Making sure the poor benefit from ecosystem services

Kate Munro's picture
Insight by 
Kate Munro
08 February 2012

Palm wine, bat stew and carbon markets all made it into the same discussion in Parliament last night – likely for the first time.

Investigators on the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), an interdisciplinary research programme which draws together physical scientists, social scientists and economists to examine how ecosystem services support human security, health and wellbeing met with Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Development and the Environment (APPGIDE).

Tapping palm wine from palm trees is a concrete example, provided by Professor Melissa Leach, an ESPA Investigator from the University of Sussex’ Institute of Development Studies, of how some of the poorest people living in Africa benefit from ecosystems. ESPA’s key objective is to empower communities to better manage and benefit from ecosystems in the future.

A major theme of ESPA’s work is to use ecology, epidemiology and social science to understand how land use and the degradation of natural habitats affects communities and what measures can be taken to reduce vulnerability to disease. An ecosystems approach is essential because ecological changes affect pathogen dynamics, which then affect people. To effectively reduce risk, people’s dependence on certain practices to make a living need to be understood to evaluate the trade-offs that have to be made to reduce infection rates.

Professor Melissa Leach’s presentation revealed that 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic – transmitted from animals to humans. She said that these diseases are re-emerging due to increasing levels of poverty.

She gave the example of Henipavirus in Ghana. It’s carried by bats and can be transmitted to people through their diet. Ghana’s urban poor are those most likely to eat bat stew and are therefore most susceptible to the virus. She also said pregnant women in Sierra Leone’s farming communities are vulnerable to Lassa fever, which is transmitted by contact with rat feces or urine and is eaten some places as a delicacy. Changing land use patterns, leading to the degradation of natural habitats, can, she explained, have major impacts on the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

Dr James Kairo, ESPA Investigator and Principle Researcher at the Kenyan Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, explained how mangroves provide communities with several critical ecosystem services. They provide charcoal and building materials, coastal protection from fierce tropical storms and flooding and capture carbon. However, around the world, mangroves have been heavily degraded, cut down for timber and/or used as farm land and over fished.

With a global shift in focus towards climate change mitigation though, there is now a new constituency of stakeholders with an interest in seeing degraded mangroves restored, and new forests created. He is working on a project in Kenya that will see the development of a new 117 hectare mangrove forest, potentially made sustainable through carbon markets.

Making carbon into a commodity can bring its own problems, as was highlighted in the audience discussion. It gives national governments title to the carbon sequestered in a country’s soils and forests for the purposes of trading on international carbon markets, which could pose an additional barrier to the efforts of individuals and poor rural communities to demarcate, and gain title to the land on which their livelihoods depend.

Professor Katrina Brown, a Professor of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia, and co-Chair of the ESPA International Programme Advisory Committee, referred to The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) which revealed that in the last 50 years, humans have transformed ecosystems more rapidly than ever before. The growing demand for food, fuel and timber threatens to severely undermine the aim of eradicating global poverty, she said.

ESPA’s key objective is to empower communities to manage ecosystems and accrue their benefits but, as Dr Bhaskar Vira, ESPA Investigator and Senior Lecturer at Cambridge, pointed out, there are always winners and losers in the allocation of resources.

This is the key challenge facing ESPA: to ensure the poor are the winners, reaping most benefit from new policies and practices.