- Ecosystem services are conventionally evaluated only by ecological and economic values. Now, two studies investigate what local communities perceive as sociocultural values of ecosystems.
- Determining sociocultural values of ecosystem services could support policymaking. Many current policies are observed to be in discordance with community priorities.
- Researchers highlight the need to adequately compensate the contribution of indigenous people and local communities in nature conservation and resource management.
In the last few decades, nature conservation across the world has increasingly relied on measuring the economic value of ecosystem services (ES) provided by nature, in a bid to highlight the need for conservation measures to support essential goods and services that nature offers for human well-being.
While assigning economic values to important ecosystem services makes it convenient to design policy frameworks for the better management of natural resources, recent studies are proposing adding a new dimension to the conventional evaluation of ecosystem services — sociocultural values or the non-material well-being provided by the ecosystem and the importance assigned to them by the people. The studies advocate for understanding the priorities of local communities — the main stakeholders — and the sociocultural linkages they consider valuable from an ecosystem.
Two studies, one from the Eastern Himalayas and the other from the Western Ghats, probed what local communities perceived as valuable ecosystem services. Freshwater emerged as one of the most valuable natural commodities in the Himalayan study while the Western Ghats study found communities largely valued provisioning services, especially the non-timber forest produce (NTFP).
What communities want
The study from the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas surveyed 31 villages. In multiple focus group discussions with indigenous people and local communities, freshwater emerged as the most valuable natural commodity for the people. This was surprising because they were expecting the village residents to prioritise firewood or fodder, said Sarala Khaling of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) who led the study.
Recollecting his interactions with the local people during the discussions, senior project fellow Aditya Pradhan said that the people believed forests provided the best quality water and that they valued water above everything as it is “irreplaceable” unlike other commodities such as firewood or fodder. The village residents pointed to three key concerns — freshwater availability, freshwater regulation as well as purification. “The study provided insights into what local communities preferred and what they were prepared to pay for to conserve,” said Khaling.
Understanding the local perception of ecosystem services in forest-dependent communities is crucial for developing countries like India where often other compelling priorities for development take over conservation. It also helps in policy-making as many current policies are in discordance with community priorities, say researchers.
The local communities in the Himalayan study area pointed out declining freshwater availability, attributing it largely to unequal distribution of freshwater, unplanned growth in village tourism, poor waste disposal plans, and road construction around freshwater springs. They also reported a decline in agriculture practices and held human-wildlife conflict as the biggest threat to it. Recurrent incidents of crop and livestock depredation with low to no compensation from the government compounded the issue, especially in villages that are in the vicinity of protected areas.
Pradhan shared that in Darjeeling, most government cropping and farming policies are in favour of the plains, overlooking hill communities’ needs. “Community members told us that they are given seeds not suitable for the terrain and that affected agriculture,” he said.
The local village residents identified 28 ecosystem services, most of them falling under the provisioning and cultural services, while some regulating and supporting services were also recognised.
The researchers also noticed a declining trend in accessing forest produce like firewood. Instead, the communities started growing multipurpose trees on their farms for their use, mostly due to restrictions to access forest produce. “An important takeaway from villagers’ perception of ecosystem services is that the villagers have moved away from the traditional way of living which was largely dependent on forest produce and are increasingly dependent on agroforestry for livelihood,” he said.
The study from the Western Ghats showed similar results in terms of what ecosystem services local communities hold as valuable. It looked at data collected from 253 randomly selected households of the adivasi community of Soligas from Shettihalli Wildlife Sanctuary and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, with an aim to inform the policymakers about the role of adivasi communities in provisioning a range of ecosystem services which is imperative for the management of forest resources that wider public can benefit from.
M. Balasubramanian of the Center for Ecological Economics and Natural Resource, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru (CEENR-ISEC) who co-authored the study, said that the communities largely valued provisioning services, especially the non-timber forest produce (NTFP) they depended on for their livelihood. However, government policies were found to be not supportive of this practice, leading to financial distress among communities and degradation of forests.
Cultural and recreational services, too, were a priority since many adivasi community members were employed in related jobs such as forest tour guides or maintenance jobs at the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy temple. “During peak season, the BR temple and the adjoining forest area get about 200-250 visitors a day. Many tribal people are involved in the service of tourists which is a major revenue stream for the tourism department. We need to develop more such cultural services that are beneficial for both the government and the community,” he told Mongabay India.
The study states that despite a wider recognition that adivasi communities depend on forest resources from the Western Ghats, there is hardly any consideration of people’s needs and values of forest systems in the current government policies, let alone the recognition of their efforts in managing the landscape.
Drawing on the example of a cash transfer system adopted by the government of Peru for the maintenance of the Amazon, Balasubramanian said that India should implement such policies for the betterment of the communities that also serve the larger goal of conservation.
After the study, the researchers came up with a few recommendations for the government to improve the livelihood of the tribal communities which include adequate payment for the ecosystem services they provide as upstream communities in water conservation. They also suggested private-public partnerships in various development work in the forest area instead of acquiring land from the adivasis that will deny them forest rights.
“Many medium to large scale forest restoration programmes are happening in Karnataka to meet the commitments made in the Paris Agreement as well as a part of the Bonn Challenge. Our recommendation is to adequately compensate the tribal communities without whom this is impossible to achieve,” Balasubramanian said.
Banner image: A woman with her harvest of fishbone fern in Chota Suruk, Kalimpong, West Bengal, India. Photo by Aditya Pradhan.