Thursday, October 14, 2021
From an ecosystem services perspective, access to nature—and the benefits that come from functioning ecosystems—is poorly distributed across class, race, gender and throughout communities. We might explain the divide by comparing ecosystem services demand between rural and denser population areas, or the manner in which our cities and towns have become socio-ecological traps, where perceived need continues to drive reallocation of water into cities in a way that reflects the disproportionate appropriation of ecosystems by cities. We might also recognize that occupation of upstream areas, particularly rural and suburban areas outside of cities and towns, places an enormous amount of power in the hands of those who manage, but may not directly benefit from, ecosystem service flows.
Given such allocation challenges of ecosystem services, resource decisionmaking is often disconnected from the communities and individuals that would benefit from ecosystem services, and this divide is pervasive at the urban/rural interface. Moreover, the divide will become increasingly acute as climate change continues to drive more intense storms, droughts, wildfires and disease, as well as rising temperatures and continuation of the human and ecosystem migration.
How do we bridge the gap? One promising avenue involves mapping of ecosystem service benefit flows between and among geographically distinct communities. Ecosystem services—a form of wealth—concern the benefits that humans derive from functioning ecosystems and includes provisioning services (e.g., goods), regulating services (e.g., nutrient regulation), supporting services (e.g., structural and other mechanisms), and cultural services (e.g., spiritual, recreational, and aesthetic) Ecosystem services research illustrates the enormous costs of losing functioning ecosystem services (regulating, supporting and cultural, but also tradeoffs and temporal loss of provisioning services such as forest harvest or conversion at the expense of habitat productivity or flood and erosion control).
Mapping the flows of ecosystem services helps to identify life-supporting benefits (to humans) from functioning ecosystem services and, in some ways more importantly, helps to identify the beneficiaries of those services, a neat trick that will also inform the distribution of ecosystem benefits. Consequently, although the ecosystem services approach may not solve all of our equity problems, the information generated through benefit-flows mapping will facilitate more effective and equitable resource management planning beyond local borders in the following ways.
First, mapping ecosystem benefit flows begins with an inventory of the ecosystem services at hand, their supply and demand. Understanding ecosystem services is a crucial step away from the resourcification of ecosystems, the process of conceptually transforming ecosystems from the processes they engage in to a pile of commodifiable resources for the market. The spatially explicit information generated in benefit-flows mapping “provides baseline data to measure new future gains or losses for policy impact assessment,” engendering more effective planning decisions. Moreover, mapping flows will provide better information for understanding shifting risk factors resulting from ecosystem migration and for targeting areas where fruitful ecosystem investments could accommodate human migration.
Second, mapping these flows helps to foster understanding of the relationships between different stakeholders and the ecosystem processes that provide benefits: “Understanding of ES flows is essential for understanding ES demand as they allow people to actually benefit from a good or service.” In many cases, mapping illustrates the ways multifunctional landscapes provide cascading services, suggesting that attention should be given to sub-units and specific benefit demands that might be overlooked (and thus ignored) from generalizations about ecosystem-wide services. Benefit-flow mapping also helps to “identify which regions are critical to maintaining the supply and flow of benefits for specific beneficiary groups.”
Third, mapping benefit flows will provide a better understanding of the power relationships between ecosystem service beneficiaries, with recognition that “those stakeholders able to manage . . . keystone ecological properties and ecosystem services can affect the well-being of other stakeholder groups by determining the ecosystem’s capacity to provide services and/or by controlling them.”
Finally, if we want all communities to improve resiliency, engage in adaptive measures, and otherwise be prepared for climate change, we have to think in terms of climate justice. Benefit-flows mapping will provide an accessible depiction of the ways that geographically distinct communities are related and connected. It will assist as stakeholders engage in communicating needs and priorities among ecosystem benefits and empower more specific and effective communication within and among power relationships, ensuring a more equitable allocation of resources to where they are needed.
Mapping benefit flows is an act of community empowerment. The process will activate perspectives on accountability and collaboration in the preparedness process. It provides granular-level information about the different dependencies and power structures among forest, watershed, agricultural and groundwater-dependent communities. And, in the end, it will give us all something to talk about.
- Keith Hirokawa, Professor of Law, Albany Law School.