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Vol. 21 No. 1 - January 2015

Ecosystem services and need to integrate them in developing environmental management strategies**

By: R. S. Tripathi*

Biological component of ecosystem comprises organisms that may range from large animals and plants to microscopic bacteria. Man is also a part of ecosystem’s biological component. Plants and animals present in an ecosystem interact with one another and with their physical environment. The health and wellbeing of human populations depend upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components - organisms, soil, water, and nutrients. Growth in human population and per capita consumption and growth in the scale of human enterprise have severely threatened ecosystems and the services that they provide. Many human activities have caused disruption of ecosystem processes, reduction in quantity of the products that could be extracted, and have impaired the product quality.

Ecosystem services can be subdivided into five categories: (1) Provisioning such as the production of food, timber, non timber forest products and water; (2) Regulating, such as the control of climate, carbon sequestration, control of diseases and flood; (3) Supporting, such as nutrient cycles, pollination and dispersal; (4) Cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits; and (5) Preserving, which includes guarding against uncertainty through the maintenance of diversity.

Eighty percent of the world’s population relies upon natural medicinal products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from one vertebrate (snake species). Nine of the top 10 drugs originate from natural plant products. Though the focus is more on goods derived from ecosystems, certain fundamental life supporting services are also provided by ecosystems, without which human civilization would come to halt. However, such services are often overlooked. Ecosystem services include benefits that accrue to humans from ecosystems, and from the interactions among various components of ecosystems, and functional processes operating in ecosystems.

As human population grows, the resource demand imposed on ecosystems and the impacts of our global footprint also grow. Many people have the misconception that the ecosystem services are not vulnerable and will be available for indefinite period of time. But the impacts of anthropogenic stresses are already apparent, and we are now faced with several ecological crises of serious nature. Consequently, society has now come to realize that ecosystem services are not only threatened and limited, but we have also to evaluate trade-offs between immediate and long-term human needs on an urgent basis.

Research agenda on ecosystem services could include the following steps:

  1. Measurement of the spatial and temporal scales at which ecosystem service providers (ESPs) and their services operate.

  2. Identification of ESPs – species or populations that provide specific ecosystem services – and characterization of their functional roles and relationships;

  3. Determination of community structure aspects that influence how ESPs function in their natural landscape, such as compensatory responses that stabilize function ;

  4. Assessment of key environmental (abiotic) factors influencing the provision of services

Many ecologists believe that the provision of ecosystem services can be stabilized with increase in biodiversity. It is also believed that with increased biodiversity there would be a greater variety of different types of ecosystem services available to society. Thus the link between biodiversity, species richness, and ecosystem services is important to understand to be able to know how to utilize and conserve resources. Although substantial understanding of many ecosystem services and the scientific principles underlying them already exists, there is still much to learn.

Management and Policy

Existing legal policies are often considered inadequate since they typically pertain to human health-based standards that are mismatched with necessary means to protect ecosystem health and services. To improve the information available, it is necessary to implement Ecosystem Services Framework (ESF), which integrates the biophysical and socio-economic dimensions of protecting the environment and is designed to guide institutions through multidisciplinary information to help evolve direct strategic choices.

Another approach that has become increasingly popular over the last decade is the marketing of ecosystem services protection. Payment and trading of services is an emerging world-wide small-scale solution where one can acquire credits for activities such as sponsoring the protection of carbon sequestration sources or the restoration of ecosystem service providers.

Ecological researches have helped us understand the interconnection and interdependence of the many plant and animal communities within ecosystems. Although substantial understanding of many ecosystem services and the scientific principles underlying them already exists, there is still much to learn. The trade-offs among different services within an ecosystem, the role of biodiversity in maintaining services, and the effects of long and short-term perturbations are just some of the questions that need to be further explored.

The answers to such questions will provide information critical to the development of management strategies that will protect ecosystems and help maintain the provisions of the services upon which we depend. The choices we make today as to how we use land and water resources will have enormous consequences on the future sustainability of earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide.

In order to convince decision-makers, economic value needs to be associated with many ecosystem services. It should take into account the benefits of E.S., impact of its loss on socio-economic conditions of the people and cost of replacement of E.S. with anthropogenically-driven alternatives. There is a need to develop methodologies that help businesses manage the risks and opportunities arising from their dependence and impact on ecosystems. Ecologists, economists, anthropologists, and experts from other allied disciplines must work out a rigorous set of framework, indicators and data to help integrate ecosystem services approach into public- and private-sector policy processes for developing environmental management strategies to ensure that natural ecosystems can continue to provide the benefits and services that society needs.

**Based on the lecture delivered by the author at Lucknow University, Lucknow during 34th Annual Conference of the Indian Botanical Society held in October, 2011.

* Advisor, International Society of Environmental Botanists; National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow (India)

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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