Mangroves provide many ecosystem services like controling erosion and mitigating the effects of tsunamis. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
The first-ever set of comprehensive guidelines for designing, implementing and managing mechanisms to facilitate payments for ecosystem services has been established by a group of experts and researchers.
The authors of a report published in the journal Science that lays out the guidelines argue that as payments for ecosystem services schemes become increasingly popular, too many of these financial mechanisms – investments and markets focused on, for example, carbon emissions, clean water and conserving biodiversity – are built on an incomplete scientific foundation.
After reviewing 118 case studies, they found that approximately 60 percent did not report on or were missing at least one of the basic scientific criteria needed for an ecologically robust project.
“Getting the science right, by which we mean adhering to a few basic guidelines, can go a long way in ensuring that these projects work and work well,” lead author Shahid Naeem, a professor of ecology at Columbia University and the director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, said in a statement.
Payments for ecosystem services (PES) involve a beneficiary of an ecosystem service compensating an ecosystem steward or manager for their efforts. Of course, for these schemes to work, the payment has to be contingent on the service actually being produced, usually as a result of implementing sustainable natural resource management practices.
The beneficiary – the entity making the payment – might be a company, an individual or a government, while the ecosystem service provider receiving the payment could be a community, a landowner, or some other entity that manages an ecosystem service and has the right to be compensated for doing so.
In order to make sure payments for ecosystem services are based on a solid understanding of the environmental components they’re intended to preserve, the authors of the Science report propose six natural science principles to help all parties understand the dynamics of the ecosystem, establish baseline conditions and monitor outcomes, among other essential tasks.
The team studied several PES projects that could be enhanced by their guidelines, including one in Tanzania where eco-tour operators make payments to a local community that protects the grasslands necessary for migratory wildlife to thrive.
Another notable scheme in Cambodia involves payments made by birdwatchers to villagers who are conserving rare bird species. In France, Nestle is paying farmers to implement land-use practices that help improve water quality, which is critical to the company’s business.
“Rather than pointing fingers on projects that weren’t working because of a lack of science, we demonstrated the ways in which projects might use the guidelines and be enhanced by them as a result,” Jane Carter Ingram, director of Ecosystem Services for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a co-author of the report, told mongabay.com in an email. “In addition, the guidelines emphasize the importance of understanding ecological dynamics, baseline conditions, ecological sustainability and developing a sound monitoring program and metrics so that project developers/managers can detect changes in ecosystem services as a result of PES projects or other factors.”
The report, titled “Get the science right when paying for nature’s services,” is targeted at the wide variety of stakeholders in PES schemes, from investors (which could include government agencies, philanthropies or companies that depend on ecosystem services) and financial institutions to the folks on the ground doing the work to conserve ecosystem services and policy makers who are considering PES as a way to meet social and environmental goals.
According to Ingram, the principles the team developed are focused on the basic, fundamental ecological principles that need to be considered by these stakeholders to ensure PES achieves its goals. Given PES’s ultimate goal of sustained provision of ecosystem services, it’s important for the mechanisms by which transactions take place to be based on a solid understanding of how ecosystems function, she said.
For instance, managers or stewards receiving payments for ecosystem services must be aware of what factors or combination of factors influence the variations in stocks and flows of the services and, therefore, what management practices can be implemented to increase the stock or flow of a service.
“Without this inherent understanding,” Ingram said, “how can a buyer be sure that a payment for a specific land use or natural resource management practice intended to secure, increase or restore a desired ecosystem service will be effective?”
Naeem, S., Ingram, J. C., Varga, A., Agardy, T., Barten, P., Bennett, G., … & Wunder, S. (2015). Get the science right when paying for nature’s services.Science, 347(6227), 1206-1207.