What are ecosystem services and why should we care and pay for them

ProPopulus team

Ecosystem services are the many benefits that Nature provides to society.  These benefits make human life possible and divide into direct and indirect benefits. Direct benefits are, for example, the provision of nutritious foods and clean water, called “provisioning services”, or the regulation of features such as floods, land degradation, desiccation, soil salinization, pests, and diseases, called regulating services. Indirect benefits are provided through the functioning of ecosystem processes that produce the direct services (“supporting services”). In short, ecosystem benefits help human society by regulating disease and climate, supporting the pollination of crops and soil formation, and providing recreational, cultural and spiritual benefits.

According to FAO “despite an estimated value of 125 trillion dollars, these assets are not adequately accounted for in politics and economic policy, which means there is insufficient investment in their protection and management”. As a response, projects proposing Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) are soaring around the world. The idea behind PES is, essentially, to pay landowners to protect their land in the interest of ensuring the provision of some “service” rendered by nature. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) defines PES as “payments to farmers or landowners who have agreed to take certain actions to manage their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service. As the payments provide incentives to landowners and managers, PES is a market-based mechanism, similar to subsidies and taxes, to encourage the conservation of natural resources”. PES programs are an increasingly popular conservation and resource management tool in developing countries.

The payments are made either by the beneficiaries of the environmental services, such as, for example, water users and hydropower companies. In other cases, national or local governments pay on behalf of their citizens, who are indirect beneficiaries.

Lately, the role of the private sector is growing among PES projects and although the system has detractors who say that is morally wrong to put a price on what nature provides, researchers and professors, such as Mark Reed are convinced of the need to do it: “In the same way that we are prepared to put a figure on the economic value of a healthy workforce without putting a value on a human life, I see no contradiction between believing in the intrinsic value of nature and valuing the services it provides”.

It makes sense. We, humans, as a society, depend on healthy ecosystems: to purify the air, for CO2 storage to mitigate climate change, to have clean drinking water or to pollinate our crops so we don’t go hungry. As the world’s population continues to grow, so too does our dependence on healthy ecosystems to provide the essential to our survival.

As environmental expert Toni Anderson states: “Ecosystem Services valuation and assessment is one way to help make this happen. By clearly understanding their value, we can make the best and most informed decisions about how to manage our landscape to ensure this value isn’t lost”.