Jargon buster: ecosystem services

As far as conservation jargon goes, ‘ecosystem services’ is a relatively straightforward term. That’s because it means almost exactly what it says: the services that ecosystems provide. Or more specifically the services that ecosystems provide to people.

Ecosystem services (also known as ‘environmental services’ and ‘nature’s services’) encompass all the direct and indirect benefits that people and economies obtain from ecosystems: the things that make human life possible and fulfilling.

The idea that we depend on ecosystems certainly isn’t new; in fact, it has been around as long as our species. But the term itself was popularised in the early 2000s by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which assessed the effects of ecosystem changes on human well-being.

It might be possible to go through an average day without thinking about how our experiences are connected to nature. But ecosystem services are present in our everyday lives, contributing to the water we drink, the food we consume, the materials we use, the medicines we rely on, and even our mental and spiritual health.

Take agricultural land in Ecuador as an example, which provides crops for local people as well as for export to worldwide markets (e.g. bananas and coffee).

Crop production here relies on a number of things: pollination by bats, bees, butterflies and various insects; healthy, nutrient-rich soils; and water availability at the right level – avoiding the extremes of flooding or drought.

Coffee is one of the basis of the economy of El Salvador. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.
Coffee forms the basis of the economy in El Salvador. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Slightly less obvious – but just as important – is that agricultural production depends on capturing and storing atmospheric carbon, because organic carbon is the basis for soil fertility.

Carbon makes nutrients available for plant growth, increases the capacity of soils to hold water and lessens the effect of harmful substances like toxins and heavy metals, to name only a few functions.

Agricultural production relies on all of these things, and each of them is an ecosystem service.

If we take coral reefs as another example, the list of services is even more impressive. Coral reefs act as fisheries, providing shelter during the breeding, spawning and early life stages of many marine species, generating food for local communities and consumers worldwide.

They buffer coastlines against the effects of tropical storms by absorbing the energy of wind-generated waves and protect the shore from the most damaging and erosive waves.

Like agricultural soils, reefs capture and release carbon and, in doing so, help regulate carbon dioxide in the oceans. Many of the corals and sponges that make up reefs are filter feeders, filtering out particles suspended in the surrounding seawater and purifying it in the process (contributing to those beautiful, clear tropical waters).

Reefs also provide cultural and spiritual services to local communities and recreational opportunities for tourists, not to mention the economic benefits that ecotourism brings.

Aerial view of Corn Island surrouded by pristine coral reefs. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.
Aerial view of Corn Island surrounded by coral reefs. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

In these two examples alone, we’ve already covered the four broad categories that ecosystem services are grouped into. They are:

Provisioning: the raw materials and energy produced by ecosystems – including food, water, medicinal resources, and fuels such as wood.

Regulating: the ecosystem functions that help to maintain the equilibrium and keep things running smoothly – including control of storms, floods and other extreme events; regulation of global climate and disease; and pollination.

Supporting: the services that make all other ecosystem services possible – such as primary soil formation, production of atmospheric oxygen and provisioning of habitat.

Cultural: the non-material services that ecosystems provide – including spiritual benefits, recreational experiences, tourism, and mental and physical health.

So how are ecosystem services and biodiversity connected?

Biodiversity – the variety of living organisms within species (genetic diversity), between species and between ecosystems – can be thought of as the essential nuts and bolts without which the ecosystem services machine would grind to a halt (or, less prosaically, as the individual threads in a rich tapestry).

For example, interactions between organisms and their environment result in water purification, while insect, bird, mammal and even some lizard species (e.g. geckoes) provide pollination services. What’s more, genetic diversity improves the resilience of ecosystems to disease and extreme events. You can learn more about this in our first jargon buster post.

Logging roads cut deep into the heart of Chocó rainforest. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.
Logging roads cut deep into the heart of Chocó rainforest. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Valuing life’s rich tapestry

Together, ecosystems and their constituent parts (i.e. individual species) provide the services that are essential to life on earth.

The bad news is that the tapestry is in danger of unravelling. Biodiversity is declining precipitously – all around the world we are losing both the number and diversity of wild animals and plants. This in turn can influence how ecosystems function, and undermine their ability to supply ecosystem services. This is especially true if species with unique roles in an ecosystem are lost.

Because ecosystems and the services they provide are so crucial to human well-being, there has been a big push to assign economic values to these services.

For example, a 2014 paper estimated the total value of the ecosystem services provided by global coral reefs to be US$350,000 per hectare per year.

Many people believe that calculating the monetary value of ecosystems to people can help inform decisions made by policy makers, businesses and others about the use and management of nature.

There are, however, those who disagree. In his blog All geckos great and small, Mark Infield argues:

“Where [economic arguments for conservation] work, these are powerful; they are what politicians and policy makers want to hear. The uncomfortable truth, though, is that in many cases if not most, whether we are talking about Critically Endangered species, strictly protected areas or sustainable resource use management to promote biodiversity, they all compromise production.

“Despite sound global, long-term resource-based economic arguments, in most situations conservation costs money, it does not make it. And where economic arguments don’t work, what else do we have to put forward?”

Sunrise in Honduras. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.
Sunrise in Honduras. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is trying to reconcile these two approaches. We are working with businesses and investors to help them understand the links between ecosystem services and profits, and the role that biodiversity plays in maintaining these services.

Where appropriate, we work on ecosystem valuation approaches to help develop markets and financial incentives to encourage the sustainable management of natural resources.

We also work with communities to build on the cultural and spiritual values of nature, which strengthen conservation actions.

And in other cases, we work to protect undervalued (and often overlooked) species, which may not be the most economically valuable or even the prettiest, but which all make a vital contribution to the bigger picture.

Read more about ecosystem services valuation and FFI’s work in this area.

For more like this, take a look at our conservation concepts blog series.

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