Environmental justice research shows the importance of social feedbacks in ecosystem service trade-offs
In this article, we shine a spotlight on approaches to ecosystem service trade-offs and critically assess their representation of relevant social dynamics. Although studies linking ecosystem services and human wellbeing have provided theoretical insights into social and ecological trade-offs, we argue that ecosystem services research has paid insufficient attention to 'social feedbacks', people's cognitive and behavioural responses to change. We demonstrate that augmenting ecosystem services research with environmental justice approaches (exploring perceptions of the distribution of costs and benefits, decision making procedures and recognition of different values and identities) can more effectively capture important responses to ecosystem governance. Spatial analysis of land use change, mixed-method assessment of multidimensional wellbeing and qualitative environmental justice research were applied in three villages adjacent to Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in northern Laos. Spatial analysis showed that, from 2006 to 2015, forest clearance for cultivation remained stable within the protected area. Wellbeing assessment revealed the local population benefitted from rapidly increasing incomes, asset ownership and reduced poverty during that time. In combination, spatial and wellbeing analyses paint a picture of limited trade-offs, despite growing incentives to exploit protected land and resources through cash crops and high-value forest products. In contrast, results from environmental justice research revealed profound trade-offs between conservation and local practices, and highlight governance deficiencies relating to procedure and recognition. Consequently, formal protected area rules were perceived to be illegitimate by many and actively undermined, for example through negotiated access with alternative authorities. We conclude that while wellbeing research provides an essential foundation to understand diverse attachments to natural resources, the addition of environmental justice research can reveal local perceptions and social feedbacks critical to ecosystem service trade-offs, and highlight pathways to reconcile them through satisfying stakeholders' diverse, dynamic objectives.