What are Ecosystem Services?

Whether it is mountains, forests or vast delta regions at the coast humans have successfully adapted to surviving and making a livelihood across the world’s most diverse environments. But what underpins our success in living in such vastly different ecosystems? The answer is ecosystem services – the conditions and processes which underpin not just human life itself but also the integrity of the ecosystems on which we rely.

We depend on ecosystems and their services but what are they?

Ecosystems are complex systems made up of the dynamic interactions between all the living (humans, plant, animals, and microorganisms) and non-living (air, water and soil) parts as well as all the biological and physical processes that support this. 

Ecosystem services describe the many benefits that people get from ecosystems

Some of these are immediately obvious such as food, fresh water and natural products such as wood for building or fuel.

Yet beyond the direct provision of goods there are multitude of other less obvious services that are essential to ensure that ecosystems function properly so that they can sustain life and the provision of these goods.


The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has classified ecosystem services using four categories;

Provisioning Services – products obtained from ecosystem services Regulating Services – benefits obtained from regulation of ecosystem services processes Supporting Services – services necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services Cultural Services – non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems


Climate regulation

Nutrient cycling

Spiritual and religious values

Fresh Water

Disease regulation

Water cycling Recreation and ecotourism


Water regulation Soil formation Educational values

Biochemicals and natural medicines

Storm protection i.e. by coral reefs or mangroves

  Cultural heritage values


Ecosystems and their services are under threat – what does that mean for those in poverty?

Over the past 50 years humans have changed ecosystems at a far more rapid pace than at any other time in recorded history. As the population grows we place increasing demands on ecosystems and their services altering their natural balance – these effects can happen both regionally (conversion of forest to agriculture) and globally (climate change).

In the developed world technology and the globalised economy mean that we are no longer directly reliant on our local environment for survival but for many millions of people across the developing world their surroundings are the foundation of their livelihoods and wellbeing making them most vulnerable to environmental change.

Two patches of slash and burn plots next to Zahamena National Park in Madagascar

Unintended consequences

The relationships between humans, ecosystems and ecosystem services are very complex. Often when we increase one service, such as food provision through new agricultural approaches, it is at the expense of others, such as water regulation. 

Unfortunately these unintended consequences or trade-offs are common and difficult decisions need to made about which trade-offs are acceptable and sustainable.

Two patches of slash and burn plots next to Zahamena National Park in Madagascar

Why are trade-offs so common?

To make better decisions we need to anticipate trade-offs and this can be challenging;

  • Decisions about ecosystem use and land management are often made without a full understanding of the complex relationship between ecosystems, their services and people 
  • There are often short term economic and human wellbeing gains to be made from a particular approach.
  • Environmental degradation and loss of ecosystem services are not always immediately obvious especially when they occur gradually over time. When the damage is extensive it can cross a threshold beyond which the environment cannot recover ultimately affecting the wellbeing and livelihoods of those who rely on the land

Finding a solution

10 years ago the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment showed that the loss of services from ecosystems is a significant barrier to reducing poverty, hunger and disease. As the world debates the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it is clear that a better understanding of the complex relationship between people and their environment will be needed to ensure we can manage ecosystems sustainably, improve wellbeing and generate new pathways out of poverty.