Ecosystem services, the value that has no price

Servicios ecosistémicos, el valor de lo que no tiene precio

Should we put a price on ecosystem services in order to protect them? How can we arrange it so that the services and ecosystems that are protected by the indigenous peoples receive appropriate recognition? How can the plans for territorial legislation be a complement to the instruments and knowledge of the indigenous communities? What is needed so that the focus of ecosystem services has real repercussions on policymaking, on the resolution of environmental conflicts, and on the reduction of inequity in Latin America and the Caribbean?

These are some of the questions that fed the debates of a broad thematic agenda that encouraged dialog between science and practice, during the Conference of Latin American and Caribbean Ecosystem Services: Healthy Ecosystems for Resilient Societies, which took place at the CIAT headquarters in Palmira, Valle del Cauca, from October 18 to 21.

In the words of Alexander Rincón, researcher at the von Humboldt Institute, these were four days dedicated as much to “working on challenges and tasks that we share in ecosystem services” as to mutual learning and active, joint reflection.

The value of ecosystem services

Assigning a value to ecosystem services is an action that requires a broad perspective that includes diverse points of view, focuses, and perceptions of what an ecosystem means, not only in terms of services, but also in terms of identities and cultures.

That was how Patricia Balvarena, a Mexican researcher associated to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) described it. For her, it is of vital importance “to make visible and to include the various visions about nature and the benefits that we perceive in nature, by means of a comprehensive evaluation of the ecosystem services in which respect is given to the plurality of values assigned to nature, and participatory mechanisms are identified to couple them in an inclusive manner,” said Patricia in her presentation.

An evaluation that, according to Erik Gómez, professor of research at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), must not be solely economic, since that is not sufficient to capture all the externalities of the ecosystem services.

“There are things that should not be subject to being bought or sold. This is precisely what money cannot buy,” Eric emphasized, speaking of the imperative necessity of making the value of ecosystem services explicit, in order to avoid the loss of ecosystems “that are gifts of nature which should not be converted into a private appropriation in order to derive revenue,” he specified.

Of laws and regulations

For Miguel Mendoza, recognized consultant specialized in financing, planning, and management of natural resources and the environment, although Colombia is one of the countries that has the greatest regulation of environmental matters, it is urgent to go beyond the law and tackle a value-based approach that includes three fundamental axes: market, multi-criteria, and governance.

An approach that puts the so-called economic and legal instruments in the service of the territories, and not the contrary, thus facilitating both the correction of actions of those who are not making adequate use of the ecosystems and of the natural resources, and guaranteeing compensation.

“Natural resources have no price, but they do have value, and in order to have effective conservation, the community needs to take control, in an informed way, of their own natural resources, so that they can become mobilized, join together, and protect the ecosystems,” Miguel reiterated.

It is precisely on this point that the theme of governance is most relevant, and experiences such as those of Carmen Candelo, Director for Livelihoods and Governance in the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Colombia, become pertinent in order to facilitate that all the stakeholders share in the benefits of the ecosystem services.

“Governance is what would help to maintain the ecosystem services, since it is involved in the building of relationships among the various actors and in a collegial, interdependent decision-making process,” Carmen explained, emphasizing that “it is a matter of governance that is based on and strengthened through the generation of information and accessible knowledge; the recognition of rights and duties of all the actors facilitating an equitable dialog; the analysis of the roles of the various actors as regards the use of the ecosystem services, and finally, the generation of agreements that make the conservation of the ecosystems viable, guaranteeing the livelihoods of the communities who live in strategic ecosystems.”

A world where diverse worlds coexist

“It is as if in order to have a good economic situation, we had to have a poor relationship with the ecosystems.” This is a reflection proposed by Alexander Rincón, a researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, during his presentation, in which he addressed the relationship between environmental conflicts and ecosystem services, keeping in mind aspects such as the way in which the indicators, used to analyze the one and the other, exclude aspects that impede a comprehensive appreciation of reality.

“In Colombia there are 115 environmental conflicts, whose causes are, for the most part, gold mining and petroleum extraction, which affect the water and hydric regulation,” said Alexander, calling attention to the importance of understanding the asymmetry or inequality of the powers, that is, “an in-depth understanding of the local relationships, which go far beyond payments for environmental services, working on the inclusion of other visions, making possible and providing space for other worlds. This makes us more resilient and viable.”

But how can channels for dialog be generated so that the research has an effect on the making of decisions and the formulation of policies, while at the same time contributing to the resolution of conflicts and the reduction of the inequity? This is a question that presenters, panelists, and participants in this regional conference hope to resolve by working more from a trans-disciplinary point of view and from better communication of the results of their scientific work, which would allow them to better inform the actors of interest, such as local communities and decision makers.

It is because of this question and as a consequence of the enthusiasm experienced in these four days of work that it became clear to Martine van Deelen, representative of Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP), that it is crucial to strengthen this network of work at the regional level, as well as to hold another conference in 2018, “in which we may take advantage of the enthusiasm that we have experienced in this meeting, of the necessity of depending on these spaces of dialog, and of managing to engage in this coming together of policy makers and ecosystem services professionals, to enrich and articulate the discussion even more,” she said.