Ecosystem service research has made much progress toward conceptualizing and valuing nature’s benefits to people. People need nature’s benefits to live healthy, fulfilling lives with fresh water, clean air, and nutritious food. Yet until the 1990s, these benefits were often undervalued or completely missing from policy. Natural capital and ecosystem services thinking emerged to remedy this oversight by explicitly accounting for nature’s benefits to people. Ecosystem services are generally grouped in four categories including: provisioning (e.g. food production); cultural (e.g. spiritual connections with nature); supporting (e.g. pollination); and regulating (e.g. climate regulation). Although ecosystem services research has grown exponentially over the last decade, key gaps in our understanding of human-nature interactions remain; one such gap is how ecosystem services benefits to wellbeing differ among different groups in society.

A new paper published in Ecosystem Services led by Jacqui Lau and co-authored by myself addresses this gap and asked do people’s values and priorities for ecosystem services differ by age, wealth and formal education? To answer this question we interviewed more than 300 people connected to coral reef fisheries in 28 communities across four countries in the western Indian Ocean. Each fisher ranked the importance of nine ecosystem service benefits, and then rated which services they most desired an improvement in quantity or quality. We then examined if their responses differed based on their age, level of poverty, or years of formal schooling.

Overall, we found little evidence of strong differences between groups. However, the wealthiest fishers did prioritize improvements in habitat ecosystem services and recreational benefits more than other fishers. Our findings emphasize that people directly dependent on coral reef fisheries for their livelihood hold mostly similar values and priorities for ecosystem services. However, poverty influences whether fishers prioritize improvements in supporting ecosystem services associated with environmental care, in this case habitat benefits. Understanding how people from different social groups may benefit differently from ecosystem services can help decision-makers to target and frame natural resource management to be more socially inclusive and equitable and therefore, more effective.

Lau, J., Hicks, C., Gurney, G., Cinner, J. 2018. Disaggregating ecosystem service values and priorities by wealth, age, and education. Ecosystem Services 29:91-98.

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