Understanding our responses to environmental change

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Inequality and ecosystem services – Social structures and processes determining who benefits from ecosystems and how

In 2011 we wrote a very well-received article that forcefully made the argument that we needed to dis-aggregate analysis of ecosystem services to understand how ecosystem services might benefit people, their environment and the opportunities for sustainable development. Since then we have developed a portfolio of critical research that interrogates the equity and distributional dimensions of who, where, how and when different people may or may not be able to benefit from the environment, across a range of different geographical contexts and scales.

Two important papers are published this week that provide critical insights into how inequality operates through ecosystem services provision, and how structural and social inequalities might be amplified or performed through management of ecosystem services, and in turn provide options to overturn or challenge inequality.

Matt Fortnam led analysis from our SPACES project to understand the gendered nature of ecosystem services, and this comprehensive empirical analysis published in the journal Ecological Economics. By applying the ‘Ecosystem Services and Wellbeing Chain’ we developed in SPACES (and set out in Ecology and Society paper published in 2016) to data collected at eight sites in Kenya and Mozambique, we show that ecosystem services are highly gendered, reflecting the social construction of ecosystem services and the critical importance of social mechanisms that underpin the relationships between people and ecosystems. These are embedded within cultures, traditions and socially proscribed gender roles, and in the institutions and governance of natural resource systems, markets and labour relations. The study shows that men and women often use, experience and benefit from ecosystem services in different ways, and may possess different ecological knowledges, changes to the availability, quality and bundle of ecosystem services will have different outcomes for men and women. Time and time again the failure to account for social diversity means that the most vulnerable fail to benefit from development interventions. Drawing upon the established insights of gender and environment studies, the article presents in-depth empirical data to demonstrate that gendered trade-offs and social differentiation more widely must be a critical consideration in ecosystem service research and ecosystem management if the ambition of inclusive development, promoted in the Sustainable Development Goals, is to be realised.

There are no easy ‘magic bullets’, however, that will remove inequalities in benefits from ecosystems, but there may be some opportunities to make inroads into them.  Understanding gender and ecosystem services relationships helps researchers and practitioners to avoid exacerbating biases, or enhancing gendered vulnerabilities, and to identify where interventions can make a difference. We demonstrate that disaggregated approaches to ecosystem service-wellbeing analysis offer a means to identify inequity in ecosystem governance. To address such inequities, we suggest that ecosystem management should: make gendered values and gendered contributions of ecosystem services to multiple aspects of wellbeing explicit in decision-making; account for gendered physical spaces; and strengthen, adapt or transform underpinning institutions to create equitable opportunities for the fair sharing of ecosystem benefits amongst men and women. we found the case of Wasini Women’s Group in Kenya, illustrated in the photograph above, which aims to generate income through mangrove tourism in order to conserve mangrove ecosystems and empower women an interesting example of how access and control over ecosystem services can support women’s empowerment.

But gender alone doesn’t account for all the differences in realising ecosystem benefits. Research led by Lucy Szaboova analyses differences in access to ecosystem services, and  provides rich insights into how access mechanisms operate and particularly how they disadvantage poorer and socially marginalised people. Working in Cornwall in UK, this work shows that four mechanisms mediate access to ecosystem benefits: rights-based, physical, structural and relational, and psychosocial. Socio-economic disadvantage mediates access to environmental spaces, in particular through psychosocial mechanisms, but our findings highlight the interlinked and synergistic nature of the four types of the access mechanisms.

We investigated the nature of mechanisms through which socio-economically disadvantaged participants negotiate access to ecosystem services such as the beautiful Cornish coastline shown in the photograph below. These mechanisms emerged not as discreet categories that shape access independently; rather they were closely intertwined and as such also conditioned one another. Our findings reveal that socio-economic disadvantage penetrates the mechanisms that mediate access to environmental spaces. Hence, in order to realise the positive impact that exposure to natural environments could have on the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged members of society, we must disentangle the complex web of interrelations between underlying structural conditions linked to disadvantage and mechanisms of access, as well as develop an enhanced understanding of the interaction between different types of access mechanisms.

Together these papers bring important insights to anyone interested in ecosystem services or understanding how peoples’ relationships with nature is affected by and affects social and economic inequality. Our research in two very different coastal regions of the world shows that gender, poverty and social exclusion work together to insure that access to environmental benefits are highly skewed. Further work will dive deeper into these urgent and globally significant issues for sustainable development and equitable resilience. 

These two new papers are:

The Gendered Nature of Ecosystem Services, by Fortnam, Brown, Chaigneau, Crona, Daw, Goncalves, Hicks, Revmatas, Sandbrook and Schulte-Herbruggen Ecological Economics available here

Access to Ecosystem Benefits: More than Proximity by Szaboova, Brown and Fisher, Society and Natural Resources, available here 

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