hop and scholarship While they may seem worlds apart, music and scholarship face the same challenges, UCTʼs Professor Adam Haupt said during his recent Vice-Chancellorʼs Inaugural Lecture. 05 Aug 2019
Making Africa’s past ‘usable’ for the present In his 3 May inaugural lecture, Professor Shadreck Chirikure shared insights from deep history and archaeology. 07 May 2019
Growing Africa’s genetic ‘library of life’ Professor Ambroise Wonkam delivered the first Vice-Chancellorʼs Inaugural Lecture for 2019, with a focus on enabling genetic medicine in Africa. 15 Mar 2019



Working towards a water-sensitive Cape Town When it “forgot to rain” in Cape Town, the city went on water-saving alert. Now it’s time for a holistic approach to future water management. 22 Oct 2018
Reconfiguring the human through the child Existing education models “colonise” children merely to prepare them for adulthood, ignoring what they naturally excel at, says education Professor Karin Murris. 07 Sep 2018
Archie Mafeje’s legacy honoured Archie Mafeje was a revolutionary thinker, a man ahead of his time, Professor Shahid Vawda said in his Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture. 10 Aug 2018
Making a case for investing in mental health Professor Crick Lund made a compelling case for investing in population mental health in low- and middle-income countries during his Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture. 25 May 2018
Some surprises in search for SA’s first composer Historical musicologist Professor Rebekka Sandmeier's inaugural lecture documents her search for South Africa's first composer of Western music - and yields some surprises. 04 May 2018
Prioritise the public interest When creating a system where access to intellectual property works is regulated fairly, prioritise the public interest, says Professor Caroline Ncube. 05 Apr 2018
Peace parks: the future of Africa’s natural resources Peace parks, or transfrontier parks, have a long history in Africa, which should not be forgotten when looking at the opportunities they offer for conservation, says Maano Ramutsindela. 13 Mar 2018



Lessons in innovation and intervention Professor Ulrike Rivett traversed 17 years of ICT4D research in her inaugural lecture: “ICT for development: the good intentions of the mobile phone”. 20 Oct 2017
Vulnerability at the heart of explosions research In the week of Genevieve Langdon’s inaugural lecture on explosions, a terrorist bomb was planted on the London Underground. It was a reminder of human vulnerability. 20 Sep 2017


2016 and 2015


No inaugural lectures took place during 2015 and 2016.