Ecosystem Approach

As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment makes clear, an ecosystem approach is needed to provide us with a powerful suite of tools for coping with the ever accelerating loss of biodiversity and ecological services. The ecosystem approach, now gaining prominence in the field of conservation biology and other related disciplines (Armsworth et al. 2007), emphasizes structure, function, and process — accenting the manifold provisioning, regulating, and cultural services provided by biologically diverse systems (MEA 2005).

By stressing the importance of ecosystem services, and that losses or a diminution in these services will adversely impact human well-being, this more practical model is increasingly being seen as an important means for motivating conservation and restoration projects, often with the participation of stakeholders not normally engaged (Armsworth et al. 2007). Highlighting the interdependence of humans and nature, evident in many indigenous cultures, can only serve to foster community participation in this essential work. In this regard, it is important to note that indigenous peoples are generally regarded as stewards of biodiversity utilizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to protect and restore natural capital (Berkes et al. 2000).

In 2000, the CBD adopted the application and implementation of the Ecosystem Approach — a framework for integrated natural resource management with 12 complementary and interlinked principles as well as 5 points of operational guidance (CBD 2000). Five years earlier, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted an ecosystem approach to conservation under the assumption that all species, communities and biological resources are interconnected which was based on a cross-jurisdictional boundaries landscape level ecological model introduced by North American public lands and wildlife agencies in the early 1990s (USFWS 1995). Today, the European Union has several Directives in force or in preparation which have restoration of “good ecological status” for surface waters (Water Framework Directive) and habitats (Habitat Directive and Environmental Liability Directive) at their core.

The IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management states: “Ecosystem Restoration is thus a key contribution to the application of the Ecosystem Approach, e.g. in informing the negotiation of land use options and in the enhancement of ecological networks.” ( Collaborative efforts between those working in the fields of restoration andconservation, specifically utilizing an integrated ecosystem approach, will yield synergies needed to effectively deal with the daunting challenges of protecting biodiversity while simultaneously improving human livelihoods.

The field of ecological economics, and the introduction of new concepts such as natural capital, can also prove useful in this discussion as they point out the difficult tradeoffs between ecological integrity (biodiversity improvement) and human welfare (production enhancement). Specifically, these concepts represent an important contribution to an integrated ecosystem approach which attempts to introduce the proper economic valuation of ecosystem services into the natural resource management decision-making process (Turner et al. 2007; Aronson et al. 2007).

Given the complementary nature of restoration and conservation, an ecosystem approach offers us the most effective toolbox for combating the loss of biodiversity and the ecological services that are so vital to human well-being. The link between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human livelihoods must continue to be documented in order to inform public and private decision-making. Ultimately, it is the shared passion of both scientists and practitioners — to preserve and restore species populations and their habitats — that will contribute to the continuity and enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

An integrated ecosystem approach is perhaps the only way to tackle the challenges of climate change, habitat loss, and the sustainable use of natural resources. For the reasons stated above, ecological restoration and biological conservation are the logical pillars upon which we can build an innovative approach to maintaining and restoring the ecosystems that we, and all life, depend on. Strategic alliances between non-governmental organizations, like the Society for Ecological Restoration International, the World Conservation Union, and the Society for Conservation Biology, national governments and international bodies, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, will be critical in moving this approach forward.

Read the May 2008 SER Briefing Note on the Ecosystem Approach

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