Cast your mind back to the last time you purchased a car.

Did the salesman win you over with a pitch about the 457 nuts and bolts of the car, about the 33 types of plastic used in construction, about how the wheel turns 1,368.5 times in a kilometer, and about the temperature in the combustion chamber?

It’s doubtful. More likely, he told you about how the car’s services and benefits affect your life directly: how many people it can seat, how the airbags get deployed in a collision, how safe the car is for you and your family, and how many dollars you will save on a tank of fuel.

Now consider the sales pitch of the environmentalists when they are trying to convince us to take care of the environment. Most environmentalists regale us with lists of bird, tree, and mammal species and big words, such as biodiversity. We are told about the ecological nuts and bolts, not about how this ecology directly affects our lives. Most people cannot connect the dots between species, ecological processes, degradation, management, and human well-being or make informed judgments about environmental management.

As environmentalists, we are terrible salespeople. We are not enabling people in society to make informed decisions. So people are left to make their own meaning of the role that the natural environment plays in their lives and in the lives of others based on lists of ecological components, but without a sense of the bigger picture. People end up making trade-offs between ecological curiosities, on one hand, and the services supplied by new developments, on the other. The inevitable result is that they choose the known benefits offered by development.

We environmentalists are failing to explain how ecological processes improve people’s lives and contribute to the success of businesses, governments, and communities. How can lists of ecological curiosities help the city treasurer, city engineer, or city manager make an informed decision when she must choose between providing potable water to city residents or protecting a forest?

Like car salesmen who savvily articulate cars’ benefits to their customers, we must employ a new language around nature’s services, or ecosystem services, in order to change people’s perceptions of the environment and ecology.

An ecosystem service is a service that is generated by the natural environment, that enhances human well-being, and that is directly useful to people. Importantly, ecosystem services are not the same as ecosystem functions. Functions are the biological, chemical, and physical processes associated with natural environments. Services are the outputs of ecological processes that society uses for various purposes. We are familiar with built services like electricity, roads, and piped water. Ecosystems also supply services that make our lives better.

By using the concept of ecosystem services, one can begin to show the real trade-offs that we are being confronted with and, importantly, who wins and who loses. Without knowing which ecosystem services we benefit from, we simply have not the slightest idea of what we are giving up or for whom. In fact, we usually do not even perceive these decisions as trade-offs, but rather see them as “no-brainers,” because the alternative has no meaning and therefore no value whatsoever.

So where has this thinking been successfully employed?


2003 Melissa May/Courtesy of Photoshare
In South Africa, a little boy collects water for his family. In Durban, the environment department recognized the importance of healthy rivers, especially given the fact that 300,000 people relied on nearby rivers for drinking water.

In South Africa, we see a desperate bid to generate economic growth and to deliver incomes, jobs, and basic services to poor people—the country’s majority—and politically that means development at all costs. Biodiversity conservation is seen as a threat to welfare improvement, and environmental protection is perceived as an obstacle to development. So, how have conservationists overcome this simple jobs-versus-the-environment paradigm?

There are two good examples here in South Africa: Durban City’s open space system and a national program called Working for Water.

Durban is a city of 3.1 million people on the east coast of South Africa. The majority of its residents are poor. In the late 1990s, Durban engaged in a process of reimagining the role of open space and its associated biodiversity. The process was implemented by the city’s environment department, led by Debra Roberts and Nicci Diederichs (both authors of this article) and Penny Croucamp, and supported by consultants Myles Mander (also an author) and Tony Markewicz. We rebranded the open space system as an environmental services management framework that delivers a wide range of ecosystem services. We showed the linkages between well-functioning rivers, which enhance water quality, and the 300,000 people who did not have access to potable water and who used rivers on a daily basis. We showed (and continue to show) how rural households benefit from harvesting fuel wood, building material, wild fruits, and medicinal plants from natural woodlands. For example, there are currently 94,000 traditional homesteads built with local woodland materials in the eThekwini Municipality (Durban) and these ecosystem goods are worth some U.S.$1,400 per year per household or, cumulatively, U.S.$132 million, which is 3.6 percent of the municipal budget.

