Human dependence on ecosystem services - can quantifying it help fight poverty?

Wu Yang
June 6, 2013

Ecosystem service research is critically important for poverty alleviation. Compared to affluent people, the poor are often regarded as more dependent on ecosystem services – but that is more often a hunch rather than a quantified fact.

It’s hard to develop good policy on hunches.

In a recent study1, my colleagues and I developed a new index system to quantify human dependence on ecosystem services. We also applied the developed index system and quantitatively confirmed that the poor do depend more on ecosystem services – and that dependence makes the poor particularly vulnerable.

It’s hard to alleviate poverty if the precise causes of poverty are not well known. Understanding the quantitative linkages between ecosystem services and the well-being2 of people is an important step in solving the puzzle.

Firstly, quantifying how people depend on ecosystem services can help rectify the tendency to overlook the relationship between the poor and ecosystem services in statistics, poverty assessments, and natural resource management decisions. Hard data is a way to avoid many inappropriate strategies that marginalize the poor and degrade ecosystem services.

Secondly, our developed index system can help target priority population groups for poverty alleviation as well as for biodiversity conservation. The benefits of ecosystem services are often unequally distributed across different population groups. One commonly known example worldwide is that the money generated by ecotourism often flows mainly to tourism companies and local governments, while a very small portion flows to local people - and only a trickle makes it to the poor.

Thirdly, our developed index system can also help to recognize and manage previously unmanaged risks and unrealized opportunities due to dramatic changes of ecosystems and their provision of services. Those people or organizations that depend most on nature’s benefits are also most vulnerable when nature fails – as when there is an earthquake or flood, or human-induced destruction. We are working to provide a tool for researchers, business organizations, and governments to identify those vulnerable groups, conduct further studies, prepare for potential risks, create business opportunities, and design policies for solutions.

Finally, our developed index system may help to alleviate poverty by improving the understanding of biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation feedback loops — poverty leads to biodiversity losses, which then aggravate poverty, forming vicious circles. While there are theories on how human activities affect the environment, understanding how environmental changes may affect human society lag far behind. Further studies in this direction would remarkably improve such understanding – and allow us to take care of both nature and humans.

Wu Yang is a PhD student at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA Email: yangwu1201 [at]

Further reading:

1. Yang W, Dietz T, Liu W, Luo J, Liu J (2013) Going beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: an index system of human dependence on ecosystem services. PLoS One 8: e64581.

2. Yang W, Dietz T, Kramer DB, Chen X, Liu J (2013) Going beyond the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: an index system of human well-being. PLoS One 8: e64582.