11. Policy and responses for the future

Authors: Claire Brown (UNEP-WCMC) and Sharon Brooks (UNEP-WCMC)

One of the integral steps in including knowledge into decision-making is the formulation and understanding of the response options available to the range of actors carrying out decisions in different sectors and at different scales.  These actors include national governments, intergovernmental organisations, domestic and international private operators, non-governmental organisations, and local communities.  The different responses of these actors thereby represent differences in the scale and context in which they operate and many of them are interrelated whereby one response can feed into another.  An overview of these is given below.

International policy responses - Global problems require global solutions.  This is certainly the case for threats such as climate change which are global in nature, but is also true for many more localised threats related to biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation as a result of globalised trade networks and the distribution of the world’s wealth, resources and biodiversity.   This need for an international response has given rise to a number of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs): agreements between Member states on issues related to the environment, often supported by the United Nations.  Of significance is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, see Chapter 2) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, see Chapter 4).

National policy responses – Most countries have a number of policies and regulations that relate to the environment.  While these are often developed in response to threats perceived at the local or national level, they are also in response to MEAs to which they have committed.  As an example, signatories to the CBD are required to develop National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (NBSAPs) that feeds into national level instruments for regulation, land designation, procurement policies, education, funding and incentive schemes etc.  Equally, signatories to the Kyoto protocol of the UNFCCC are committed to binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, which then direct national-level strategies, including regulatory mechanisms and engagement in market-based mechanisms for the trade of emission permits.

Private sector responses – Businesses are increasingly engaged at local, national and international scales, in response to the risks and opportunities associated with biodiversity and ecosystem services (see Chapter 3).  The drivers behind this trend include consumer preferences for sustainably produced goods and services, stringent sustainability standards for accessing financial capital, reputational implications associated with biodiversity management practices, and liability resulting from adverse impacts on the environment.  Companies are responding by developing biodiversity policies, implementing impact mitigation strategies, conforming to best practice guidelines and standards, providing conservation investment, and adopting market-based mechanisms such as payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes and biodiversity and carbon offsetting (UNEP 2010).  Such efforts are often supported through partnerships with international conservation NGOs, as well as through membership to industry associations (e.g. International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM)) and business councils (e.g. World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Local level responses – Many conservation interventions ultimately occur at the local level, whether in response to national or international policies through a ‘top down’ approach or whether through local community, local government or local NGO led ‘bottom up’ approaches.  Local communities are increasingly recognised as stewards of their own environment, as there is increasing recognition of the field of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM).  The effectiveness of CBNRM does, however, heavily depend on the local context in which it operates, in particular, governance capacities; resource conditions; and local customs (Brunkhorst 2010).

Types of responses that can be enacted have been broadly categorised by Simpson and Vira (2010) as:

  • Community management – formal and recognised by national/local government, or informal traditional systems
  • Command-and-control regulation – enactment of statutes or regulation by local and national governments, as well as internationally in the case of the legally binding Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
  • Market-based incentives tax- or fee-based systems, cap-and-trade approach, biodiversity and carbon offsets
  • Payment for ecosystem services (PES) programs – offering incentives in exchange for the management of an area for the provision of ecosystem services.
  • Sustainable use strategies – often through community management, and often supported by market-based certification schemes, and high level policies such as those of the CBD

Responses to ecosystem degradation are therefore varied in nature and scale, and identifying the appropriate intervention depends on the problem at hand.  Comparing the effectiveness of different responses requires consideration of the scale at which the consequences of ecosystem change are felt, the capacity of actors to effect a change, and the awareness that the change is occurring.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) identifies five types of problem that might result in the degradation of ecosystems: Poor governance, market failures, social and behavioural factors, under-investment in ecosystem service based technology, and insufficient knowledge (Simpson and Vira 2010).   The ability to tackle these problems depends on 1) An adequate knowledge base; 2) Enablement to enact instrumental changes, and 3) the instruments themselves: technologies, market mechanisms, regulations, subsidies, alternative harvest strategies etc.

Given the trade-offs between ecosystem services, whereby different beneficiaries often have different needs and competing interests (as discussed in Chapter 3), any response that tackles a specific problem will result in winners and losers.   When considering different response options, a number of options are available to help balance competing interests: 1. Multi-criteria analysis, 2. Cost-benefit analysis, and 3. Cost-effectiveness analysis.