The total value of ecosystem services from the open space system is estimated to be U.S.$600 million per year, equivalent to some 17 percent of the annual municipal budget. With these figures, we have shown the city treasurer that, without access to nature’s services, the city will need to find an additional 17 percent of the current budget to ensure that residents’ welfare is sustained at current levels. And, with only 8 percent of the city’s residents paying property taxes, finding an additional 17 percent is practically impossible. By building on these values, the city has been able to mainstream ecological management practices to a point where Durban is considered to have made some globally significant achievements, including the following:

  • Under a recent agreement to increase the annual land acquisition budget from U.S.$280,000 to U.S.$1.5 million, the city now allocates a greater percentage of its annual budget to buying conservation land than the national government does in its budget. This allocation reflects the city treasurer’s understanding of the importance of investing in the city’s green infrastructure, and not only in the more traditional built infrastructure.
  • Durban has created hundreds of green jobs, such as clearing invasive alien plants and managing the landscape, for people in poor and unemployed communities.
  • The city has financed extensive reforestation programs along its rural fringes. These programs aim to restore biodiversity and associated ecosystem services while, at the same time, providing carbon sequestration and socially and economically uplifting impoverished rural communities.
  • Durban has integrated ecosystem services management areas into local town planning schemes, effectively protecting these areas through zonings that limit or prohibit their development. The municipality offers property tax rebates for certain zoned open spaces that are considered critical to ecosystem services supply and, in return, requires the landowner to implement management of these zones.

The other notable example of environmental policy success in South Africa is Working for Water. This is a public works program that clears alien invasive plants in watersheds, thereby increasing the stream flow of rivers in a water scarce country and generating incomes for unemployed people in the process. This program has mainstreamed invasive alien plant removal by addressing two of South Africa’s critical issues: supplementing water supply and generating jobs through watershed management. The program has been nationally championed and enjoys good political support as well as a significant annual budget of roughly U.S.$171 million per year. By focusing on water supply enhancement and job creation, the program has spawned a range of other large-scale environmental management initiatives in South Africa, such as Working for Wetlands, Working with Fire, Working for Land, and Working for the Coast.


Working for Wetlands
Employees with Working for Wetlands work at a site in the upper catchment of the Crocodile River, between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Working for Wetlands seeks to employ people who are excluded from the mainstream economy in South Africa. Sixty percent of the program’s employees are women, 20 percent are youth, and 1 percent are people with disabilities.

This program has effectively doubled the national government’s investment in protecting the environment in South Africa—a formidable achievement in a developing country faced with tremendous financial constraints and a perceived trade-off between addressing poverty and protecting the environment.

By focusing on delivering services to people, the Durban open space program and Working for Water have shown that there does not have to be a trade-off between environmental management and poverty alleviation. However, until one can articulate environmental management as a clear benefit to human welfare, people perceive a trade-off and few understand the complementary relationship.

In summary, because conservationists clearly communicated the services or benefits that nature supplied to society, the national treasury, the Durban treasury, and municipal planners decided to substantially increase their investment in environmental management. It is a significant success in a developing country. Interestingly, global warming is the first real example of an environmental concern whose implications decision makers really understand. This is because they see its direct impact on people: an increase in average global temperature will change crop production, increase storms and floods, increase famine, etc. This area of environmental concern receives the greatest interest and investment globally by government and business.

The evolving language around ecosystem services is now starting to build the bridge between scientists’, engineers’, and society’s perceptions of the environment. Ecosystem services is becoming the common currency, or language, between society, engineers, and ecological sciences. The time for all sides to learn this common language has never been more urgent or, indeed, opportune.

A whole new economic sector is on the cusp of developing. As the natural environment grows in scarcity and value, society will invest in this key limiting factor and one can foresee the emergence of an ecosystem services sector. Note the rapid growth of the carbon sequestration market, which is but one of some 50 ecosystem services. So getting the language right is critical in accelerating or fast tracking the ecosystem services sector and in growing environmental management. Now, close the ecological car’s hood, leave the list of components in the trunk, and start telling people about great services we can and do benefit from. And if you want another challenge, you can start to build us a set of new dials and gauges, like car rev counters or fuel and temperature gauges, that can show us drivers the state of the car’s engine, so as to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted supply of services.


Myles Mander

Myles Mander, B.Soc Sci (honours), is a resource economist, consulting locally and internationally. He runs a small consulting company – Eco-futures – focussing on ecosystem services analysis and trading....


Debra Roberts

Debra Roberts founded and heads the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa. Her key responsibilities in this post include overseeing the...


Nicci Diederichs

Nicci Diederichs is the managing director of FutureWorks! and has been consulting in environmental management throughout southern Africa for 13 years. Her key areas of expertise include green economy development,...

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