This paper was originally published in Science Magazine.


“A major challenge today and into the future is to maintain or enhance beneficial contributions of nature to a good quality of life for all people. This is among the key motivations of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a joint global effort by governments, academia, and civil society to assess and promote knowledge of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems and their contribution to human societies in order to inform policy formulation. One of the more recent key elements of the IPBES conceptual framework (1) is the notion of nature’s contributions to people (NCP), which builds on the ecosystem service concept popularized by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) (2). But as we detail below, NCP as defined and put into practice in IPBES differs from earlier work in several important ways. First, the NCP approach recognizes the central and pervasive role that culture plays in defining all links between people and nature. Second, use of NCP elevates, emphasizes, and operationalizes the role of indigenous and local knowledge in understanding nature’s contribution to people.

The broad remit of IPBES requires it to engage a wide range of stakeholders, spanning from natural, social, humanistic, and engineering sciences to indigenous peoples and local communities in whose territories lie much of the world’s biodiversity. Being an intergovernmental body, such inclusiveness is essential not only for advancing knowledge but also for the political legitimacy of assessment findings (3).

From Services to Contributions

NCP are all the contributions, both positive and negative, of living nature (diversity of organisms, ecosystems, and their associated ecological and evolutionary processes) to people’s quality of life (4). Beneficial contributions include, for example, food provision, water purification, and artistic inspiration, whereas detrimental contributions include disease transmission and predation that damage people or their assets. Many NCP may be perceived as benefits or detriments depending on the cultural, socioeconomic, temporal, or spatial context. For example, some carnivores are recognized—even by the same people—as beneficial for control of wild ungulates but as harmful because they may attack livestock.

At first inspection, the notion of NCP does not appear to differ much from the original MA definition of ecosystem services (2), which was broad and contemplated links to many facets of well-being. However, the detailed conceptualization and the practical work on ecosystem services following on the MA were dominated by knowledge from the natural sciences and economics. The natural sciences, and ecology in particular, were used to define “ecological production functions” to determine the supply of services, conceptualized as flows stemming from ecosystems (stocks of natural capital) (5). Economics was used to estimate the monetary value of those ecosystem services flows so as to identify trade-offs among them and their impacts on well-being. Aided by ecology and economics having readily available tools, the ecosystem services approach developed into a vibrant research field, influenced policy discourse, and advanced the sustainability agenda.

However, this predominantly stock-and-flow framing of people-nature relationships largely failed to engage a range of perspectives from the social sciences (6), or those of local practitioners, including indigenous peoples. This reinforced a mutual alienation process in which MA-inspired studies and policies became increasingly narrow, which in turn led to voluntary self-exclusion of disciplines, stakeholders, and worldviews. As a consequence, the ecosystem services research program proceeded largely without benefiting from insights and tools in social sciences and humanities. For example, the unpacking and valuation of some “cultural ecosystem services” not readily amenable to biophysical or monetary metrics have lagged behind (7), and so has their mainstreaming into policy. In addition, as diverse disciplines and stakeholders remained at the margins, the initial skepticism toward the ecosystem services framework turned into active opposition, often based on the perceived risks of commodification of nature (8) and associated social equity concerns (9).

The need to be inclusive, both in terms of the strands of knowledge incorporated and representation of worldviews, interests and values (10), required IPBES to move to using NCP. Although still rooted in the MA ecosystem services framework (fig. S1), this new approach has the potential to firmly embed and welcome a wider set of viewpoints and stakeholders. It should also be less likely to be subsumed within a narrow economic (such as market-based) approach as the mediating factor between people and nature…”

Read on at: Science Magazine.