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Ecosystem Change

3. How have ecosystem changes affected human well-being and poverty alleviation?

  • 3.1 How is human well-being linked to ecosystem services?
  • 3.2 How is the economy linked to ecosystem services?
  • 3.3 What is the current situation of poverty in the world?
  • 3.4 How is poverty linked to ecosystem services?

3.1 How is human well-being linked to ecosystem services?

Human well-being depends notably on material welfare, health, good social relations, security, and freedom. All of these are affected by changes in ecosystem services (see Box 3.1), but also by the supply and quality of, for example, social capital and technology. When the supply of ecosystem services exceeds the demand, an increase in supply tends to enhance human well-being only marginally. In contrast, when the service is in short supply, a small decrease can substantially reduce well-being.

Specific components of human well-being are linked to ecosystem services (see figure on linkages in Box 3.1). Further information for each main component is provided in Box 3.1 in the links below: More...

Basic material for a good life
Good social relations
Freedom of choice and action

3.2 How is the economy linked to ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services, particularly food production, timber, and marine fisheries, contribute significantly to global employment and economic activity.

In 2000, the total value of food production was less than 3% of gross world product, but it is a much higher share of GDP within developing countries. Close to half of the total global labor force worked in agriculture, but in industrial countries the share of agricultural employment is much lower (for example, 2.4% in the United States).

The depletion and degradation of many ecosystem services represents a loss of a capital asset that is poorly reflected in conventional economic indicators of well-being such as GDP. For example, a country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries, and this would show only as a positive gain to GDP, despite the loss of capital assets.

The degradation of ecosystem services often causes significant harm to human well-being.

  • Resource management decisions are influenced by markets, and as a result, non-marketed benefits are often lost or degraded.
  • The overall benefit of sustainable ecosystem management may often exceed that of converting the ecosystem through farming, clear-cut logging, or other intensive uses (see Figure 3.3). However, because of the immediate financial benefit, the conversion of ecosystems is often favored.
  • Economic and public health costs associated with damage to ecosystem services can be substantial. For example, the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery due to overfishing cost tens of thousands of jobs and at least 2 billion dollars in income support and re-training, (see Figure 3.4)
  • Significant investments are often needed to restore or maintain non-marketed ecosystem services.

Degradation of ecosystem services could be significantly slowed or reversed if the full economic value of the services were taken into account in decision-making. However, some ecosystem services, like agriculture, often ‘compete’ with the benefits of maintaining greater biological diversity, and many of the steps taken to increase the production require the simplification of natural systems. The level of biodiversity that survives on Earth will be determined not just by considerations of usefulness but also by ethical concerns like the intrinsic value of species.

Wealthy populations are often buffered from the degradation of ecosystem services through institutions and financial resources. Nevertheless, physical or social impacts of ecosystem service degradation may cross boundaries. It worsens poverty in developing countries, which in turn can affect neighboring industrial countries by slowing regional economic growth and contributing to the outbreak of conflicts or to migration of refugees. Moreover, many industries such as fisheries are still directly dependent on ecosystem services. Wealth can insulate populations from some of the effects of ecosystem degradation, but not from all. For example, substitutes for lost cultural benefits are often not available.

The relative contribution of ecosystem services to gross world product is declining along with the relative importance of traditional natural resource sectors based on ecosystem services. However, economic and employment contributions from ecotourism, recreational hunting, and fishing have all grown. Many of the benefits provided by increasingly important ecosystem services, such as water, are not traded in markets and thus not captured in conventional economic statistics.

Increased trade has often helped to meet growing demand for ecosystem services such as grains, fish, and timber in regions where the supply of those services is limited. While this lessens pressures on ecosystem services within the importing region, it increases pressures in the exporting region. Fish, for example, is heavily traded, and approximately 50% of exports are from developing countries. This trade means that the increasing demand in industrial countries can be met despite reductions in marine fish catch.

