Nobody doubts that coastal and wetland ecosystems that support migratory waterbirds in our Flyway provide a host of valuable ecosystem services. Indeed, supporting migratory waterbirds itself is an ecosystem service, a benefit that is appreciated by many people. These people are often prepared to invest significant time and resources to be able to experience these wetlands and their wildlife. Other widely-cited services include water infiltration and regulation, ameliorating flood and drought events, buffering climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise and storm surges, nurturing fisheries and providing livelihoods to communities, from shellfisheries to tourist industries. Recognition of the value of ecosystem services is useful, but using that value as an instrument to argue for better protection comes with risks.
A recent paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution highlights some of the problems associated with over-relying on the ecosystem services approach, and particularly by putting a monetary value on these services. By placing the argument on economic grounds, there is an implication that alternative services that can be created through modification of the natural ecosystem to provide a greater economic return should be justified. There is a shift from the moral ground (nature should be protected for its own sake, or for non-economic values) to the economic arena. Then you end up arguing with economists (who we know have no morals!). The battleground has shifted to the economist’s turf. And so reclamation of mudflats can be justified on the much higher economic returns from, for example, housing or tourism development. The fact that most of these economic returns largely accrue to a group of probably already wealthy people rather than impoverished shellfish collectors is rarely raised. And if it is, it’s to say that the shellfish collectors would be better off switching to jobs in the newly-created tourism sector. The author of the article asks “whether placing a price on biodiversity and ecosystem function actually leads to greater protection and improvement, or merely puts a price on destruction.”
In reality, and as I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, we need to use a variety of approaches, but keep in mind the benefits and limitations of each one. Governments have a responsibility to guard the public good. A country’s rich natural and biodiversity heritage certainly qualifies as a public good, and protected areas are one way of promoting citizens’ access to this heritage, even into the future as its value becomes more appreciated. Adherence to environmental conventions, including partnerships such as EAAFP, signals a commitment to protecting the globally shared values of biodiversity and habitats. The ecosystem services argument should be used, but it should be used judiciously.
One thing is certain – we need to increase the appreciation and understanding of the value of migratory waterbirds and their habitats among all sectors of society (even economists!) and then we need to encourage these people to mobilize efforts to promote their conservation, from schoolchildren and their parents to politicians and civic leaders. The power to mobilize is unlikely to be based on the economic value of birds and habitats, but will come from questioning our right to destroy these wonderful creatures and the places they live in, our arrogance in denying them the space to live alongside us, and preventing future generations from being able to witness the spectacular migration these birds undertake each year.
Spike Millington, Chief Executive