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For what it's worth, can we have economic development without undermining nature?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.


Photo Credit: Matthew McCartney


Defined simply as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems”, ecosystem services have become a hot topic in recent years. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment demonstrated the many ways that ecosystem services contribute to human well-being.  Their important role in sustaining livelihoods and improving the wellbeing of people is now widely recognized. For example, ecosystem services range from provision of food and water to flood mitigation and improvement of water quality to less tangible benefits such as contributions to local cultures. Though it is often difficult to put a monetary value on ecosystem services (some are literally irreplaceable), economists are increasingly demonstrating the value of a wide range of different services.

Ecosystem services are especially important for millions of poor people, particularly those living in rural communities of developing countries. Many rural communities depend directly on a range of ecosystems services for their livelihoods and well-being and, due to isolation and a paucity of resources, may have few substitutes or alternatives to the services provided by ecosystems if they are lost, degraded or access is obstructed. Furthermore, many of the world’s poorest people live “close to nature”, meaning they are extremely connected to the ecosystems that surround them and, thus, they gain the most immediate benefits from the services that they provide.

As economies become more industrial, the direct links between well being and ecosystem services change and become more disconnected.  In rich, developed countries, people rely on plumbing and filters to deliver water rather than “unmodified” ecosystem services derived directly from rivers and lakes.  They rely upon packaged foods rather than wild harvested plants and animals, so there is a greater “distance” between the ecosystems that provide services and the people that benefit.  It is debatable, but possible that, their rich lifestyles are reliant on as many or more, ecosystem services than the poor.

People in wealthier areas are often able to physically buffer themselves from some of the vagaries of nature, through housing and other infrastructure. Such built infrastructure is not always reliable, as was seen when the levies failed to prevent flooding during Hurricane Katrina, but it does generally enhance peoples’ safety and well-being. In contrast, many of the world’s poorest people are directly exposed to nature’s extremes, such as cyclones or other hazards, and at the same time are heavily dependent on nature’s ability to regulate those extremes. For example, through the coastline protection functions provided by mangroves and wetlands.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan


Economic development is to a large extent dependent on modifications of the natural environment. Human ingenuity is used to alter the natural environment in ways that improve peoples’ wellbeing. Thus, human capital/technology is used to complement or substitute natural ecosystem services, to effectively distribute ecosystem services from one place to another. For example, food stocks are enhanced through agricultural practices and flows are enhanced by transporting food around the planet. Only in this way is it possible to feed nearly 7 billion people. However, there are often negative impacts from industrial agriculture that undermine many natural ecosystem services.

While man-made infrastructure replaces and often improves on some ecosystem services, it inevitably alters the environment. These modifications to the environment can cause considerable changes to ecosystems and the services they provide. For example, a dam affords artificial water storage and often improves flow regulation for people: decreasing flood flows and increasing dry season flows. For those in societies who utilize the water and/or energy that the dam provides, the dam enhances natural ecosystem services. However, dams modify the environment, not just upstream where the river and surrounding valley is flooded, but also downstream where natural river flows are altered. These changes can affect other ecosystem services, often resulting in unintended, negative consequences for those dependent on the services. For instance, because they block migration routes and modify the flow regimes to which fish have adapted, dams often have an adverse impact on fisheries, thereby undermining the livelihoods of poor fisher-folk.

Photo: Matthew McCartney


The challenge in understanding exactly how ecosystem services contribute to poverty reduction is that social and economic development – particularly, lifting people out of poverty – have traditionally been achieved by significantly altering ecosystems to provide services that meet the needs of people in ways that are faster, more predictable, and/or more abundant than nature provides. However, in amplifying one or a few target services to meet people’s daily needs (such as those that support food production or energy production), other services that are important for human well-being over longer-time scales (such as climate regulation, disaster regulation, pollination, and/or disease regulation) may be degraded or compromised. The value of these latter services is often appreciated only when they are lost or compromised and when lives and economies have been severely impacted by extreme events, for example.

One critical, related question is how different degrees and types of dependence on ecosystems and the services they provide influence societies’ resilience to stressors and unexpected events. In general, the more diverse a system (i.e. the greater the range of functions and ecosystem services provided by it), the more resilient it is to either natural or human-induced change. One risk of human modification of ecosystems is that increasingly modified, often less diverse, systems, are less able to cope with unforeseen or rarely occurring events. For example, converting mangroves to aquaculture may in the short-term benefit coastal communities by increasing food production and providing employment, but the longer term risk is that because natural defenses have been lost the coastal communities will be devastated by floods associated with coastal storm surges. This is a particular worry as climate change increases the frequency of extreme events.

Clearly, the relationship between ecosystem services and development is multi-faceted and complex. Economic development is a prerequisite for lifting people out of poverty. However, ultimately all of us are dependent on ecosystem services – they keep the planet fit for life - and so safeguarding them is vital. Sustainable development requires that we achieve a better balance between economic development and sustenance of essential ecosystem services to support resilient social-ecological systems. We don’t yet know how to achieve it, but it is imperative that we get this balance right!

