What are Ecosystem Services?
The concept of ecosystem services was developed in order to express the value that nature has to people and the benefits we derive from it.
Types of Ecosystem Services
There are three types of ecosystem services: direct services, indirect services, and cultural/aesthetic services.
Direct services are the resources that we directly benefit from extracting from nature. Drinking water, timber, natural gas and oils, plants such as cotton, and numerous other plants for medicinal benefits. We depend on these resources so heavily that it is unfathomable to think that we could live without inputs from nature. The chair you sit in, the clothes you wear, and even the medicine you take in the morning probably comes directly from provisioning services.
Indirect services are the benefits provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena. Think of these services as the “unsung heroes” of ecosystem services. They are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services. For example, pollination, photosynthesis, decomposition, water purification, erosion, and even flood control. These services maintain the natural ebbs and flows of ecosystems. While humans have, in past years, done a lot to influence these processes, they are overwhelmingly natural and our technology has not caught up to the scale that nature naturally produces. Pollination is a great example. Pollination is not only crucial to the reproduction of plants, but also impossible for humans to artificially create on the necessary scale.
Cultural services are the non-material benefits that contribute to the development and cultural advancement of people. In other words, nature is beautiful–there is no price tag on the beauty of nature. Recreation, mental and physical health, tourism, aesthetic appreciation and inspiration for culture, art and design, spiritual experience and a sense of place are just a few aspects of nature that are central to the world as we know it. While we cannot attach an accurate monetary value or economic impact to the depletion of this type of ecosystem services, it is important to understand that we must not leave a depleted world to the next generation.
Ecosystem Services in Action
Ecosystems are by definition interconnected, codependent, and constantly evolving. As a result, changes at any level of an ecosystem can lead to the collapse of the whole thing. Because this can be hard to visualize, let’s take mangroves, an especially important ecosystem, as an example.
The Mangrove is an immensely important type of tree that lines coastlines around the world. Most plants cannot live where the mangroves do because of the constant pounding of waves, salt water, and often extreme winds. However, mangroves have evolved to be ideal for this environment and actually thrive in these conditions. As a result, they protect coastlines from erosion and have large, cage-like roots that serve as a nursery for many different species of marine organisms. The mangroves provide a relatively safe, protected space for important species to lay their eggs or raise their young. This means, that without the protection of the mangroves in the early stages of life, many of the marine species that we rely on for food such as some types of Grouper, Trout, Tarpon, and even Snapper would cease to exist.
Mangroves provide an indirect service to humans, supporting a variety of marine life that fill the bellies of millions around the world. Despite this, people often destroy mangrove groves to develop the prime oceanfront land that they occupy–often for an oceanfront hotel or a shrimp farm. In these cases, it is useful to have a monetary value assigned to the mangrove environment as a defense against “development” of the shoreline. That way, the value of ecosystem services, both direct and indirect are taken into account.
What is Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES)?
Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are payments to farmers or landowners who have agreed to take certain actions to manage their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service. The idea is that the payments assign a monetary value to the land that is for something other than the direct services and raw goods of the land. As the payments provide incentives to landowners and managers, PES is a market-based mechanism, similar to subsidies and taxes, to encourage the conservation of natural resources.
PES in Costa Rica
Twenty years ago, Costa Rica began to pioneer programs that allow landowners to be paid for the value of the ecosystem services of their land. This created an opportunity for landowners to earn an income while working to protect rainforests, conserve wildlife, regulate river flows, and store carbon.
Since 1997, nearly one million hectares of forest in Costa Rica has been part of these ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) plans at one time or another. Meanwhile, forest cover has returned to over 50 per cent of the country’s land area, from a low of just over 20 per cent in the 1980s.
PES at Osa Conservation
Osa Conservation has been able to enroll some of our properties into this program and benefit from the country’s incentives to protect habitat. These funds allow us to pay key staff that patrol the land and ensure that there are no poachers, miners or loggers present. These same staff help us restore degraded land by collecting native tree seeds for germination, planting trees and maintaining the new tree plantings. PES does not cover all the costs associated with protecting the land in the Osa but it helps.
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