Reflections from Wednesday Flash workshop “What have we learned about poverty and ecosystem services from diverse empirical assessments of human wellbeing?”
In a nutshell:
Nature contributes to the well-being of humans in multiple ways, from offering shade and providing food to playing a key role in spiritual and cultural life. Research in Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa delves deeply into the tangible and intangible benefits that poor communities get and the ways in which they engage with nature.
Tom Chaigneau from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Exeter University in the UK kicked off the session by describing the results from extensive household surveys and focus group interviews with fisher communities in Kenya and Mozambique. A detailed table listed the different benefits from the environment. He singled out a few surprises – illegal traders can comfortably do their business in the shade provided by mangroves. At the same time, women traders also appreciated the mangroves but for the more conventional reason that they could wait in the shade for their husbands to come back from fishing.
The researchers were curious about how the benefits humans derive from nature, also known as ecosystem services, contribute to human well-being and used “the theory of human need” to make sense of their data. For example, people can catch fish and eat it. The value to them is the use they get from the fish that provides them with food. Or they can sell fish and with the money they earn, they can buy other goods. The benefit of going out fishing is monetary in this case. At the same time, people can go out fishing and derive a sense of wellbeing from the experience of freedom they get from being out at sea.
“Culture and nature are inextricably entwined,” explained Suzi Vetter from Rhodes University in South Africa. Various themes emerged from a survey of over 700 Xhosa participants in the Eastern Cape about the spiritual and psychological connections they have to Ihiathi lesiXhosa, Xhosa Forest. Forest is commonly identified as a mother that provides protection, wood and solace. One woman interviewee described being on her way to commit suicide but once she was in the forest she felt inspired to continue living. Even urban dwellers said they went back to their ancestral lands for cultural rituals. Such strong links to nature and cultural beliefs suggest incredible resilience that could provide opportunities for fostering stewardship of landscapes. On the other hand, are there tradeoffs with agricultural developments that might alleviate poverty for some communities?
The way that nature affects human wellbeing and the links to human behaviour and stewardship of nature are a few of the questions in a forthcoming article, explained Vanessa Masterson of SwedBio at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Negative stewardship could include felling more trees for firewood as a consequence of the decline of cultural taboos that formerly protected the forest. Positive outcomes might include people getting involved with cleaning up their local park because it symbolises their community and a place where they can relax.
Then it was lunchtime and we headed towards the canopy of an enormous Ficus. Sitting in the shade it provided and eating fried grasshoppers and squash flowers, those inextricable links between our wellbeing and what nature provides became deliciously clear.
I was a documentary director at the BBC making science, history and arts programmes for over a decade before moving to the Stockholm Resilience Centre where I work for SwedBio and GRAID. Now, I use film and photography as a way of delving into knowledge and insights that other research methods might have a harder time reaching. The visuals feed into research because they unearth new perspectives and questions that are valuable for sustainability and resilience thinking. Hopefully, the films and photos also communicate complex science and tell stories that engage people’s heads and hearts.
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II CONFERENCE OF THE PROGRAMME ON ECOSYSTEM CHANGE AND SOCIETY