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Department of Geography


Beyond Win-Win: Interrogating Ecosystem Services Dynamics

Project funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative Collaborative Fund for Conservation (£53,400). July 2010 onwards, one year.

While the ecosystem services framework offers the potential for developing approaches that simultaneously provide ecological stability and livelihood security, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, there are often tradeoffs associated with the pursuit of multiple objectives, by multiple stakeholders, across multiple temporal and spatial scales. Choices are ubiquitous in natural resource management decisions (Adams et al 2004; Milne and Niesten 2009; Leader-Williams et al. in press), but recent approaches often mistakenly assume that a focus on ecosystem services will always provide opportunities for win-win outcomes (Vira and Adams 2009). While some areas of habitat or landscape hold multiple values (e.g. hill forests, providing biodiversity, carbon, water, forest products and tourism revenues), they may be unable to simultaneously provide all these services. Tradeoffs may be of two types: between different services, e.g. the choice between species diversity and carbon in a mountain forest; oramong different users of services, e.g. remote beneficiaries of biodiversity values, local users of forest land, and different downstream users of water. While there may be some circumstances in which synergies emerge between particular objectives, most strategies for ecosystem management are associated with opportunity costs (Tallis et al2008, Carpenter et al 2009, Vira and Adams 2009), and stakeholders within the system are differentially exposed to these costs. Market-mechanisms (such as Payments for Ecosystem Services, PES) may allow for novel strategies to exploit potential synergies, but these are unlikely to eliminate the reality of tradeoffs that characterise many decision contexts (Redford and Adams 2009).

Considerable work is currently being undertaken to calculate where ecosystem service values exist in the landscape, and how their aggregate value and distribution will change under different scenarios. Documenting these tradeoffs and synergies is core to the processes of ecosystem assessment that are taking place at a variety of scales, global (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), national (UK National Ecosystem Assessment – and other sub-global assessments), and landscape-level (e.g. ‘Valuing the Arc‘ in Tanzania, The Natural Capital project).

This project proposes to bring together knowledge about the extent of spatial and temporal overlap between ecosystem service flows from particular landscapes, as well as the ways in which different stakeholders benefit from these flows over space and time. Such a project requires inputs from multiple disciplines, cutting across the ecological and social sciences. Understanding ecosystem function and documenting ecosystem flows remains an important challenge, especially given unresolved scientific issues in certain areas (for instance, the forest-hydrology relationship is still not well understood in different parts of the world). On the social side, it is important not just to determine economic values of ecosystem service flows, but also to see how these are captured by specific groups in society, and what this means for issues such as poverty, equity and justice. In order to generate a sophisticated understanding of tradeoffs and synergies, this project will engage with the highest quality inter-disciplinary work, and synthesise insights from across this range of perspectives.

It will do this through a two-stage process: (i) a systematic review of existing information, using published sources and the internet; (ii) a high-level meeting, at which experts from academia, conservation organisations, research organisations, governments and inter-governmental bodies, will be brought together to capture the range of work that is being undertaken in the field, to share knowledge and to develop a synthesis document for wider dissemination.

Project partners

  • Bhaskar Vira, Department of Geography
  • Ali Stattersfield and David Thomas, Birdlife International
  • Sarah Moon, Cambridge Conservation Initiative
  • Richard Bradbury, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
  • Matt Walpole, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre