World Resource Institute

A Fundamentally Different Approach to Conserving Ecosystems and Their Services is Needed

By Jorge Recharte, The Mountain Institute, Peru


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 4: Must we fundamentally change course to conserve ecosystems in a changing climate?


Ecosystems and the global context

I have three main comments in reaction to the papers reviewed.

Firstly, local land use change and impacts on ecosystems result from drivers of change and policies that are connected to global economic, political and cultural systems which are difficult to identify or even understand. Therefore, the larger political economy dimension should be incorporated in the analysis of how to make ecosystem-based adaptations to climate change a priority of decision makers. Exploring power relationships affecting economic decisions at all levels is a critical dimension that was discussed only indirectly by the papers.

The scale of land use and ecosystem transformations currently taking place in the world is overwhelming. In South America, for example, mining expansion is taking place at unprecedented scales both in nations with a long mining tradition, like Peru or Bolivia, as well as in new regions like the Patagonia region of Argentina or in Ecuador.  Major gas pipelines are currently under construction in Peru, stretching from the Amazon basin to new ports on the coast. Development of large oil deposits in off-shore locations near the coast of Brazil are affecting marine habitats and traditional fishing communities. The Initiative for Regional Infrastructure Integration in South America (IIRSA), a portfolio of roads, ports, river navigation works, and other linear developments across the Amazon are connecting Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru in order to facilitate access to mineral deposits, export crops, construction of river dams, and many other associated developments. These examples could be multiplied over several more pages. Advances in economic growth in the continent are understandably perceived as a positive achievement by decision makers in spite of the scale of impacts on ecosystems and local societies, and in spite of the implications this could have on natural and social resiliency to climate change.

The four papers demonstrate that ecosystem degradation, service loss and increased environmental risk for human society has followed as a consequence of development without proper territorial planning and control, in all sectors of the economy discussed (water, forestry, and food production). Considering the scale of land use changes taking place in the world, as illustrated by the examples above, the papers do not sufficiently identify strategies to influence central economic authorities who are focused on short term growth and who operate in a political context favoring global free-trade and place growth over environmental and human security. Stronger command-and-control measures seem necessary and incorporating these into policies requires debating the political economy and ecology of current development paths.

Best practices and tools

Secondly, the papers provide a number of promising best practices and tools that show that positive steps are possible. Thus, developing more resilient forests, as noted by Bruno Locatelli and co-authors is a cheaper way to reduce vulnerability to climate change than investing only in physical infrastructures. Similarly, the social-ecological approach to managing hydrologic systems, as described by Yolanda Kakababse, is a powerful example of innovative approaches currently under implementation at pilot sites.  Janet Ranganathan and co-author identify practical solutions and tools to shift food production systems into more ecologically friendly pathways.  These examples demonstrate that there is an inspiring vision for an ecological way of doing business. However, as articulated by Richard Munang and co-authors, a radical shift in world values, behavior, ethics and sense of social responsibility is needed if the economy is to incorporate ecosystem conservation. This shift is necessary because climate change adaptation requires both control of emissions and sustained global carbon sink capacity.

While command-and-control might be urgently needed as pointed to in the first place, successful transition to a new green economy must be ultimately based on “entrepreneurship”, i.e. on individuals and social groups that: (i) hold with obstinate optimism to innovative ideas (e.g. managing water in a basin through “green infrastructures”) in order to demonstrate that this is a better idea than the current one; (ii) connect and adapt their innovations to the needs of society; and then (iii) stubbornly keep on going until institutions (technologies, arrangements, rules, brands) embody the vision of the green economy. Top-down solutions will never work by themselves only.

Educating Society

Finally, I think there is a need to engage scientists specializing in different aspects of ecosystem research to provide leadership to the transition into a green economy. Forty years ago Barry Commoner asked his fellow scientists to lead the crusade to educate society on the need to keep economic growth within the limits of ecosystem dynamics. Commoner noted in The Closing Circle (1971) that it was scientists and activists who demonstrated that atmospheric nuclear tests were a bad technology for nature and therefore a bad technology for people. The nature of the shift needed towards a green economy is difficult to achieve because it is small impacts accumulating over long periods of time. However, in the same way that society acquired the common sense to stop nuclear bombs in the atmosphere, in the future it must be seen as common sense by both citizens and decision makers that the carbon cycle must be kept in balance: natural and anthropic emissions in balance with global sink capacity (as articulated in the Munang et.al paper).

In summary, from the perspective of a field practitioner working on climate change issues and the conservation of mountain ecosystems in Andean regions where glaciers are receding rapidly, I find that a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services is needed. Key command-and-control measures like zoning to protect fragile ecosystems and wetlands like the paramo or puna in watershed heads are policy changes needed with urgency. Yet, such measures will not be successful unless land users, invariably poor people living in these mountain tops, find it advantageous to their  livelihoods to stop moving upwards into cloud forests and paramos or punas. They will do so if both national policies to protect the ecosystem are implemented (e.g. land use zoning) and support is provided for their innovations in land use. Making this transition takes time and it should be approached as a learning process in economy and ecology.