Ecosystem services and human wellbeing

Primary faculty: Jagdish Krishnaswamy (Programme leader), Siddhartha Krishnan, Soubadra Devy
Secondary affiliations: Priyadarsanan D. R., T. Ganesh

To introduce ecosystem services into ongoing and new societal and policy discussions.

The premise is that appreciation of economic values of ecosystem services at local, regional and global scales will lead to better governance and sustainable use of ecosystem services. In practice, however, existing markets do not factor values of ecosystem services in transactions, besides which, our understanding of the complex socio-ecological, and economic and political dimensions of ecosystem services with their implications for equity and environmental justice is poor. So actually applying values of ecosystem services in land use planning and local decision-making has been slow. The Ecosystem services and human wellbeing programme will try to bridge this knowledge gap through an exploration of some key questions.


Natural landscapes such as forests, grasslands, mangroves and wetlands as well as managed ecosystems provide a range of ‘services’ to sustain human welfare. These include ‘provisioning’ services such as food, water, timber, fibre and genetic resources, ‘regulating’ services such as regulation of climate, floods, drought, land degradation, water quality and disease prevention, ‘supporting’ services such as soil formation, pollination and nutrient cycling and ‘cultural’ services such as recreational, spiritual, religious and other non-material benefits. If all human activity must be seen in terms of ‘economic value’, then we should not exempt ecosystem services from this scrutiny. Political, economic and civil societal support for conservation can be considerably enhanced if their worth to human society at local, regional or global scales can be quantified and economically valued. This could also be incentive for better governance of socio-ecological systems for sustainable resource use.

Despite the apparent success of the concept of ecosystem services, the progress in the practical application in land use planning and local decision-making has been slow. This is because existing markets do not factor values of ecosystem services in transactions. And our understanding of the socio-ecological, economic and political dimensions of such services, and their implications for equity and environmental justice is also poor. The Ecosystem Services and Human Wellbeing programme tries to bridge this knowledge gap by introducing ecosystem services into ongoing and new societal and policy discussions. The overall goal of this programme is to generate knowledge and increase capacity to enable conservation and sustainable use of ecosystem services in partnership with government and civil society at local, regional and national scales.

Issues addressed

  • Tools that markets, fiscal instruments, and regulatory and institutional mechanisms use to integrate ES flows and poverty reduction, and which tool must be used when.
  • How might ecosystem services be sustained if markets are skewed towards one service, undervaluing others; or if there are skews due to poor mediators, rich beneficiaries, essential services versus non-essential. For example,
    • provisioning services versus regulatory, or cultural services versus other services
    • inequity in ability to pay for some services versus others: so if the poor are in need of improved flows of certain services and rich ready to pay for some other services
    • if the economy is inclined towards services generating a capital
  • Appropriate methods for markets in which valuation and services frameworks are integrated.
  • Management of ecosystems at local scales, with repercussions of short- and long-term variation in eco-system services clear to local communities.
  • Grassroot level awareness dissemination and sharing/ reconciling academic and local knowledge.
  • Strategizing mainstreaming among different classes of beneficiaries and mediators

Research questions

  • How are different ecosystem services interlinked with each other and to various components of biodiversity?
  • How can we quantify and map bundles of different ecosystem services at large landscape scales?
  • What is the influence of differences in temporal and spatial scales of demand and supply of services?
  • What are the potential trade-offs and synergies among services and in particular, the lack of knowledge of the relationship between provisioning and regulating services?
  • How are ecosystem functions influenced by changes in biodiversity and will respond to global change.
  • What are the socio-economic and political impediments to better governance for sustained ecosystem services?
  • How can we evolve an equitable framework for governing ecosystem services at local, regional and global scales?

Ongoing research

  • Hydrological services in Gundal (STF): Measuring watershed services, Assessing farmers’ perceptions on unseen links (forest and farms)
  • Pollination services in Coorg (FAO): Visitation and pollination in a gradient of diversity, Socio-economic analysis of biodiversity for coffee pollination
  • Conservation pest control: Bio-diverse land use with alternate habitats for natural enemies of insect pests (NATP) – Malnad; Pest control using owls (NG) –KMTR

Pipeline discussions

  • To submit proposal for political economy of sustainable ecosystem services in production landscapes for poverty reduction and sustainable growth) with south Asian partners
  • Visualising the possibilities of ecosystem services and poverty reduction: in southern India – assessing feasibility, usefulness and equity impact of PES for sustainable farming in diverse socio-ecological landscapes
  • Proposal submitted jointly with SRC on trade off between regulatory and provisioning services and global land use
  • Conceptual discussions on scale issues

Research and community interfaces

ATREE plans to induct appreciation and valuation of ecosystem services into societal discussions by:

  • Facilitating interactions within and across beneficiary groups
  • Involving peoples’ representatives for democratic, inclusive planning and governance
  • Interactions with bureaucrats and technocrats in line agencies
  • Communication through popular print media
  • Stewardship through youth and children