Whose Ecosystem is it Anyway?

The concept of ecosystem services can be a powerful and integral tool for bringing ecology and sustainability into the economic policymaking fold. But in monetizing Earth’s natural benefits, we risk alienating those communities most in need of protection.


Joy Merwin Monteiro

dimensions article, library

January 10, 2013

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services


Who owns india?

The concept of “Ecosystem Services” has come to be one of the central foci around which the “economics of nature” has been established. The premise is fairly straightforward and obvious to all but the most dogmatic of people: Ecosystems, without any human intervention, provide various services free of cost (like cleaning air and water for example), and unless we account for them while we make decisions about management of ecosystems, we will be “undervaluing” that ecosystem. While this is generally accepted, some people challenge the ethical basis for this premise, which is that the value of ecosystems is being measured by what it can provide humans, as opposed to any other living being. Therefore, hypothetically, if it can be shown that some ecosystem has absolutely no use for people, then it is in some sense expendable. Thus, people argue that other animals have a right to survive and flourish as well, and these rights must be treated as sacred as human rights to survive. Others point out that neither of these ethical outlooks take into account the fact that humans are part of a whole and not aside from it, and therefore we have a duty to contribute to the well-being of the whole. To take an analogy of the human body, if some cells start consuming too much energy and replicating indiscriminately, they will become a cancer which destroys the body.

This essay, however, tries not to focus on such philosophical discussions. It rather will try to see how the premise of the ecosystem services concept will play out in the real world. This concept is essentially the economist’s contribution toward conservation of nature: People don’t value things that are free, and for which the benefits are not immediately obvious; therefore, showing them its value in money terms will “incentivize” conservation of natural resources and result in the most efficient usage of scarce resources. Obviously, we are not the first generation of humans to think about the utility of natural systems. For various reasons, including the author’s personal experiences, this essay will focus on how the Indian subcontinent has viewed nature and interacted with it, and try and identify potential issues, if any, in the real-world application of the concept of ecosystem services.

“Some of the credit for the clean air, pure water, the pollinators and carbon sequestration should be attributed to humans as well. How this credit is passed on, to whom, and in what manner then becomes a very messy question in the implementation of the ecosystem services concept.”

Before we look at India, it will be useful to understand the origins of environmental thinking in the West, since it is from this part of the world that most of the intellectual machinery of the economics of nature arises. At the risk of over-generalization, it can be said that Western environmental thought has two central images: the island and the wilderness. As Europeans started to explore the oceans, they found various tropical “Island Edens” which they put in opposition with their own, predominantly agricultural, landscapes. Be it Tahiti, Mauritius or the islands of South East Asia, not only did the pioneers marvel at the natural beauty of these islands, but also saw with dismay as they were colonized and quickly stripped of this beauty and innocence. As is now known, island ecosystems tend to be highly specialized and quite sensitive to disruption, and this was understood first-hand by botanists and administrators of these islands. It is easy to see the influence of this imagery when we see present day portrayals of the earth as an island in the vast ocean of space.

The wilderness was always something that attracted the urban Romantic, and more so with the discovery of the New World. North America had a very low population density and huge expanses of untouched forests and grasslands. Again, as Europe expanded into the Americas, some sensitive individuals saw the devastation of the “wilderness”, and this imagery dominates thinking about nature as well, like the famous movie “Into the Wild” shows.

Both these images suggest a particular sequence of events: a pristine Eden populated by “noble savages” who live in perfect harmony with their surroundings, which is destroyed by the uncouth traders and colonists. One kind of life and thinking is replaced by another which was unfortunately too powerful (or advanced) to resist.

Thus, the wildlife biologist or ecologist who was brought up with these images in mind and therefore considers studying “nature” as study of ecosystems without human habitation, is in for a rude shock if he lands in India: it is very difficult to find any landscape which does not have its fair share of human beings! This has caused serious conflicts with those in power trying to implement conservation measures which are completely unaware of the ground realities, or try to modify reality to suit their notions of beauty.