Case Studies

Farm forestry in India

In the mid-1970s, the Indian government responded to the perceived fuelwood crisis by introducing “farm forestry” programs.  These included incentives for the cultivation of fuelwood trees, to relieve pressure on remaining natural forests, and were promoted through subsidized seedlings and technical support.
Despite widespread adoption, the intervention was unsuccessful in alleviating pressure on natural forests as a source of rural energy supply, and failed to deliver benefits to either the natural ecosystem or poor rural households. Participation was typically by large farmers who perceived trees as a cash crop, rather than intended small and marginal farmers, for whom growing trees was not the best option on their limited landholdings. There was a substantial increase in tree cover, but typically of species that had a market value.  (Simpson and Vira 2010)

Managing regulatory risk associated with ecosystem services in Brazil

In 2004 Brazil’s largest soybean processor, Bunge Limited, entered into a partnership with two NGOs, Conservation International and Oréades, to help suppliers in the Cerrado manage their lands and conserve biodiversity, while satisfying a requirement of Brazil’s Forest Code to establish legal reserves. It encourages farmers to implement agricultural practices that reduce the ecological impacts of soy cultivation and identify areas with high concentrations of biodiversity. 
A pilot project involved 71 soy farmers managing 147,000 hectares from the mid-western and north-eastern regions.  An extension of this work included areas in the south (Piauí State) which have seen more recent farming expansion. Work here has focussed on adapting legal reserves to form corridors of native vegetation to conserve the biodiversity. (Bunge (2009) Sustainability Report 2009 – Edition Brazil. São Paulo).

Key messages:

  • Responses to ecosystem degradation are made by a various actors, operating at different scales from the local to the global.
  • The responses by these actors are often interrelated, whereby the actions of one can feed into those of another.
  • An effective response is one carried out at a scale appropriate to the scope at which the ecosystem change is occurring, by actors with the power to enact instrumental change, and that those involved possess knowledge and awareness of the problem.
  • Different response strategies will have winners and losers as a result of the trade-offs between the needs and interests of the various beneficiaries.


Key questions:

  1. What is the ecosystem change or loss in human well-being that needs to be addressed, and at what scale is it occurring?
  2. Who will respond? Local communities, NGOs, business, governments, international society?
  3. Which strategies will they choose? Market based, community managed, command and control, PES schemes?
  4. What will their effects be on both ecosystems and human well-being?


Key tools:

Ecosystems and Human Well-being – A Manual for Assessment Practitioners - A practical guide for undertaking ecosystem assessments.  Of particular relevance is Chapter 6 on Assessing intervention strategies.

TEEB for policy makers - Guidance for policy makers at international, regional and local levels to foster sustainable development and better conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity

TEEB for business - Leading information and tools for improved biodiversity-related business practice

Ecosystem marketplace - A source of news, data, and analytics on markets and payments for ecosystem services

Community Based Natural Resource Management network - Networking tools aimed at linking stakeholders involved in CBNRM

Key References:

ActionAid (2006) Accountability, Learning and Planning System (ALPS).Johannesburg: ActionAid International.

Bohensky, E. and Lynam, T. (2005) Evaluating responses in complex adaptive systems: Insights on water management from the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA). Ecology and Society 10(1): 11.

Brunkhorst, D.J. (2010) Using context in novel community-based natural resource management: landscapes of property, policy and place.Environmental Conservation 37: 16-22.

Chomitz, K.M., Thomas, T.S. and Brandao, A.S. (2004) Creating markets for habitat conservation when habitats are heterogeneous. Washington, DC: World Bank (Policy Research Working Paper 3249).

Leach, M., Mearns, R. and Scoones, I. (1999) Environmental entitlements: Dynamics and institutions in community-based natural resource management. World Development 27(2): 225–47.

Lucas, N.J., Rodriguez, I.  and Correa, H.D. (2008) To change global change: Ecosystem transformation and conflict in the 21st century. In J. Ranganathan, M. Munasinghe and F.  Irwin, ed.  Policies for sustainable governance of global ecosystem services. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) (2005) Ecosystems and human well-being: Policy responses. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990) Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Simpson, R.D. and Vira, B. (2010) Assessing intervention strategies. Pp. 221-253 in N. Ash et al., eds. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A manual for assessment practitioners. Washington, DC: Island Press.

UNEP (2010) Are you a green leader? Business and biodiversity: making the case for a lasting solution. Paris and Cambridge: UNEP DTIE and UNEP-WCMC.

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