Ecosystem services, meanings and behaviours: a social process

by | Oct 9, 2015 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

There are times when we are reminded that the conservation of biodiversity is not just about nature, but about coupled systems of people-and-nature, and about anticipating and understanding the shifts in human demands on ecosystem services.

When these shifts represent dramatic re-allocation and re-distribution of ecosystem services, they can cause tensions among stakeholders and resistance to policy implementation that are difficult to manage.

In such instances, the social sciences can contribute by creating an understanding of how people value resources and why they behave in diverse and, sometimes disruptive ways, when the distribution of ecosystem services is altered.

Case study on landscape change

It is within this context that a poster titled: ‘Managing for social robustness in social-ecological systems’, was presented at the 2015 World Social Science Forum, held in Durban 13 – 16 September.

SANBI scientist Aluwani Tshiila with a member of the public at the 2015 World Social Science Forum

The poster was based on Ernita van Wyk’s (SANBI) recently completed PhD study (University of KwaZulu-Natal).

The landscape change from plantation forest to lowland fynbos in Tokai and the resultant behaviours provided a useful case study to develop a social-ecological understanding of how and why stakeholders respond to changes in the types and levels of ecosystem services.

Meanings motivate and direct behaviours

The study showed that the re-allocation and re-distribution of ecosystem services causes stakeholders to interrogate how they prioritise meanings in relation to ecosystem services.

Meanings are human constructs that help people prioritise what is significant to them in their lives. Meanings are rooted in values such that meanings, when deeply held, are difficult to change. Importantly, meanings fundamentally motivate and direct behaviours.

When the nature or levels of ecosystem services are altered, stakeholders may change the priority position of their meanings and choose to support the change, or they may maintain their meaning prioritisation and resist the change.

This is important because it suggests that in many instances where ecosystem service distribution is altered, there may be limited scope for win-win resolutions, as some stakeholder meanings are prioritised and they stand to gain from the change while others, whose meanings have a lower priority in the new context, must accept a reduction in benefits (e.g. reduction in access to previous ecosystem services).

Stakeholder participation in negotiation of meanings

The study also highlighted the importance of the process whereby stakeholder meanings and values are elicited and handled. For example, some stakeholders are encouraged to support a decision if they are allowed to participate in the priority negotiation of meanings and if they perceive the process to be fair to the stakeholder collective.

This has important implications for conservation agencies because they can use these lessons to mitigate tensions and to continually foster and sustain public support for their decisions even when the decisions are unpopular to some.

Based on this understanding, agencies can act purposefully to incorporate these lessons into the design of the institutions (formal and informal procedures and rules) set up to anticipate and mediate the relationships between policy, the state of ecosystem services, stakeholder meanings and behaviours.

The following research partners are thanked: Charles Breen (University of KwaZulu-Natal), Wayne Freimund (University of Montana), Alfons Mosimane (University of Namibia) and Bimo Nkhata (Monash South Africa)

Further reading:

  • Van Wyk E. (2015). Meanings and robustness in social-ecological systems: implications for managing change. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg. South Africa.
  • Van Wyk E., Breen C., and Freimund W. (2014). Meanings and robustness: propositions for enhancing benefit-sharing in social-ecological systems. International Journal of the Commons8(2):576-594.

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