Farming landscapes in the Ecuadorian countryside with a protected area in the background

I am guessing that few if any people reading this would picture people when they think about an ecosystem. I know when I think ecosystems, I think plants, animals, rivers, etc., but not people.

Ecosystems are about nature. People aren’t nature, right?

But, by definition, there is nothing that excludes people from being part of an ecosystem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ecosystems are “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.” Guess what? People are organisms. We are also a biological community. Ecosystems inevitably include both natural resources and the people that use them, depend on them and extract them.

Nevertheless, in climate change discussions (and, let’s face it, most conversations and news about nature are about climate change these days), there are two conversations:

  1. Helping nature (i.e. ecosystems) adapt to climate change through investments in natural systems to ensure their resilience — otherwise known as Ecosystem-Based Adaptation (EBA).
  2. Helping people adapt to climate change.

And this dichotomy is why adaptation to climate change really hasn’t caught on as a concept that’s moving environmental policy — not to mention people and their investment in “nature.”

The scientific literature on these topics is what really made me aware of this dichotomy:

Conversations about ecosystem services — the services nature provides us, like water filtration or fisheries — get us closer, too, when they include the benefits of EBA for people. But conservationists need to talk about people as part of an ecosystem, or better yet, as part of nature — not just people benefiting from some entity outside themselves known as “nature.”

People depend on natural resources. But resource extraction tends to alter native vegetation and systems — so, as our population continues to grow and climate change shifts resource availability, we are going to extract more from new areas. This ever-roaming extractive behavior can threaten invaluable biodiversity…not to mention our quest for sustainable livelihoods.

So yes, EBA needs to be in climate change policy. It also needs to factor into on-the-ground conservation efforts. But it won’t succeed if the investments we’re advocating to help ecosystems adapt don’t also include investments to provide for human well-being directly. Conservation organizations might not be the best equipped to invest in people, but if we at least define ecosystems as including people, we can more effectively partner with those who can make such investments.

Now, while we still have the time, let’s do more than just invest in nature or protected areas or native systems. Let’s also invest in:

  • Best management practices on productive systems (such as riparian buffers, contour farming, organic agriculture, among others);
  • Education to teach the importance of native systems for the long-term sustainability of resource availability (example: Quito, Ecuador, where as part of the Quito water fund, a project The Nature Conservancy helped spearhead, children in city schools are taken on field trips to understand the source of their water and the role conservation plays in its distribution); and
  • Alternative livelihoods for people, making them less dependent on any one resource.

Sound impossible? Think about marine protected areas — which provide a sustainable fish harvest to people or regions where we’ve also invested in providing people with other income options, thereby decreasing pressure on non-human systems and resources while securing livelihoods and protecting biodiversity. Marine protected areas are a perfect example of why EBA must be about human AND non-human systems — because conservation works better if you consider both.

If you still need convincing, then read “An Amazon Culture Withers as Food Dries Up,” a powerful, poignant recent story in The New York Times, depicting just how people suffer “along with the animals” as their fisheries resources dwindle away because of deforestation and climate change.

From the Arctic to the Amazon to the Maldives, indigenous peoples who rely on nature’s cycles are suffering because of climate change — and serve as a warning to us all.

(Image: Farming landscapes in the Ecuadorian countryside in the Paute watershed with a protected area in the background. Credit: Rebecca Goldman/TNC.)

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  1. Dear Rebecca:

    Thank you for this article, I think that this point is crucial not only when we talk about climate change, but also about sustainable planning.
    “The biggest mistake that the human being has established in the development system that we have is to believe that he is the owner of the nature and not part of it”

    Best regards

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