Different ecosystem services, different spatial contexts, different assessment approaches!

Authors and Affiliations: 

Leon C. Braat

Alterra, Wageningen University & Research


One of the more challenging aspects in the assessments of benefits and values of ecosystem services are the relative positions of service providing ecosystems, the managers of those systems, the natural capital, and the users of the services.

Most provisioning services (food, timber, drinking water) can only be produced by investing in and managing the natural capital on location, while most of the users and beneficiaries live some distance away. Economic geography has produced a body of knowledge in the past which may help to understand the importance of distance between supplier and consumer, e.g in minimising energy and monetary costs.

For regulating services (climate regulation, water purification, pollination)), the economics are a bit more complex, as the service provision may be globally diffuse (carbon sequestration) or locally specific (pollination), or involve ecosystem work over some distance (purified ground water from dune ecosystems).  Consumers are generally spread out over large areas, ownership of the natural capital is in many cases public, and so there are few clear market relationships, and the geography involves overlapping large regions.

Cultural services then, when actively being “consumed” are in fact nothing else than the flow of information from the (semi)-natural landscapes to people. But as in all flows of information, the perception of a particular information flow may widely differ between the perceivers (receptors). Diversity of structures, patterns in space, colour and even time dynamics are factors determining the information content and density provided by ecosystems. But the mental frame, including training, education, and historical relationships with the landscapes of people determine which part of the landscape ecosystems are actually perceived, recognised as benefits and valued. People may actively search for the information (research, recreation) or passively bathe in the information environment coming to them (by TV).

The paper explores, using some concrete examples, how natural capital and ecosystem service maps may help to support the assessment of geographically different bundles of ecosystems.