The fallacy of ecosystem services


By: Bente Meindertsma for Vice Versa

In our capitalist society, nature is increasingly defined as a service to mankind. Governments, companies and NGO’s assign value to certain features of nature in order to preserve it. ‘This is a convenient way to see nature, because it matches the way our economy is set up’, explains Vijay Kolinjivadi, researcher at McGill University. However, imposing this framework on local communities is a form of green colonization

‘The idea of ecosystem services is presented as an objective concept or even a science’, argues Kolinjivadi. ‘By assigning economic value to nature, we classify and quantify how many services nature can offer and what it’s worth.’ Ecosystem services include ecotourism and Payment for Ecosystem Schemes (PES) schemes, whereby users of natural resources (like governments or companies) ‘buy’ the service of nature conservation from mostly local communities. Carbon credits, projects to preserve water quality and quantity and to a lesser extend protection of biodiversity constitute the majority of PES schemes currently operating. In my recent article ( ) for Vice Versa about water scarcity at the Kenyan Lake Navaisha, I described how small scale farmers in the upper catchment were taking measures prevent erosion, offering a service that was paid by water users downstream, like large flower farms. ‘The underlying idea of the framework is that everyone would always act rational and only think about themselves’, Kolinjivadi points out. ‘The framework rejects that people might have any relationships except for economic links to each other and the world around them.’

What nature is valued?

However, the presentation of ecosystem services as an objective concept means you always validate someone’s version of meaning of nature over another. ‘It completely overlooks the fact that everyone has a different perception of what they are benefitting from in their environment,’ argues Kolinjivadi. Research by Andrés Rees Catalan (University of Lyon), Sylvain Guyot (University of Limoges) & Samuel Depraz (University of Lyon) shows how the lack of power of public and local actors allowed the private sector like the NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to extend its influence over the environmental management of the Valdivian forests in Chile. They reveal how TNC deployed a perfect strategy to establish its legitimacy, by claiming scientific authority, setting up rules and regulations of the protected area, offering environmental education and establishing relationships with mining companies to set up a carbon trading system.

By defining natural resources as ecosystem services, we also automatically create a division between what nature is valuable and what’s not. In her PhD research on the development of the hydroelectric project El Quimbo in the Colombian Magdalena River, Cornelia Helmcke (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) shows how Emgesa, the company in charge of the project, came up with a nature conservation project as part of their corporate social responsibility policy, overruling the needs of small scale farmers. The building of a reservoir displaced over 1500 people, leading to mass protests by the local population. Although they were compensated by Emgesa, the protesters claimed that the reservoir would lead to unemployment, violence and ultimately war. They advocated for the creation of Reserva Campesina Agroalimentaria in the same region, a collective agricultural area assuring food security. The protests and widespread criticism didn´t help; the project was completed earlier this year.

‘Despite destroying the most fertile area in the district and with it the local food system, Emgesa claims to do everything possible for biodiversity conservation’, writes Helmcke ‘The company bought the land to the west of the flooded valley and started replanting the cacao varieties formerly found in the area. Furthermore, they started environmental education programmes in the villages affected by the dam to teach them the value of nature.’ So what nature is valued and for how long, she asks ironically. In the way Emgesa is assigning value to nature, she sees similarities to the Nature Inc. theory put forward by political ecologists Fletcher, Büscher, Dressler, saying capitalism is intensified by making it the solution to the problem it creates. ‘The value of nature becomes unstable as soon as you relate it to the market, as the value will decrease once profits will come down’, she explains.

Artificial construct

The underlying capitalist rationale also leads to fundamental flaws in the concept of Payment of Ecosystem Services itself, argue different critics. First of all, complex and qualitative ecosystems can’t be expressed in monetary value, they point out. ‘Natural resources like water and air are common goods, so ecosystem services are not privately owned,’ argues Kolinjivadi. ‘Markets for ecosystem services therefore fundamentally differ from markets for private and excludable goods like fruits or tables.’

Not surprisingly, profitable markets for environmental services have never really materialized. The value of environmental services has always been artificially constructed, either by heavily subsidized donor programs or by government regulation. It turns out investing in ecosystem services is not as financially appealing as extracting natural resources. Different policies for nature conservation have failed to find an alternative for resource extraction, each time focussing on the same areas, argues Danish researcher Jens Lund. He shows how the introduction of REDD+ in Tanzania led to a repetition of the policies and limitations of the previously introduced Participatory Forest Management model. Both conservation policies promised sustainable change in forest management and managed to raise substantial donor financing, but didn’t accomplish a lasting transformation. The only thing these policies really achieved, was sustaining an income for conservationists, development professionals and academics, Lund points out.

Green colonization

According to Kolinjivadi, imposing the frame of PES on a community is a form of colonization. ‘Many of the so-called providers and users of ecosystem services don’t know what they are providing or buying’, he argues. ‘Most of the time, the way PES projects are interpreted is quite different from the way they are communicated.’ Some communities have reworked the concept of PES to a frame that is more relevant to their own context. In his research in Kyrgyzstan, Kolinjivadi shows how a nomadic community turned a PES scheme for clean water into a collective action concept. In this context, there were no buyers and sellers, because the community decided to take responsibility for the whole project. Part of the group would go upstream to offer services to the other part of the community. Instead of accepting payment, they would exchange labour.

Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, researcher at Duke University, shows how an alternative discourse for PES emerged in Mexico. By referring to compensation instead of payment, communities on the countryside felt that their complex relationship to the environment was recognized. Under the influence of stringent structural adjustment programs in the eighties, the Mexican government had devaluated traditional agriculture on the countryside because the campesino lifestyle was not efficient. This led to huge national protests and social movements, advocating for revaluation of the countryside.  The introduction of PES was highly appreciated because it offered new significance to neglected areas and lifestyles. By reworking the definition into compensation for ecosystem services, communities on the countryside felt that their traditional stewardship for nature was recognized. At the same time, communities were able to secure stable private and government funding. Shapiro-Garza found this dynamic at four different communities, but admits the agency and ownership of these communities stands out as a positive exception in the PES discussion.

Although PES might be an interesting lens, it has captivated the minds of many donor agencies wielding huge economic power. Presenting it as an objective concept is quite dangerous as it favours a capitalist worldview over other ways of seeing the world. Therefore, Kolinjivadi advocates for a thicker PES process, which involves understanding the local context and rationalities before implementing a project. Only if PES is a concept that matches the ideas and expectations of the community involved, it might be an option.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s