The importance of tackling trade-offs in the search for sustainability

Sarah Coulthard, University of Northumbria
May 25, 2015

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment catalysed a resurgence of work to improve our understanding of the relationship between ecosystem services -the benefits that the environment provides to human life, and human wellbeing - a condition where basic human needs are met and people are able to enjoy a quality of life. We now have a variety of ways to unpack this relationship, usually resulting in long lists of ecosystem services, and their associated wellbeing benefits - fish gives nutrition, mangroves shelter, forest plants provide medicine, and so on.

Whilst these contributions are better acknowledged, and perhaps more greatly valued (and therefore protected) as a result of this research, questions are emerging from the policy-practice-science interface about where this improved understanding can really take us, in terms of enabling better management of a threatened natural resource whilst improving the lives of resource-dependent peoples – who are often already living with vastly inadequate levels of wellbeing. How does knowing about the ES-WB relationship help managers and policy makers, and communities themselves, do things differently, and better?

A trade-off can be defined simply as a decision which results in gains for one ecosystem service or group of people, but results in losses for others. They are at the heart of natural resource management, and policy makers and practitioners are faced with, often difficult, trade-offs every day. Despite this, trade-offs are often ignored in conservation and development work; they have become ‘taboo’ with decision-makers opting instead to selectively focus on more socially and politically palatable ‘win-win’ stories of success – where they exist.

Ignorance, or implicit disguising, of taboo trade-offs does an enormous disservice to those ES and people who find they are at the losing end of the decision outcome, and risks the oversight of unmonitored environmental loss and worsening poverty. In many situations, the fallout of such losses is only acknowledged when the management decision struggles to be implemented, often following a backlash as people either quietly undermine, or actively fight back against a decision that they deem to be either unjust, or simply unfeasible. A good example of such a backlash is the reaction of many fishers in Kenya who continue to fish illegally in managed areas by using prohibited gears, such as beach seine. Parks and gear bans whilst protecting a valuable resource, incur losses for those people who rely on these mechanisms of access to catch, sell and eat fish.

Two fundamental questions are necessary to understand trade-offs:

  • What is being lost and gained as a result of the decision (what is being traded)? and
  • Who in society incurs the gains and losses that emerge (who are the winners and losers)?

 A focus on wellbeing immediately broadens our response to these questions. By exploring the ways in which decisions impact quality of life through a wide range of wellbeing domains, our understanding of social impact is more holistic, moving beyond impacts on income or assets alone. Marine conservation can also impact important but often overlooked parts of life such as family relationships, social participation, cultural values and maintaining heritage. As our understanding of how trade-offs affect wellbeing deepens, so it follows that the range of acknowledged stakeholders who are affected similarly expands and becomes more inclusive.

Our project, supported by the UK Government through the ESPA research programme, explicitly analysed different management approaches, using current and future scenarios, to evaluate gains and losses in terms of environmental health and human wellbeing. When analysed through the lens of wellbeing, different groups of people were found to be affected in different ways, some of which were not immediately apparent.

Drawing on the above example of the ban on illegal nets, many legal fishers benefitted because they caught bigger and more valuable fish– and this has been argued to be a win-win situation for the environment and some fishers. There are also losses incurred however: the illegal beach seiners who struggle to adopt an alternative gear niche in an already overcrowded fishery, and subsequently women fish venders who buy and fry the cheapest fish to sell locally, providing an important source of protein-rich food security.  

Beach seining in Mombasa, Kenya  

Beach seining in Mombasa, Kenya

Including all affected people in the scenario building, and associated deliberations, greatly illuminated these trade-offs and the identification of different ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. This was however only the first step in a process moving towards more inclusive management. The innovative techniques that emerged from these deliberations helped managers and policymakers to better assess and directly tackle difficult trade-offs. Scenario deliberations uncovered and confronted the uncomfortable trade-offs potentially hidden in standard cost-benefit evaluations and decisions. The relevance of a more holistic approach, centred around wellbeing and trade-offs, was highlighted in participant comments post workshop. One participant said, “[the workshop] Broadened my … perception of the ecosystem and links to wellbeing of primary stakeholders and so now I do not approach projects from a narrow perspective. Previously I may have shied away from a gender meeting but now I am willing to attend because I realize that there are interconnections to the work that I do in conservation.”;

 Another added ‘’Due to the emphasis put on trade-offs in the workshop; I will have more awareness of trade-offs whilst working. For example in the case of marine protected areas, decisions are often made without taking into consideration the livelihoods of the fishermen and they do not get any compensation after these decisions are made, whilst in other conservation areas like the Masaai Mara National Reserve area they do. These are the kind of decisions that I will be more aware of’’;

Identifying trade-offs doesn’t provide easy answers, nor does it make decision-making any easier. It does however enable decisions to be made with a greater understanding of the range of consequences, and for a greater number of affected people and as such, it is likely to improve the transparency and outcome of the decision. By directly tackling and deliberating over trade-offs, rather than denying, or simplifying, them, opportunities can be created to promote a better balance, and greater synthesis, between managing for human wellbeing and protecting the environment, both of which are necessarily for sustainability. 

sarah.coulthard [at] (Sarah Coulthard), University of Northumbria

Tim M. Daw, Sarah Coulthard, William W. L. Cheung, Katrina Brown, Caroline Abunge, Diego Galafassi, Garry D. Peterson, Tim R. McClanahan, Johnstone O. Omukoto, and Lydiah Munyi.