Protected Areas and Ecosystem Services should be good partners. Protected areas are “nature-heavy” providers of benefits to people, and the ecosystem service framework allows us to make the case for nature. In reality though, protected areas and ecosystem services have, hereto, not really gotten on so well, or hung out together much.
This, as Graeme Cumming (James Cook University) explained in framing our session, might have something to do with the fact that protected areas are complex and changing, and mean so many different things to different people. To some, they are neo-colonial, elitist institutions, whilst other consider them natural treasures that protect the planet from degradation. More and more, Graeme argued, protected areas are also being considered as global commons, rather than private property, with implications for who has a say and stake in how they are managed. So, how do we think about nature’s benefits to people from these complex systems, keeping in mind they are sensitive to many mutli-scale influences and social-ecological dynamics?
Three talks (me, Thobias Plielinger (University of Kassel & Georg-August-University Göttingen, and Xavier Busurto, Duke University), a panellist (Elena Bennett, McGill University) and participant discussions weighed in on different aspect of this question. Much conversation centred on the lack of the ecosystem service framework in protected management plans, and even research. Thobias, particularly, emphasised this gap in relation to his study review of German Biosphere Reserve evaluation plans. Of the seventeen Biosphere Reserve plans reviewed, only three demonstrated real uptake of the ecosystem service concept. In the rest, managers did not think it added much value to what they were doing already, or did not have the resources or capacity to for the additional ecosystem service dimension.
In my talk, focused on southern African protected areas, I argued that the big unease between protected areas and ecosystem services has a lot to do with the cross-scale connections that determine access to benefits from protected areas. Benefits flow in complex ways to different beneficiaries, who value these services differently, in different spatial contexts, resulting in large trade-offs between beneficiaries and management options. We need to also recognise that these benefits are valued relationally, meaning that access to ecosystem services not only influence the benefits that people can derive from protected areas, but also the significance they can place on these.
It is not just about access, though, Xavier Busurto argued. In his eye-opening talk, he explained how the process of establishing a marine protected area in Mexico affected fishers’ interactions with each other, resulting both in greater co-operation and competition. These shifts in social dynamics, in turn, affected the value that different fishers placed on natural resources, and how they interacted with it. Thus, he argued, in thinking about benefits from protected areas, we also need to think how dynamic interactions between individual actors interact with protected area processes.
So where to from here?
I think a number of key research needs emerged from both the talks, and a rich and lively participant discussion: We still need to better understand why it is that the ecosystem service framework is scantily used in protected area management and research – not just the barriers, but also the enablers. We also need to better understand the trade-offs in managing for ecosystem services and biodiversity, and when to manage for which. Managers are important, and we need to investigate their role in ecosystem service delivery. We need to find ways of balancing infrastructure’s role in securing access to ecosystem services, with its potential to facilitate degradation. We also need to better understand how dynamics between individuals interact with protected area processes.
I have the uneasy feeling, though, that there are deeper questions to confront, too.
Whilst there was hesitant consensus that the ecosystem service lens is useful and appropriate in protected area, I’m not sure we settled that matter in this session. My take, as I also argued in my talk, is that applying the ecosystem service framework in a context that recognises the complexity of protected areas offers many opportunities for shifting towards a more just and social-ecological protected area management.
However, a part of me also wonders whether there are shifting goalposts and general compatibility issues. As panellist Elena Bennett lamented: perhaps ecosystem services and protected areas just don’t work together. Perhaps we should ask that question, and other hard ones, but I do feel that it is important that we not shy away from continuing research that links protected areas and ecosystem services. It is, in fact, critical: What would it mean for global sustainability if our primary tool for bringing nature into decision-making nature is incompatible with society’s prime tool for nature stewardship?
I’m a lecturer in Environmental Science at Rhodes University, South Africa. I started off my career as a behavioral-ecologist researching seal-shark interactions. These days, however, I’m mostly focused on protected area systems, thinking about questions related to scale, ecosystem service flows, and (spatial) resilience. I’m increasingly interested in thinking about the protected area (networks) of the future, and all the tricky and complex questions related to protected area benefits to society. As an educator, I’ve also been thinking about methods used to understand social-ecological systems. I’m not averse to a good dollop of technology with my research, and am, as a general rule, easily fascinated.
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II CONFERENCE OF THE PROGRAMME ON ECOSYSTEM CHANGE AND SOCIETY