ACES: A story about ecosystems

Sam Mwangi
March 27, 2017

Our regional advisor for Africa Sam Mwangi attended the final workshop for our ACES project. Here he gives us his personal perspective on the project and its findings. 

Victorio looked across his land and was struck with a new realisation: he could see across several of his neighbour’s gardens and see the low lying foothills about a mile away from his house. He had not consciously acknowledged this before, and this troubled him even more than the realisation that the landscape had altered. The giant trees were gone.

The old man sighed as he contemplated the long day ahead. For a couple of months he had been relatively idle, tending to the soil and wondering whether to travel down to Maputo to seek employment as a casual labourer in one of the numerous construction sites in the city. He realised that the regular income he had grown to expect for the three years he traded in charcoal had dried up, and looking at his garden made him sad. It was more like a plain with a few tree stumps left, around which flourished a luxurious and multi-coloured carpet of weeds.

Victorio is just one of many landowners who have seen their natural capital dwindle as swathes of natural forests are axed for charcoal burning. The demand for charcoal in nearby towns is rising sharply, as are the prices the product is fetching. In a meeting with a conservation project led by a professor from Eduardo Mondlane University, it was pointed out that the charcoal burning activities do not augur well for the local economy. The people involved were asked to consider the repercussions of tree cutting, which include increased aridity, lower soil productivity and drying up of water sources which they depended on. Victorio could not agree more, and in fact would have added that the once beautiful and lush landscape had lost its beauty, its life. Now, when he looked at the land, he could not feel its soul.

The scientific team implementing the Abrupt Changes in Ecosystem Services and Human Wellbeing project (ACES), which works in the region where Victorio lives, has found out that conservation has a high cost which can be traded off with the potential rewards. Rapid changes to land use may result in decline of productivity, and with it the flow of benefits to those most in need, the poor. Some basic aspects, such as defining ecosystem boundary resources at appropriate spatial and temporal scales and the influence of ecological processes in forestry services, need to be well understood. The ACES project observed that these questions lead to inquiries about the trends and flows of services over time and space and how these affect human wellbeing. 

The ACES Project is funded by ESPA. For more information please see



Featured image courtesy of World Bank