Why should ecosystem services be used for poverty alleviation? Establishing the ethical foundations of ESPA

This project asked a fundamental question: why should ecosystem services be used for poverty alleviation?

This is a fundamental question because, in the presence of ecological and social trade-offs, ecosystem services (ES) do not automatically benefit poor people, but have been demonstrated to accrue to better-off and more powerful actors (Ronnback et al., 2007; Daw et al., 2011). It is also a timely question, not only because many environmental interventions continue to take place in settings characterised by entrenched poverty but also because demand for ecosytem services from non-poor and spatially distant actors is predicted to rise in coming decades (Meyfroidt et al., 2013). It is a particularly timely question for the conservation community, with whom this project worked, because of active debates about the 'new conservation' and the ethical principles underpinning conservation practice (Lalasz et al., 2011; Soule, 2013). While a growing body of ESPA research now exists, none has comprehensively considered the ethical foundations of the ESPA proposition.

This project was designed to address this gap and influence the terms of debate on environmental management in this decade and beyond, by harnessing contemporary debates in conservation. It comprises three bodies of work addressing the question of why ecosystem services should be used for poverty alleviation (PA): 1) Through empirical work, we sought to understand how conservation practitioners in the global north and south rationalise whether and why ecosystem services should be governed for poverty alleviation; 2) Through novel theoretical work, we identified theories in political philosophy and environmental ethics underpinning the proposition that ecosystem services should be governed for the poor; 3) in a Think Tank event with practitioners, we co-produced knowledge about the ethical underpinnings of governing ecosystem services for poverty alleviation.

The transnational conservation sector provided an appropriate focus for this research because conservation is a deeply ethical undertaking, having concerns for the common good, non-human nature and the prospects of future generations at its core. The strength of disagreement in debates about the 'new conservation' signifies the underlying ethical concerns and the importance attributed to decisions over trade-offs. From an ethical perspective, the most critical trade-offs can be characterised as: a) human wellbeing vs. non-human nature, b) current vs. future generations and c) the poor vs. the greater good of all humans. It is around these trade-offs that both the empirical and the theoretical work were situated.

We focused upon conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for two reasons. Firstly, they form the vanguard of international thinking about conservation (Adams, 2004), and their influence is significant because of their transnational reach. Secondly, our previous work indicated that ecosystem services concepts have important implications in the conservation sector, in particular allowing some conservation organisations to renew rationales for prioritising poorer people as beneficiaries of conservation. These indications, combined with fresh debates about the 'new conservation', may signify the emergence of a hybrid conservation ethic combining concern for humans and ecosystems, related somehow to the concept of ecosystem services. Therefore, it was timely to investigate these phenomena empirically in the conservation sector. We hypothesised that turning attention to ethical concerns might serve to resolve ecosystem services tradeoffs, through the identification of an explicit and defensible case, from practitioners and supported by theory, of why the poorest should take priority.

The project found three key perspectives on conservation and poverty:

  • Perspective 1 promotes a moral imperative for poverty alleviation, prioritises humans above non-human nature, and focuses upon human rights and do no harm principles. In this perspective, poverty is not considered a conservation threat. 
  • Perspective 2 has an ecocentric moral reasoning, and human interests are not prioritised in conservation planning, but importance is nonetheless placed on rights protections for humans and do no harm principles. 
  • Perspective 3 is relatively nuanced, promoting a moral imperative for poverty alleviation, prioritising humans but without promoting do no harm or rights principles and sees poverty as a threat to biodiversity.

The project further found that empirical studies present specific notions of justice as desirable benchmarks for ecosystem services governance but that they rarely attempt to spell out the precise meaning of these notions or what makes them desirable. For those notions of justice that the project identified in this literature - sufficientarianism, egalitarianism and participatory approaches – it drew on philosophical justice literature in order to better articulate the normative arguments that could support them and to be more precise about the kind of actions and expectations that they invoke.

 

Featured image courtesy of Meena Kadri

Authors: Holmes, G.; Sandbrook, C.; Fisher, J.A.
Year: 2017
Lead Principal Investigator
Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of East Anglia
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: Fauna and Flora International
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of East Anglia
Country: United Kingdom
Researcher Co Investigator
Organisation: University of East Anglia
Country: United Kingdom