Why policies should account for how communities attach value to nature

The debate over torched rain forests in the Amazon this year tended to focus on commercial interests, on the one hand, and a purely aesthetic ideal of nature, on the other. But the values that different communities attach to, and derive from, natural systems are much richer than that, and must be considered when making policy decisions.

amazon fires
From June to August 2019, fires raged in the Amazon. Midia Ninja/ Flickr , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For much of 2019, news broadcasts and social media have been filled with unsettling images of forests engulfed in flames, leaving behind charred, dead landscapes, destroyed homes, and displaced people.

Images of burning rainforests in Brazil and elsewhere have stirred powerful emotions and provoked reactions around the world, providing a glimpse of the many ways that people view and value nature.

A sustainable future for our planet and its people will be achieved only if decision-makers understand and account for this value pluralism.

As the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) points out in its recent Global Assessment Report, “Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life.”

Yet decisions about the uses of our increasingly fragile natural resources and how to protect them often fail to account for all of the ways that different communities attach value to nature.

Fortunately, a group of the world’s leading scientists met recently in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country—the 2012 European “green capital”—to discuss a new IPBES report that will focus on “the diverse values of nature.”

This forthcoming “Values Assessment” will present the most robust findings to date on how diverse communities value nature differently, and how natural systems benefit us all.

Consider the tropical forests that have been burning throughout the year, and which account for a disproportionate share of the world’s biodiversity. Some would argue that we have a moral responsibility to protect such natural treasures for their own sake, regardless of their contributions to people.

Yet decisions about the uses of our increasingly fragile natural resources and how to protect them often fail to account for all of the ways that different communities attach value to nature.

Yet market forces tend to predominate, such that the focus shifts to economic opportunities: timber, pharmaceutical derivatives, ecotourism, mining, and the like. Some politicians and commercial interests even see forests as an obstacle that must be removed to allow for the expansion of agriculture, mining, housing, and infrastructure.

The problem is that policy decisions tend to reflect these economic concerns without also accounting for the wider contributions that natural systems provide.

Forests, for example, help to regulate the climate, trapping greenhouse gases and mitigating the effects of global warming. They also act as global “water pumps” that deliver rain to distant regions. Yet most policy decisions ignore these valuable natural contributions to people. Further, they also neglect the needs of the millions of indigenous people who depend on the forests for their livelihoods and welfare.

Some of the reasons that people value nature are universal. But others are specific to certain groups, and thus can become sources of conflict. Wherever conflicts arise between parties with unequal access to the levers of power, decisions about how we manage nature must account for that asymmetry.

And yet governments, development banks, conservation organisations, and private-sector actors often carve out protected natural areas in ways that ignore the needs of forest-dwelling communities.

In many tropical areas, policymakers have enabled the expansion of commodity plantations, such as those producing palm oil and soybeans, to meet global market demand and support lower-income farmers and other constituents who rely on these crops for their livelihoods.

Yet too often, such plantations encroach on the homes of indigenous people and the habitats of endangered species, including primates such as gorillas, orangutans, and howler monkeys.

Different cultures see nature in different ways, some of which may not always be obvious to outside observers. Still, policymakers must try to account for the complex mosaic of human values when making decisions about our natural systems. Forest fires and other natural and ecological disasters in recent years have underscored the fragility of these systems and the communities that depend on them.

Governments are increasingly recognising the need for a broader perspective, and are seeking ways to account for nature when designing policies and mapping a path toward sustainable development. When the IPBES “Values Assessment” is released in 2022, it will provide a scientific basis to inform decisions that account for the diversity of values in our interactions with nature.

Patricia Balvanera is a professor at the Institute for Ecosystem and Sustainability Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico. Unai Pascual, a professor at the Basque Center for Climate Change, Spain, is an associate senior research scientist at the Center for Development and Environment, University of Bern. Mike Christie is Director of Research at Aberystwyth University’s Business School, United Kingdom. Brigitte Baptiste is Chancellor of Universidad Ean in Bogotá.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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