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Environmental services

by Henry Phillippe Ibanes de Novion,  biologist

Every year across the world millions of people who produce food crops wait for the right time to plant their seeds. They count on the right amount of rainfall to fill the rivers, which in turn carry the nutrients required for the plants to grow. They also depend on the help of bees, butterflies, humming-birds and various other animals that transport pollen to each of their plants, fertilizing them and enabling fructification. If everything goes well, if it does not rain too much – which may flood the fields – or too little – causing drought – after a few months they will have a good crop to sustain their families, selling the surplus to buy what they need. The farmer – whether indigenous, quilombola, family-based or otherwise – works with nature and depends on its services to produce and live well.

For some time now, population increases, city growth, the development of ever larger industries and the need to produce in ever greater quantities have significantly increased the exploitation of nature and its resources. This exploitation has damaged the environment, which is almost never able to recover and recuperate its functions and nutrients and the proper functioning of its natural cycles. The rivers, which used to bring clean water, are now increasingly polluted, transporting sewage and waste. River flows have dwindled since we consume more water than the rivers can replace. Moreover, the destruction of gallery and headwater forests that protected the rivers from silting means that sediments such as sand are flushed directly into the rivers, accumulating on their beds and hindering the flow of water. Pollinators such as bees and birds are disappearing in many areas, either from destruction of their natural habitats or from pollution and the overuse of agrochemicals.

This process of exploitation and destruction, occurring at an accelerating pace, affects the smooth functioning of the natural cycles and services. The rains no longer fall during the right time of year and in the right intensity. Without the pollinators, the plants bear less fruit and production is affected. As the rivers dry up, they transport ever fewer nutrients, depleting the soils. All these alterations to the proper functioning of natural services (rainfall, pollination, soil fertilization), harm everyone who depends on nature, such as, for example, those who plant food crops. This help from nature, on which everyone ultimately depends, is called an environmental service.  

What is an environmental service?

An environmental service is nature’s capacity to provide quality of life and comfort – that is, to ensure that life as we know it exists in a quality form for everyone (pure air, clean and accessible water, fertile soils, forests rich in biodiversity, nutritious and abundant foods, and so on). In other words, nature works (provides services) for the maintenance of life and its processes: these services performed by nature are described as environmental services.

The environmental services performed by nature provide products such as food crops, natural medicines, fibres, fuels, water, oxygen and so on, and ensure the proper functioning of natural systems such as climate control, water purification, rainfall cycles, climate balance, the oxygen we breathe, soil fertility and the recycling of the nutrients essential to agriculture, for example. In other words, environmental services are the activities, products and processes that nature provides us and that enable life as we know it to occur without larger costs to humanity. Other examples of environmental services are: the production of oxygen and the purification of the air by plants; the stabilization of climatic conditions, including the moderation of temperatures, rainfall, winds and tides; and the capacity to produce water and the equilibrium of the hydrological cycle with the control of floods and droughts. Such services also correspond to the flow of materials, energy and information from the stocks of natural capital.

Although they lack a set price, environmental services are extremely valuable to the well-being and very survival of humanity since human activities dependent on environmental services include, for example, agriculture (which requires fertile soils, pollination, rainfall, abundant water, etc.) and industry (which needs fuels, water, quality raw materials, etc.). How much work would it cost farmers to perform the service of pollination (which bees carry out for free), transporting the pollen to all the plants in their fields, plots and orchards? How much time and effort would be needed to transform all the organic matter existing in a forest into nutrients available for the plants if there were no beings in nature (decomposers) who do it for nothing? How many machines would be needed to perform the service of producing oxygen and purifying the air, a service that plants and algae carry out daily? What value can we place on these services performed by nature? They are worth the existence of life on the planet.

The continuation or maintenance of these services, essential to the survival of all Earth’s species, depends directly on environmental conservation and preservation, as well as practices that minimize the impacts of human actions on the environment.

Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, who have historically preserved the environment and used its resources and services in a conscious and sustainable form, are also responsible for providing these environmental services – in effect, they are providers of environmental services. By allowing the environment to maintain its natural characteristics and to continue to supply environmental services, these peoples and communities guarantee the provision of environmental services that are used by everyone. These services of preserving nature and its characteristics, conserving biodiversity, and supplying high quality water (because they preserve the forests surrounding the headwaters and river shores) have a cost for indigenous peoples and traditional communities, a fact that prompted the discussion on mechanisms for repaying or compensating those who conserve and guarantee the provision of environmental services. And this remuneration is called an Environmental Service Payment.

Environmental service payment

The payment or compensation for environmental services involves the transfer of resources (monetary or other kinds) to those who help maintain or produce environmental services. As the benefits of these services are obtained by everyone, it is fair that the people who contribute to the conservation and maintenance of environmental services receive incentives. It is not enough to charge those who pollute a river or deforest headwater regions: remuneration is required for those who voluntarily ensure the supply of services.

Below we provide the definition of an environmental service and other examples presented by Federal Deputy Anselmo de Jesus from the Workers Party of Rondônia in his law bill  No. 792 of 2007.

Article 1. Environmental services comprise flows of matter, energy and information from the stock of natural capital, which combined with built capital and human services produce benefits for human beings, such as:

I - the assets produced and provided by ecosystems, including food, water, fuel, fibres, genetic resources and natural medicines;

II - services obtained from the regulation of ecosystemic processes, such as the quality of the air, climate regulation, water regulation, water purification, erosion control, regulation of human illnesses, biological control and risk mitigation;

III - non-material benefits that enhance the quality of life, such as cultural diversity, religious and spiritual values, traditional and formal knowledge, inspirations, aesthetic values, social relations, sense of place, value of cultural heritage, leisure and ecotourism;

IV - services needed to produce all the other services, including primary production, soil formation, oxygen production, soil retention, pollination, habitat provision and nutrient recycling.

Article 2. Anyone who voluntarily works to apply or develop the benefits set out in Article 1 of this law will be entitled to payment or compensation, as established under the regulations.

[October, 2008]