Jargon buster: ecosystem and landscape approaches to conservation

Picture a species, a habitat and a natural resource. Under traditional environmental management, these might be considered as separate components of ecosystems. But in fact these components are inextricably linked through dynamic processes and interactions over space and time.

Take salmon in the Pacific Northwest, for example. When mature salmon return from the ocean to spawn in rivers, they provide an important food source for bears preparing for hibernation. As the bears gorge, they carry enormous quantities of fish from streams into forests, leaving the remains to decompose on the forest floor.

These discarded, nutrient-rich carcasses benefit many species, including millions of insects, small crabs, and larger species such as eagles and wolves. But salmon are also an excellent source of nitrogen, and the carcasses left in forests act as a powerful fish fertilizer, allowing coastal rainforest trees to reach incredible sizes.

Through this story of complex interactions, salmon species transport nutrients from the ocean, up rivers and into forests, nourishing entire ecosystems.

When human actions push these kinds of interactions out of balance – for example through pollution, overfishing, climate change or altered river flows – we jeopardise not only the salmon population itself, but also entire systems of life, including our own. These effects are almost impossible to understand and predict unless we consider how ecosystems function as a whole.

Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve - Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

An example of an ecosystem – Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Belize. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Managing land, water and living resources: an ecosystem approach

People are as much a part of ecosystems as the species and habitats that surround us. Our actions can have lasting impacts on the structure and function of ecosystems, which in turn affect our livelihoods, health, well-being and economies.

Unlike traditional environmental management approaches that focus on individual species, resources or habitats, an ecosystem approach considers people, nature and their interactions as part of a single system. This strategy focuses on maintaining the essential structure, processes and functions that keep ecosystems in balance and allow them to provide the ecosystem benefits on which societies depend.

Let’s take a closer look:

Ecosystem structure is the physical organisation of the living and non-living components of an ecosystem, including the species present and where they are found; the amount and distribution of soil, nutrients, water and other materials; and climatic conditions such as temperature, rainfall and light.

Ecosystem processes are the complex physical, chemical and biological interactions that link the living and non-living components of ecosystems and are critical to maintaining life on Earth. Examples include the cycle of water between the atmosphere and the earth’s surface; photosynthesis, in which green plants trap and convert solar energy into chemical energy; and decomposition, the breakdown of organic waste into nutrients by microbes.

Ecosystem functions result from ecosystem processes and provide benefits (such as supporting food chains and providing refuge and nursery grounds) to humans and other species. These functions include the ecosystem services on which human lives, livelihoods and well-being depend – services such as clean water supply, pollination and spiritual inspiration.

Ecosystem approaches use the best available scientific knowledge of ecosystem structure, processes and functions over space and time to manage human activities in complex, dynamic systems. This achieves more effective and lasting management decisions than single-component or single-sector approaches.

People are part of ecosystems - a man fishing on Indawgi lake, Myanmar. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

People are part of ecosystems – fishing on Indawgi lake, Myanmar. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Landscape approaches to conservation

Conservation challenges often entail grappling with the competing interests of diverse land users and land uses, from the livelihoods and spiritual needs of local communities to mining, tourism and protected areas. While ecosystem approaches provide an important scientific basis for management, these complex social and economic challenges call for a landscape approach.

In the world of conservation, we can think of a landscape as a social and ecological system comprising many different species, habitats, land users and land uses. This system is shaped by the myriad interactions between people, nature and human interests and values.

A landscape approach considers all the different ecological functions, human values, uses and needs in a landscape and integrates them to achieve multiple objectives at the same time. Looking at a landscape scale helps us to understand all the issues at play and identify where conflicts exist, where trade-offs will occur and where different objectives might work together.

This approach is not about finding perfect outcomes, but about recognising compromises as a necessary part of the management process and seeking solutions that can provide the best possible benefits. To do this, landscape approaches need to involve all individuals, communities, organisations and sectors that have an interest in decisions affecting the land, water and resources around them.

Gold mining in Guyana. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Competing uses of land – gold mining in Guyana. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Defying definition

The terms ‘ecosystem approach,’ ‘landscape,’ and ‘landscape approach’ are used by conservation NGOs, research organisations and governments the world over, but all have eluded precise definition. And that’s what makes them so powerful.

Rather than trying to treat all conservation challenges or natural and human systems in the same way, these concepts respect that each system is unique and needs its own approach to management.

Complex social, environmental and economic issues rarely fit into traditional management boundaries such as protected areas, specific ecosystems or municipalities. Therefore landscapes, landscape approaches and ecosystem approaches should be defined by the context where they are needed, the groups involved and their specific objectives.

Landscape and ecosystem approaches are not checklists to be followed, but frameworks to guide the messy process of managing complex, dynamic systems. This process needs to be flexible enough to accommodate different challenges and situations, incorporate other management strategies, and adapt as systems and landscapes evolve, interests change and knowledge grows.

By cutting across disciplines and putting people at the centre of decision making, these approaches can lead to holistic management that benefits both present and future generations.