For more information on ecosystem services and resilience, a cross cutting theme in the Water, Land and Ecosystems program, click here.


Fantastic piece - it is indeed easy to forget that we are all ultimately dependent on nature's services. While the poor may be more so, recent and increasing events such as Hurricane Sandy hitting New York and New Jersey beg the question as to whether the wealthy as as disconnected as we think. An interesting piece in the New York Times following Sandy (see link below) begs the question as to whether "soft" infrastructure (code for ecosystem services) could be used to reduce future impacts, maintain the adaptive nature of biological systems and provide additional functions (recreation space, food, and water quality?). The article provides some images which complement the one above of NYC surrounded by wetlands.


I am an advocate of promoting the benefits we get from ecosystems. But do we risk overstating the values/benefits from them? Or do we know enough about the provision of the benefit?

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami certainly raised the spectre of mangroves protecting coasts, but not everyone agreed on how much was provided. Alongi 2008 provided a comment on this and noted that we needed to be cautious when looking at this - see Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 76 (1), 1-13.

Another example is the expectation that replanted riparian zones will reduce diffuse nutrient input to rivers. The results may not concur with the expectation, or may be different for different nutrients, or vary seasonally. From first principles I think some of the expectations were just too high, and have not been surprised at some of the outcomes that have disappointed some pundits, as well as local people who were convinced to "buy" into such projects.

We need good examples, not half-stated examples, and we need good evidence, not just of the benefits, but of the basis for the benefits. And keeping in mind that we are tallking about the entire ecosystem when looking at these, not just an individual component. Take fisheries as an example - do we need to sustain the fish that is actually fished, or also the fish that are not fished? Or also the flows that supported the fish? And how do we cope with variable flows (besides bulding dams)? For coastal storm protection, its not just the mangrove or marsh species, but also the landform, and processes that shape these. And then we have the big ones that can reshape the entire coastal zone, and reset the successional pathways.

In otherwords, its the ecosystem and its variability that is important ..... makes sense given that we are talking about ecosystem services. Hence a call for more ecosystem-science to underpin the expectations as well as the benefical outcomes. The economic valuations may mean very little if the ecosystem does not play the game and provide the service, or if it resets itself.

Max makes a very valid point. Much more research is required to better understand ecosystem functions and how these translate into benefits and for whom. Furthemore because ecosystems are dynamic there is a need to understand how benefits change in time and how systems function during extreme events. At the moment there is often a lot of speculation about such things but relatively little hard evidence. As I see it, a key role for the WLE working group on Ecoystem Services and Resilience is to review evidence and try and discern fact from fiction.

According to geographer Morgan Robertson, we are using the wrong language to talk about ecosystem messaging.

"...if you want to build a broad-based and popular policy movement involving communicating complexity to the lay public, the language of financial capital is probably not your go-to leitmotif."

Robertson's article is based on a 2010 national (US) opinion survey on ecosystem services. Some valuable insights here and well worth the read.


The conservation of biological diversity and management of ecosystem goods and services are intervening policy issues. Enhancing economic development without harming nature and services which nature provide has always been challenging globally. It is indeed difficult to exactly predict how physical and biological complex system in an ecosystem respond when changes occur within a landscape/seascape or otherwise in a neighbouring landscape/seascape. Hence landscape/seascape models could contribute to policy analysis and stand as a good solution for decision makers and managers on how to follow economic development without harming and underminig nature and it's ecological capacity. For the practical approach the strategy of sustainable economic development at the national level should be defined. It is always advisable a set of sustainable economic development goals which are ecologically and environmentally compatible in a geographical area to be designed. Hence, all levels and areas of strategy formation could integrate natural resources carrying capacity in the decision making processes for short, medium and long term vision.

Thanks to both authors for the thoughtful article that provides many points of departure for discussion. That wetlands play a huge role in millions of especially rural people’s lives, especially in the developing world is not in question. But I’d like to follow on from Max's cautionary point on the kinds of claims we can make about wetland ecosystem services and poverty reduction. Evaluations of wetland management projects predominantly in Asia and Africa that we at IWMI carried out some years back for Wetlands International gave rise to some messages which seem relevant to this discussion. The overall message was that an ecosystem’s ability to lift people out of poverty depends on a range of factors, some which define the ecosystem itself and others that define characteristics of the human communities that rely on/use it. These of course interact to create a range of wise use options as well as boundaries specific to the system and communities.

The ecosystem factors identified include its biological and physical characteristics (size, hydrology and stability) that in turn influence the types and amounts of services it is able to provide. While smaller wetlands obviously could support smaller human populations, the different biophysical characteristics even within wetlands of comparable size meant quite different productive capacities as well as vulnerabilities. Scale could also mean a single wetland, or a broader landscape that may include several small wetlands or a wetland complex. A key factor on the people side was density, and when combined with relatively low wetland size/productivity, led to resource conflicts amongst the poor, especially where the management regime was either weak or absent altogether. Dense populations can also mean greater stresses on the wetlands other than resource extraction – e.g. pollution, sedimentation, land encroachment). So how many people can be supported to move out of poverty is likely to vary greatly from one wetland to another. It is also unlikely to result from a linear services-to-people relationship when the presence of people near to or afar (e.g. downstream consequences of actions upstream) creates pressures and limitation on a wetland’s optimal performance.