Thus, in India at least, but probably in most of the densely populated regions of the world, the conception of a “natural ecosystem” is problematic. Humans have lived and modified and managed their environment for thousands of years, and whatever we see today as “natural” is the product of this interaction. This issue was brought to the fore when a community of animal herders were forcibly removed from a forested area to conserve migratory birds. It so turned out that the grazing was keeping the grasses under check and actually encouraging the birds to migrate to that particular locality, and the migrant bird population declined drastically after the herders were removed. Thus, this ecosystem service was actually a human service to ecosystems! The questions that arise when faced with such an ecosystem are obvious—how much of the value of this ecosystem should be attributed to nature? How much to the “natives”? Can such a division be actually even made?

This issue becomes even worse when we look at the state of India’s ecosystems in historical perspective. As recent scholarship about India has shown, the romantic idea of a premodern human being living in harmony with his environment is mostly a myth. We now know that the Gangetic plains, now home to one of the densest human populations in the world and dominated by fields as far as the eye can see, was a huge forest in the past. Premodern Indians indulged in large scale deforestation when it was possible and advantageous. This march of agricultural land over forest land was stopped by a few major factors—disease, large predators and people living in the forests, who were fighting for their way of life and tended to be fierce and aggressive warriors.

“Questions of history, justice and power enter the discourse, no matter how hard we might wish them under the carpet.”

Thus, what we call the natural environment of India is the result of an uneasy balance between agriculturists and forest-dwellers over millennia. Therefore, some of the credit for the clean air, pure water, the pollinators and carbon sequestration should be attributed to humans as well. How this credit is passed on, to whom, and in what manner then becomes a very messy question in the implementation of the ecosystem services concept.

While evaluating various alternatives to ecosystem management using the ecosystem services framework, it is essential to also temper the outcome of economic analysis with historical, social and cultural considerations. Just because something is “efficient” does not necessarily imply it is sensible in the larger context, just or even feasible. In the Indian context, the creation of national parks to protect wildlife may have been the most efficient in terms of preserving ecosystem services from degradation, but exclusion of those who have been living in the forests for millennia has made it a socio-cultural disaster, and in some instances has increased poaching and illegal felling of the forest because of the difficulty of forest dwellers in adjusting to life outside the forest.

These have been technical issues, but there are normative issues that result as well. To value a given ecosystem, the economist does not choose every possible service that is provided, for practical reasons—no one probably knows all of them, nor will it be politically (or economically) feasible to argue the case for certain ecosystem services, no matter how important ecologists may think they are. Therefore, she chooses a subset of the services which she thinks will attract the attention of those making the decisions—like water purification or agricultural land renewal for example. Every such choice will bring in its own host of questions—how equitable is this choice? How does it contribute to long term sustainability? Which interest groups (environmental, industrial, agricultural) are represented, and in what proportion?

An example of this, though not framed in the language of ecosystem services is the conservation of large cats in India. This has largely been driven by the aesthetic value derived by the powerful urban groups as opposed to the local residents who live in fear that their cattle or children will get carried away by these majestic creatures. Tiger reserves have resulted in large scale removal of forest communities from protected areas, which amounts to choosing a subset of ecosystem services which favours the powerful. Therefore, alternate, localized and more equitable strategies have tended to be ignored.

This brings us to another issue, namely that it is not just about excluding certain ecosystem services in favour of certain others, but the fact that some ecosystem services are directly in opposition to others. For example, using the river ecosystem for fishing may be in direct opposition to its biodiversity conservation service. Similarly, even sustainable harvesting of trees from a watershed may be in opposition to irrigation and flood control services to the downstream population. Some economists argue that proper assignment of property rights will solve this problem, but this is to wish away the problem rather than to face it. From a historical perspective, application of ideas of property derived from within one civilization to another have often had ruinous consequences, as the British experiments in India (the Zamindari and Ryotwari systems) have shown. From an ecological perspective, ecosystems are interlinked and do not respect arbitrary human notions of property, which makes it extremely difficult for such solutions to work.

In conclusion, the concept of ecosystem services is quite powerful, and remains one of the few ways in which economists and ecologists can talk to each other. However, it is important to remember that this idea, like many others, rests on a certain world view which is not universal by any means. Its application will not be a purely objective exercise, nor does it hold for all time. Questions of history, justice and power enter the discourse, no matter how hard we might wish them under the carpet. This especially holds in places like India, where people with radically different world views do not form a hierarchy, but a heterarchy—each being powerful and influential within an ecological and social niche. Therefore, no valuation of nature, however technically precise, will be complete without the guidance of historians, anthropologists and above all a democratic representation of the people involved.

Illustration: Louise Schenk