Ecosystem services, but for whom?

Ecosystem services assessments disregard critical issues for poverty alleviation

Kenyan sardine market: new research shows that current analyses of benefits from ecosystem services overlook crucial aspects about who benefits what from these services. This has implications for poverty alleviation, the research argues. Photo: O. Hendriksson/Azote
Readers and followers of this centre's research are well aware of the fundamental linkages between ecosystem services (ES) and human well-being. The knowledge and interest in these linkages is increasingly picked up within environmental conservation, but most work is only touching the surface of things.

Most analyses are still too general, placing all humans in one basket, missing crucial aspects of social complexity and distribution of benefits.

A more disaggregated analysis is needed that reveals who derives which benefits from ecosystems, and how such benefits contribute to the well-being of the poor.

Poor indicators, hidden values
In an article recently published in Environmental Conservation, centre researcher Tim Daw together with colleagues from the UK, Portugal and the US look at ways to develop a more specific analysis of ecosystem services benefits and how they can contribute to poverty alleviation.

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"By definition, aggregate measures of ES flows are poor indicators of the ES contribution to poverty alleviation of individuals, in the same way that national GDP figures hide variations in the wealth and fortunes of the poorest members of society," says Tim Daw.

He argues that analysis that disaggregates people, for example by gender, age and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can improve the relevance of ecosystem services research to poverty alleviation.
Who gains what under which context?
In the paper, Daw and his colleagues use examples from coastal ecosystem services in developing countries to show how aggregated analyses overlook several critical issues. One issue is how an aggregated analysis can ignore the trade-offs between different groups of people.

Different management approaches affect groups differently creating winners and losers.
In Kenya for instance, the establishment of a marine protected area reduced the overall number of fishers who benefited from fishing but improved opportunities for tourism revenues in the area. Some fishers lost their livelihoods, while others who had skills and opportunities to benefit from tourism improved their well-being.
Furthermore, the assumption that just because you safeguard or increase the flow of an ecosystem service you will contribute to well-being and poverty alleviation is grossly oversimplifying things.

"The degree to which any individual can access the benefits from ecosystems may depend on social relationships, institutions, rights and various capitals," Daw says.

In Tanzania, for instance, better prices for octopus increased the value of the fishery ecosystem service. However the wellbeing of women fishers, the traditional beneficiaries, was negatively affected when they were outcompeted by men attracted into the fishery by high prices.
"Increasing the flow of an ecosystem service may have little effect on the well-being of the poor if they do not have access mechanisms to benefit from it," Tim Daw explains.
Money matters (more than you might think)
Cash income and employment play important roles when it comes to poverty alleviation. No surprise there perhaps, but the low emphasis on cash and employment from ecosystem services in academic literature paints an incorrect picture of things: ecosystem services do not necessarily contribute to the well-being of the poor primarily through direct enjoyment of the services, but rather indirectly by making money from them.

For instance, interviews with poor coastal stakeholders in East African and south-east Asian countries said making money out of ecosystem services was the most important tool to boost well-being.

"Market mechanisms will be increasingly crucial for ecosystem services to contribute to rural poverty reduction," says Tim Daw.

Not entirely uncontroversial of course, but Daw and his colleagues argue that the importance of cash-based livelihoods is likely to increase as markets penetrate into rural areas.

They suggest that ecosystem services assessments could place greater weight on earnings from ecosystem services that accrue to poor people than the wealthy.

Different people, different needs, better understanding
Tim Daw argues that several factors that can help unpack some of the problems hidden behind generic assessments of ecosystem services.

"To address poverty alleviation, we need to highlight how issues like gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status affect how benefits from ecosystem services are distributed. We also need to identify bureaucratic and practical obstacles that affect poor people's access to ecosystem services. But above all we need to recognise that ecosystem services contribute differently to different people at different levels rather than aggregating total values of ecosystem services," Daw concludes.

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See whiteboard seminar with Tim Daw explaining the connections between ecosystem services and human well-being:

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Daw, Tim, Katrina Brown, Sergio Rosendo, and Robert Pomeroy. 2011. "Applying the Ecosystem Services Concept to Poverty Alleviation: The Need to Disaggregate Human Well-Being." Environmental Conservation 38 (04): 370-379. doi:10.1017/S0376892911000506.

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Tim Daw studies coastal resource systems and linkages between ecological and social components of fisheries. He has worked with a range of small-scale tropical and industrial high-latitude fisheries and has a background training in ecology, fisheries science, socioeconomics and politics.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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