Beyond Timber

B01: The Future of Ecosystem Services from Forests

Central Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Canada Credit: Leigh R. Hilbert
Central Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Canada Credit: Leigh R. Hilbert

In Malaysia, one hectare of forest is valued at $500, but once converted to an oil palm plantation, the value skyrockets to $25,000. Across the globe, natural ecosystems are worth less than land that is converted to agriculture. In the presence of such economic disparities, how then can natural forests possibly continue to exist?

In response to a growing concern world-wide regarding the future of our forests, a focus on ecosystem services and multifunctional forests has come to the forefront. The research presented in this session illustrated a diverse array of methods being developed and employed to transform ecosystem services from externalities to valued resources.

David Brand addressed the question of what is needed to make markets for ecosystem services a reality. His talk focused on cap and trade systems. He gave a number of examples where this approach has been successful, such as the U.S. Acid Rain Program and the E.U. Emissions Trading System. However, because markets for ecosystem services need to be created artificially by a government, they can be seen as risky. Brand also highlighted that ecosystem services are often international issues, which makes addressing the problem even more difficult. Despite these challenges, he stressed that price signals do work and that by placing values on ecosystem services, we can incentivize measures that promote multifunctional forestry.

Another system being used is payments for environmental services (PES). Sven Wunder gave an overview of these programs and how they should be designed. He defined PES as “voluntary transactions between users and providers that are conditional on agreed rules of natural resource management for generating offsite services.” These can be user financed or government financed. While he recognized that there have been few in-depth assessments of the method, to date, there are still lessons that can be learned from past and current programs. He concluded that PES programs should focus on threatened and/or high service areas, payments should be customized to particular areas rather than applying uniform rates, and that conditionality needs to be credible.

Phuong Vu Tan provided additional insight into these programs in his presentation on the use of PES in Vietnam. In this system, different user parties, such as hydroelectric power plants, eco-tourism companies, and water supply companies pay a non-profit fund called the Forest Protection and Development Fund, which then provides financial resources for forest management. While the system has largely been successful, there has not been a baseline identified for socio-economic status or forest condition, making it difficult to determine the social and ecological impact of the PES program.

An important message that came out of this session was that local involvement was key. Harry Nelson and Arbi James Sarkissian both used choice experiments with groups of local people in Clayoquot Sound (Canada) and Lebanon, respectively. These types of surveys are important in revealing people’s preferences for land management scenarios and what benefits, such as compensation or employment, they value most. Nelson also found that people’s choices were influenced by community discussion, such that survey responses were different before and after talking with other community members about the issues. His work demonstrated the importance of discussion in maintaining transparency, and consequently, people’s trust.

Forested areas face a variety of pressures, from increasing demands associated with global population rise, to climate change. Traditional forestry methods have focused on maximizing profit from extracting natural products, primarily timber. However there is a growing recognition of the importance of ecosystem services and a shift toward a more holistic perception of forests. Designing metrics to properly account for ecosystem services is crucial, or the full value of our forests will not be realized until they are lost.

Written by: Allison Chan

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