Almost half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and this proportion is growing. Urban developments have strong impacts on both local and distant ecosystem services, for instance by generating waste and affecting air or water quality.

Spiritual and cultural aspects of ecosystems are as important as other services for many local communities. People benefit in many ways from cultural ecosystem services including aesthetic enjoyment, recreation, artistic and spiritual fulfillment, and intellectual development. More...

3.3 What is the current situation of poverty in the world?

The degradation of ecosystem services poses a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

See: Box on Ecosystems and the Millennium Development Goals

Many of the regions facing the greatest challenges in achieving the MDGs overlap with the regions facing the greatest problems related to the sustainable supply of ecosystem services. Among others, these include sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, parts of South and South-East Asia, as well as some regions in Latin America. In the past 20 years, these same regions have experienced some of the highest rates of forest and land degradation in the world.

Despite the increases in the production and use of some ecosystem services, levels of poverty remain high, social differences are growing, and many people still do not have a sufficient supply of, or access to, ecosystem services.

  • Over one billion people survive on less than $1 per day of income, most of them in rural areas where they are highly dependent on agriculture, grazing, and hunting for subsistence.
  • Inequality has increased over the past decade. A child born in sub-Saharan Africa is 20 times more likely to die before age 5 than a child born in an OECD country, and this ratio is higher than it was a decade ago.
  • Despite the growth in per capita food production in the past four decades, an estimated 852 million people were undernourished in 2000-2003. Of these, nearly 95% live in developing countries. The regions with the largest numbers of undernourished people are also the regions where growth in per capita food production has been the slowest.
  • 1.1 billion people still lack access to improved water supply and more than 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation.


3.4 How is poverty linked to ecosystem services?

The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world's poorest people, and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty. Some ecosystem changes such as increased food production have helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but these changes have harmed many other communities and their problems have been largely overlooked.

  • Half of the urban population in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean suffers from one or more diseases associated with inadequate water and sanitation. Approximately 1.8 million people die annually as a result of inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • The declining state of capture fisheries is reducing a cheap source of protein in developing countries.
  • Desertification affects the livelihoods of millions of people.

Changes in ecosystems typically yield benefits for some people and inflict costs on others who may lose either access to resources or livelihoods. The question of who ‘wins’ and who ‘loses’ as a result of ecosystem change has not been adequately taken into account in management decisions.

  • People who were dependent on common pool resources such as forests have lost their rights to these resources because of privatization.
  • Certain people and places are highly vulnerable and poorly equipped to cope with the major changes in ecosystems that may occur.
  • Significant differences between the roles and rights of men and women in many societies make women more vulnerable to changes in ecosystem services. In developing countries, rural women are the main producers of basic crops, and are often also responsible for routine care of the household. Therefore, degradation of ecosystem services can result in increased labor demands on women, diverting time from other activities such as food preparation and child care.
  • The reliance of the rural poor on ecosystem services is rarely measured and thus typically overlooked in national statistics and in poverty assessments. This results in inappropriate strategies that do not take into account the role of the environment in poverty reduction.

As demand for ecosystem services has grown, it is particularly poor people that have lost access to them. For example, significant quantities of fish are caught by large foreign fleets in the waters of western Africa, without substantial local benefits.

Diminished human well-being tends to increase immediate dependence on ecosystem services, and the resultant additional pressure can damage the capacity of those ecosystems to deliver services. This can create a downward spiral of increasing poverty and further degradation of ecosystem services.

Nearly 500 million people live in rural areas in dryland ecosystems, which have the lowest per capita GDP and the highest Infant Mortality Rate of all of the ecosystem categories assessed in this study (see comparative table 1.1).

In the past, population growth was high in high-productivity ecosystems and urban areas. However, since the 1990s growth has been highest in less productive ecosystems such as drylands and mountains (see Figure 3.7). Migration from these areas to cities or agriculturally productive regions has helped balance relative population growth, but opportunities for this are now limited. More...

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