Ecosystem Services: Integrating Ecological Understanding

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Environmental stresses from land development, water demands, air pollution and harvesting of marine and other species increasingly threaten our common ecological wealth. Examples of the latter include degradation of water quality on account of agricultural and developed land uses, loss of habitat and species abundance as land cover is modified or water is diverted to urban and agricultural use, and depletion of species from over harvesting. Studies analysing ecosystem goods and services have been prepared so as to make these ecological changes and their economic implications visible to the decision makers. Land and water are the basic natural resources for biomass production and they constitute the core of any ecological system. The very base of production is under great stress in many parts of our country due to severe biotic pressure and ever intensifying development as evident from the current and projected scenarios.

Ecosystem Service Valuation (ESV) is being developed as a vehicle to integrate ecological understanding and economic considerations. It is a holistic approach for quantifying the monetary value of these services so that various stakeholders including land owners, planners and policy makers can better understand the trade-offs when altering natural ecosystems. The key to understanding the importance of ecosystems and incorporating this understanding in economic and other policy decision making processes is to establish a link between a given ecosystem and its goods and services and their valuation by the society.

Various policy choices are available to reduce the degradation of ecosystem services and retain their benefits. These include regulatory approaches such as establishing ‘no take’ zones in fisheries, technological approaches such as promoting drip irrigation systems and economic approaches which may include assigning private property rights to the resource and enabling the owners to charge for the use of the service. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of economic instruments to promote the conservation of ecosystem services. In some cases, the producers of services that were formerly free have now started being compensated by the government for providing these services.

With the combined efforts of local communities, civil society, research communities, governments and international organisations, regular collection and analysis of data on ecosystem services has become fundamental to making informed decisions on issues that affect or are affected by ecosystem health. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides a framework for tracking the status and trends of ecosystem services. The challenge is to establish regular monitoring and assessment of services at all scales and to fill in the gaps identified in the assessment. Any future ecosystem monitoring and assessment needs to draw on both traditional and scientific knowledge, and emphasize the links between ecosystems and people. New technologies, such as web-based interfaces that display spatially referenced information on a virtual globe provide ways to share, analyse and disseminate information across different levels.

The decisions on management and use of ecosystem services are influenced by various actors such as government, international donors and conservation groups. However, it is increasingly being recognized that more bottom-up approaches involving local communities are required in decision-making processes.

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