Moderation in all things - Managing ecosystems to alleviate poverty

A community group in Bangladesh

A community group identified their water and health-related problems under the drinking water project

20 May 2011 by Paul van Gardingen

The exploitation of Earth's natural resources has improved living standards for millions. But it has also degraded some environments so badly that many of the world's most vulnerable communities are now falling into poverty. Paul van Gardingen explains how one programme is trying to stop the rot.

'Ecosystem services' may not be an everyday term, but we all depend on them. These 'services' are simply the benefits we derive from the natural environment - the things that provide us with life and well-being. Some are fairly obvious, like food and fuel; others are less tangible, like climate regulation, clean water and the biological breakdown of waste.

We all rely on these services, but poor people in developing countries are particularly dependent. Local ecosystems often provide much of their income, as well as clean water, food and energy.

But the last century has seen unprecedented changes to our global environment. While the exploitation of natural resources has lifted many hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, its legacy of environmental degradation has destroyed some of the services on which many others rely. Deforestation, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and damage to coastal and marine ecosystems have harmed people around the world - their quality of life and their income.

We know the world's poor are most vulnerable to this degradation, because they depend so directly on natural resources. But this also means they have much to gain from any effort to reverse these trends, and promote the sustainable use of our ecosystems.

School in the Amazon

School in the Amazon

ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation) is supporting a range of international research projects which are trying to do this in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, China and the Amazon. Our approach is to support interdisciplinary projects linking the natural, social and political sciences to find practical ways to pull significant numbers of people out of poverty over the coming decades. We know that linking these disciplines can provide new ways of looking at issues that could make a real difference to people's lives.

A number of large ESPA research consortia will begin in 2011, joining 18 smaller projects. The large projects will address significant challenges like the influence of the global water cycle, or the links between biodiversity and health. The smaller projects look at specific questions - such as the characteristics of payment for ecosystems services (PES) schemes, which provide financial incentives to farmers or landowners to manage their land in a way that supports, rather than threatens, environmental services. We expect ESPA to foster new national and local initiatives - such as government policies and new PES - that will improve the management of the ecosystems on which the poor depend.

In 2010 I visited each of the ESPA regions to meet researchers, policy-makers and communities. I wanted to understand what ecosystem services mean to them and find out how they think ESPA could help the poor.

Despite the obvious hardships people are facing, it wasn't all bad news. Across our four regions, governments and local communities recognise the problems caused by the way things have been done in the past, and are working together to turn things around. ESPA is also tasked with taking these examples of positive action to see if they could help people elsewhere.

In the state of Amazonas in Brazil I visited the Tumbiras community, which benefits from one of the PES schemes mentioned earlier, called Bolsa Floresta. Bolsa Floresta is improving the lives of more than 7,600 families and protecting more than ten million hectares of forest. It supports families through direct payments and also community initiatives, such as schooling, employment, social and health projects. Tumbiras community leader Isolena Bittencourt has obtained support from the Sustainable Amazon Foundation and the State Government of Amazonas to improve education, health initiatives and employment opportunities through sustainable forestry, fishing and environmental protection. The aim is to make the forest worth more when it is standing than when it is cut. A priority for ESPA research in the Amazon and other regions is to understand what makes schemes like this successful and to ask how we could adapt the approach in other regions to reach even more people.

ESPA is tasked with taking examples of positive action to see if they can help people elsewhere.

My visit to the Amazon basin highlighted how vulnerable ecosystem services can be to climate variability and change. Communities there were experiencing one of the worst droughts in living memory. At the village I visited, the river was so low they couldn't travel by boat and their children couldn't get to school. ESPA research could bring huge benefits to communities like Tumbiras, by revealing how better management of water systems could help to reduce these impacts of climate variability. We hope there will be many more examples of ESPA research feeding directly climate-change adaptation.

In south-west China I visited Yunnan Province, an area recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot, and one where ecosystem services have helped move people out of poverty.

In recent decades much of the province's unique subtropical rainforest has been cleared to provide land for agriculture, including extensive rubber plantations. This process of land-use change has been central to reducing poverty, both locally and nationally. But there are now questions about the long-term sustainability of this type of ecosystem management. Maintaining a monoculture of rubber needs both artificial fertilisers and herbicides which, over time, can erode and damage the soil. This in turn reduces the productivity of local ecosystems, and can affect people's lives over great distances. For example, eroded soil washing into the headwaters of the Mekong river in Yunnan is reducing water quality in several other countries, including Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. China has many examples of policy experimentation that try to address the link between ecosystem management and people's wellbeing, and ESPA's researchers will be able to ask which work best, and which would benefit other countries.

Rubber plantation in China

Rubber plantation in China

The people I met in Bangladesh and India highlighted the importance of the ecosystem services that support South Asia's water cycle. It might seem a paradox in a region so prone to flooding, but one senior researcher there emphasised that for the poor, there is no guarantee of access to clean water. So ESPA needs to find ways to secure regular supplies of clean drinking water whilst also managing ecosystems to reduce damage caused by flooding. One of the positive examples from Bangladesh demonstrated how community groups called Pani Parishads have helped women to secure safe drinking water.

The problems faced by African communities mirror those in other regions, but are accentuated by greater poverty, rapid population growth and associated competition for resources, and the effects of climate variability and change. In Africa, a major challenge for ESPA researchers will be to help people balance competing demands for ecosystem services. In East Africa, for example, local agriculture, horticultural exports, industry, electricity generation and traditional pastoral land use all compete for water. At present there is simply not enough, and invariably the poorest people suffer most.

ESPA will run for seven years, during which we hope to gather evidence and develop ideas that will change the lives of millions of people in developing countries. Because our project is global, we can share ideas between countries and regions - we can see whether the PES schemes that work so well in the Amazon could benefit communities in Africa, or whether China's experiments linking ecosystem services and economic growth could apply to other Asian regions.

It's a major challenge. But ESPA will build on the good news that's already emerging, and show that changing the way we manage our ecosystems can reduce poverty around the world.

Professor Paul van Gardingen is Director of ESPA and UNESCO Chair in International Development at the University of Edinburgh.