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The value of nature

Conference Cycle lectures defend the importance of ecosystem services associated with biodiversity

Araçá Bay contains one of the last remnants of mangrove forest on the São Sebastião coast. At low tide, a large sand and mud bottom area is exposed

Gabriel monteiro Araçá Bay contains one of the last remnants of mangrove forest on the São Sebastião coast. At low tide, a large sand and mud bottom area is exposed (click to see the map)Gabriel monteiro

In these times of climate change, previously sidelined ecological principles appear to be gaining momentum, figuring prominently in economic planning policy discussions focused on a strategic plan for sustainable development. “Perhaps the best example of this breakthrough in regard to the discussions on environmental conservation is the creation—somewhat belatedly, it might well be said—of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) by the United Nations in 2012,” said Carlos Joly, coordinator of the Biota-FAPESP Program, during his talk at the opening session of the 2014 Biota-FAPESP Conference Cycle in São Paulo on February 20, 2014. According to Joly, the IPBES will be responsible for the difficult task of amassing and systematizing biodiversity-related scientific knowledge generated worldwide, in order to inform economic and policy decisions across the globe, “along the lines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” he added.

The changes in politicians’ perception of the importance of environmental conservation, however, have come about slowly, beginning in the 19th century, according to biologist Rozely Ferreira dos Santos of the Biosciences Institute at the University of São Paulo (IB-USP). These changes began to gain steam with studies aimed at assessing the value of ecosystem functions, under the premise that economic activities and human well-being are dependent on the natural services generated by these functions—for example, production of oxygen, food and drinking water. For decades, these ideas were debated, reformulated and critiqued: “animals, plants and ecosystems have inherent value, independent of any use they may serve for man,” American environmentalist Aldo Leopold would say. Nevertheless, until the 1990s, “the processes of economic output always trumped the discussion of environmental conservation,” Santos said in her lecture, in which she presented a historical summary of studies by economists and environmentalists, searching for comprehensive, objective definitions of the subject.

Rozely Ferreira dos Santos and Alexander Turra

Léo RamosRozely Ferreira dos Santos and Alexander TurraLéo Ramos

According to Santos, for years these groups disagreed about concepts such as environmental functions and natural services, and were unable to understand them as unifying principles for the interests of both parties. The conflict eased as they began to understand ecosystem goods and services as systems that support not only life, but also the economy. Studies published in the mid-1990s, for example, estimated the global value of ecosystem services at $33 trillion, of which $20.9 trillion are goods and services associated with marine and coastal environments. “We became aware that oceanographic processes were linked to services that we needed to begin to understand,” said biologist Alexander Turra of the Oceanographic Institute of USP, in one of the invited talks.

Araça Bay
Since 2012, Turra has been involved in coordinating a thematic project under the Biota-FAPESP Program aimed at compiling—even if on a preliminary basis—and describing the biodiversity of Araçá Bay in the municipality of São Sebastião, on the coast of São Paulo State. The project will also present alternatives to human intervention in the functioning of this environment, and even encourage initiatives to reverse its current state of environmental degradation. “We want to integrate different areas of environmental, physical, biological and social knowledge for studies on biodiversity, conservation and marine management,” he explained. According to Turra, the idea is to try to reconcile the local way of life with environmental conservation—a considerable challenge, he acknowledges, “that will require profound cultural change in society.”

Araçá Bay is an area flanked by rocks and encompassing four beaches—Deodato, Pernambuco, Germano and Topo—and two islands—Pernambuco and Pedroso—between Ilhabela and São Sebastião. Owing to the proximity of the urban grid, this group of small beaches, rocky outcrops, sandbars and mud banks has been exposed for years to different types of anthropic activities, such as haphazard occupation, effluents from household sewage and oil spills, due to the proximity of the Port of São Sebastião and the Petrobras Waterway Terminal.

Common seaweed in Araçá resembles small clusters of grapes

Gabriel MonteiroCommon seaweed in Araçá resembles small clusters of grapesGabriel Monteiro

Nevertheless, the environment seems to resist human interference. Today Araçá Bay has one of the last remnants of mangrove forest on the São Sebastião coast. According to Turra, these ecosystems are important for sustaining marine life. In addition, the fact that mangroves have the capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it has increased its importance in the face of climate change (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 216). Araçá hosts a high degree of biological diversity. The known biodiversity in the area numbers 733 species, of which 34 have been described as new to science. It is also a haven for artisanal fishermen, who use small canoes with traps made of boughs and twigs for catching fish and crustaceans. “But in addition to the importance of identifying this biological abundance, it is equally important to understand the importance of that biodiversity and whatever services are associated with it,” Turra said.

A little over two years into the project, he and his colleagues are still trying to understand how the inhabitants of this region view Araçá. In interviews, they observed that the people seem to understand the importance of this environment for supporting life, the economy and also the preservation of their identity and cultural heritage. Based on these interviews and other data, the researchers systematized the marine goods and services provided by the region’s marine biodiversity. “Araçá Bay offers man important environmental, cultural and economic services, ranging from the provision of food and raw materials to climate regulation—through sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2)—and nutrient cycling,” he summarized.

Turra’s group has also been developing initiatives for approaching different social actors for a multi-sector discussion, “such as elementary, middle and high school teachers, who can shape the discussion of ecosystem services and the valuation of environmental benefits with their students,” he said. He notes that ecosystem services are normally not recognized in decision-making. That is why it is important to show how valuable they are and to develop mechanisms that can actually capture the value of those services.

It is not an easy task, judging from the difficulty of establishing a single concept for the term “ecosystem services.” Rozely Ferreira dos Santos notes that, as different authors have worked separately over the years, the set of definitions attributed to these services has expanded. “One minute, services are conditions and processes, and the next, they are ecosystem functions, and in still other situations they are products of ecological functions,” she said. In her opinion, the definition is simple: landscapes contain structures and processes linked to functions (such as fish populations) that provide services (supplies of fish), which should be shaped within a sociocultural context on the basis of their benefits. According to Santos, the valuation of those services should begin with the structures and processes that determine the functions.

Sea anemones (Anemonia sulcata) in a pool of water created by the tide in Araçá

Gabriel MonteiroSea anemones (Anemonia sulcata) in a pool of water created by the tide in AraçáGabriel Monteiro

Vague concept
In 2010, a bill on state policy on climate change in São Paulo State went a step further and defined ecosystem services as benefits that people receive from ecosystems, and environmental services as ecosystem services that result in positive impacts beyond the area where they are generated. In Santos’ opinion, the law added to the debate a concept of environmental services that few authors use. “The problem is that no sooner is one concept solidified than others are already being created and put into practice in the form of laws. This can compromise an integrated valuation approach, in which both ecological and socioeconomic aspects are considered in evaluating the interfaces between ecosystem services, economic system and social well-being.

The Biota-FAPESP Education Conference Cycle is an initiative of the Biota-FAPESP Program in partnership with Pesquisa FAPESP. In 2014, the lectures will focus on ecosystem services, complementing the 2013 lectures on the principal Brazilian ecosystems. According to Carlos Joly, the concepts in this debate have not yet been fully defined, but they are evolving, “gaining increasing presence in discussions of conservation, strategy and policy,” he concluded.