You cannot read about conservation these days and not notice the astonishing zeal for ecosystem services as a new conservation strategy. (The February 2009 special issue of the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment is a good case in point, although it’s not online yet.)
The idea behind ecosystem services is simple — nature provides many benefits to people “for free,” and if nature got economic credit for these benefits then we would not be so quick to convert habitats for houses, plantations, roads and so forth.
The ecology and biology underlying this idea are often fascinating. For example:
- In tropical rainforests, studies have shown that roads increase both deforestation and the frequency of diarrheal diseases, which are a major source of infant mortality.
- Water quality indicators in New England are highest when forest is intact and housing density is lower.
Ecosystem services is also catching on with governments around the world. I serve on a scientific task force in China whose purpose is to help the Chinese government factor ecosystem services into ALL development decisions as part of their 12th five-year plan. The USDA just created an ecosystem services office. I could go on and on building a case that ecosystem services represent a new dawn for conservation.
But let’s also face some hard facts. External market forces and short-term profits will often win out over the most comprehensive ecosystem service valuation.
A well-known study by WWF’s Taylor Ricketts documents the value of forest patches as a source of pollinators and therefore higher yields on coffee plantations. However, the coffee plantation that Ricketts studied, Finca Santa Fe, has since been converted to a pineapple plantation, and none of the forest’s value as a source of coffee pollinators now matters in the least.
Here’s another unpleasant example: Forest hardwood wetlands in southeastern United States are reported in the literature to have a value of $35,000 per acre. That high value came from a study of a specific patch of hardwood wetland in Louisiana neighboring a potato chip factory.
That potato chip factory used the wetland to treat its wastewater and was therefore able to lower its water treatment costs by $215,000 per year – and because the wetland was six acres, that yields a value of $35,000 acre.
But the potato chip factory was so successful that the volume of wastewater increased and the wetland could no longer be used. Does this mean the wetland suddenly had zero economic value?
The point is that economic forces such as the price of beef, the price of palm oil, or the price of other crops will continue to drive land use in ways that are likely to override any ecosystem service valuation.
Some of this valuation can be adjusted if government regulations provide leverage and incentives. But more generally, while ecosystems services can help make our cost-benefit analyses more rational, a strong sustainability ethic is also needed to really change the way the world values nature’s benefits.
Without a premium given to benefits for future generations, the desire to make a quick buck will too commonly outweigh even the most exhaustive ecosystem service invoice.
(Image: Deforested area for agricultural use, Mato Grasso state, Brazil. Credit: Leoffreitas, under a Creative Commons license.)