Ecosystems-based adaptation: have we been here before?
The term ‘ecosystems-based adaptation’ (EbA) is becoming increasingly popular in conservation and climate adaptation circles. The most commonly used definition comes from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN): “Sustainably managing, conserving and restoring ecosystems…to provide the services that allow people to adapt to climate change”.
Bringing conservation into the climate adaptation debate is a welcome step. By underlining this link the ecosystems-based adaptation framing serves an important purpose. It also has (like sustainable development before it) that ‘motherhood and apple pie’ intuitive appeal, which bodes well for building consensus for action. But how does this approach contribute to reconciling conservation and development through climate adaptation?
Much of what’s currently written about EbA reads like a promotional campaign of what conservation can contribute to adaptation – and, thereby, to development. Adaptation planning will be better with more effective ecosystems management. Ecosystems are essential for wellbeing. Cultural identity is tied up in nature (etc.). But it has little to say about how to resolve fundamental, longstanding tensions and contradictions between conservation and development.
IDS research-in-progress in the Sierra Madre Oriental region, Mexico, holds uncomfortable lessons for proponents of EbA. IDS and Mexican partners produced a participatory vulnerability assessment of climate impacts on people and ecosystems for the National Commission for Protected Natural areas (CONANP). The objective was to propose site-specific ecosystems-based adaptations.
While some CONANP projects already resemble EbA, very few offered enduring, sufficient incentives for resource use that would maintain healthy ecosystems. Where it worked best was at a scale so small that it could make little difference to the biggest conservation challenges in the region such as deforestation.
The incentives offered to maintain or improve ecosystems were insufficient, particularly in places where strong reasons for changing how people use resources are needed – for example where people might have to modify activities such as sugar cane production, often a main income source.
Moreover, the fact that people who used ecosystems were not involved in the definition of what was worth conserving and why, served to disempower rather than to inspire less damaging resource uses.
These problems were widely discussed 20 years ago in relation to the shortcomings of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs). They are just as relevant to EbA: rather than describing the utopia this approach could bring us, the debate could more usefully focus on how EbA can learn from its ICDP forerunners. If it doesn’t, it runs the risk of becoming a distraction.
How can EbA address these often-intractable issues?
This is a difficult task, but I would suggest three things:
1. Stack the incentives – social, spiritual, political, economic – to favour caring for ecosystems more. This means investing more in payments for ecosystems services, for instance, but also providing services people want, rather than conserving ecosystem function at the expense of human wellbeing.
2. Involve those likeliest to be affected by EbA in its definition. This would make the process more legitimate and get a wider range of values represented in decisions about what is worth conserving.
3. Do this as part of a trade-off analysis between different stakeholders – we already have the tools for this.
Taking these steps would mean accepting that EbA will at best be a workable trade-off between conservation and development objectives, not the making of a new Eden.
Find out more about IDS work on climate change, vulnerability and resilience
Andy Newsham is a Research Fellow in the IDS Climate Change Team.
Photo: Sugar cane harvesting, Qilai Shen / Panos.
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