Another message of the study is that the idea of poverty reduction is quite a static perspective of what is in fact a dynamic relationship between ecosystems and people. While supporting poverty reduction will be reflected positively in human development indexes, would it necessarily have positive consequences for the wetland itself? What would happen for instance when people’s consumption quantities and patterns increase with greater disposable income? Aside from over-extraction, there may also be more pollution and a desire to expand land holdings at the cost of the very system that once supported one’s economic advancement. Thus from a wetland management perspective, poverty reduction, whilst being a goal that we all support, can lead to further cycles of challenges. This highlights an important temporal dimension to the way we analyse wetlands and poverty reduction, especially with respect to long term ecosystem well-being.

A third and final remark is that wetlands (as would be the case with other ecosystems) not only support people’s economic and nutritional well-being, but have also shaped their cultures and traditions which underwrite our own diversity as people and communities. Cultural diversity is an important theme within the discourse of ecosystem services and ‘poverty’ reduction, since this dimension, I would argue, is exposed to the same or similar monotonisation by poverty alleviation interventions as this blog article recognizes in relation to the alteration of the wetlands ecosystems themselves. This statement may however be somewhat presumption on my part as people experiencing poverty may be quite happy to change their practices if this means a better future for them and their families.

Specific examples of points raised are available at:

Senaratna Sellamuttu, Sonali ; de Silva, Sanjiv; Nguyen-Khoa, Sophie. 2011. Exploring relationships between conservation and poverty reduction in wetland ecosystems: lessons from 10 integrated wetland conservation and poverty reduction initiatives. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology [ISI], 18(4):328-340.

and https://www.ramsar.org/pdf/wn/w.n.iwmi_poverty_report.pdf

Sanjiv these are very good points. People are part of ecosystems and the dynamic relationship between them and the rest of the ecosystem is clearly very complex. It is of course important to know exactly who benefits from which ecosystem services. It is also important to remember that - as the article Terry pointed to indicates - ecosystems do not exist to "serve" people. Thus some ecosystem fuctions are not beneficial for people.

I think you are also right to point out that managing ecosystems to alleviate poverty may not be exacty the same as manging them for conservation. However, I think that one key thing we were trying to point out in this blog is that short term gains may have long terms costs. Thus the key is to try and manage ecosystems in way that alleviates poverty in the short-term but also ensures ecosystem services are not undermined in the future. As we note this is no easy task.

Thanks Matthew for the response, and apologies in advance for a another lengthy post.

Agree. The focus on short-term gains with an eye on long term sustainability I think nicely links with the recognition that whoever is planning interventions needs to be aware that their actions will have feedback loops to both people as well as the ecosystem, some positive, and some (including unforseen) negative. This also links I feel to the role of resilience you have already noted, in terms of the ecosystem its self, but also in terms of the kinds of institutions set up to manage a context of continual change. What was most empowring in the more 'successful' projects we looked at was providing especially local custodians (in addition to an adequate mandate and rights to act) the appropriate skill sets to understand how their ecosystem functions, how to monior it and take adaptive management action. Although our study captured only a snapshot in time, it did illustrate that institutions need the human capacities to evolve in line with changing ecosystem-human scenarios to ensure its services remain sustainable.

There seem to be two strands eveolving in this discussion: one focussing more on influencing policy and the other looking at on ground aspects of how sustainable ES can be generated in practice. Having now read the blog Terry points us to, and hoping I've not misunderstood the messages, the conclusions seem to be drawn based on how "registered voters" (a.k.a. the public) percieve ES and its attendant language. That's fine, and the public is important. But what about other (sub) groups like policy makers, planners, investors who have very specific identities, functions and interests? Would not each require somewhat different language based on their specific interests? So not completely convinced that ES language is inapropriate especially since some of these groups may be familair with its ideas after considerable effort spent by people to get them to do so. Many of these people moreover DO think in terms of values and tradeoffs within their own agendas and functions. So perhaps we need to be multi-lingual about ecosystems.

What seems REALY important is the message that we need more concrete example of how the case for ES can be realised on the ground, to demonstrate it is doable at least in some cases. But having done this, it still needs to be sold to very specific individuals to move from individual/localised examples to broad policy. So we return to the question of what language our intended audience will appreciate.

As probably everyone would agree, the strategic planning for sustainable economic development, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, and protection of sustainable ecosystem services at target areas should follow long-term socio-ecological policy objectives. It should consider a firm policy balance between land-use program, and demographic characters and transitions. The strategy should be consistent in its short-, medium-, and long-term view and orientation, and get easily integrated to other policy areas and domains. However, the socio-ecological resiliency should be the product of stakeholder participation and recognizes the complexity of bio-geological system within the area of consideration. Monitoring is an important step in the success of the strategic planning and guarantees the planning processes.