EbA Revisited, Part 2: Just what counts as an “ecosystem”?

By Shaun Martin, WWF

What’s your position on water hyacinth (Eichhoria crassipes)? An aggressive invasive plant and a scourge to native biodiversity? Or a useful species that can help people adapt to increasing climate risk wherever it grows?

The answer to this question probably depends on whether you work in conservation or development. You probably harbor similar views on eucalyptus and beavertail cactus. Disagreements over such species among conservation and development groups is a major point of contention and it’s hindering efforts to promote ecosystem-based adaptation. Just what counts as an ecosystem when designing EbA activities – an untouched and unmanaged primeval forest teeming with biodiversity or a well-tended orchard of native fruit trees or a monoculture plantation of exotic eucalyptus?

Eichhornia crassipes. Friend or foe?   © Jeff Foott / WWF

Eichhornia crassipes. Friend or foe? © Jeff Foott / WWF

Of course all of these examples are technically ecosystems – a collection of living organisms interacting with one another and their physical environment – and all can provide adaptation benefits to people. But don’t tell a conservationist that an effective way to help people is by maintaining water hyacinth in local wetlands. Forget that in Bangladesh it has been documented that during floods this plant can be used as temporary floating housing, or that piles of it around one’s home can help prevent erosion, or that it can be used as fodder for cattle. It’s simply heretical to think that any good could come from a nasty plant like water hyacinth.

On the side of this issue, while conservationists extol the adaptation benefits that national parks and other natural areas provide to people, development professionals understandably often have a difficult time accepting the idea that a protected area designed specifically to conserve wildlife (usually without thinking about climate change) is really the most effective way to help vulnerable communities. And so, even if we can all agree that EbA is meant to help people using nature, rather than finding common ground that harnesses the expertise of conservation and development groups to work toward a common purpose, we often find ourselves debating one another over the details.

At an EbA session at the CBA9 conference in Nairobi last year, I lead a participatory activity that helped people determine whether a given measure could be considered ecosystem-based adaptation, community-based adaptation, neither or both. (Download activity for free.) The discussion got hung up on “seed banks”, a measure that helps communities preserve seed stock for various crops that can tolerate a wide range of conditions – dry, wet, hot, buggy, etc. Development professionals in the room insisted that seed banks could be considered EbA because it utilized the genetic diversity found in nature to help people manage increased climate variability. The conservationists deemed this could not possibly be EbA because it was not using an ecosystem in situ and that seed stock could include varieties not found in nature. They conceded that if the seed banks were a collection of the seeds of local native plants, they could hold their collective noses and call it EbA.

We have a values issue here. There is no getting around it - EbA is designed to help vulnerable people as its primary objective. Biodiversity and ecosystem services are but mere tools in reducing vulnerability. But conservation groups are in the EbA business because of the co-benefits it can bring to biodiversity. While conservationists generally agree that conservation won’t succeed unless we improve human-wellbeing and decrease vulnerability to climate change, if EbA doesn’t the conserve important species and their habitats, then what’s the point? Development groups are first and foremost concerned about helping vulnerable people. If eucalyptus can achieve that aim, so be it. Donors agencies can exacerbate these differences by using funds to promote their own values on either side of the coin.

We need to move past this discussion. The most effective EbA measures will be ones where conservation and development groups are working together to achieve common goals with benefits for both. Development organizations best understand the needs of communities and how they are at risk and I personally believe they should be in the driver’s seat of defining EbA objectives. But they often lack expertise to design EbA measures at the appropriate scale that best utilizes available ecosystem services that deliver co-benefits to biodiversity. This is where conservation groups can help. But it requires they remove their “species-first” lens in the design of EbA activities.

So the next time you find yourself with an opportunity to employ ecosystem-based adaptation, reach out across the aisle to your counterparts in development or conservation. Take time to understand their values and openly discuss disagreements. Try to find common ground and explore strategies that can truly bring mutual benefits. You can’t do it alone. So get out there, find some new partners and make EbA happen!

In my next post I will discuss the risky business of EbA. Are ecosystem-based approaches themselves vulnerable to climate change?