Research Article: Social preferences for ecosystem services in a biodiversity hotspot in South America

Date Published: April 22, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Iñigo Bidegain, Claudia Cerda, Emilia Catalán, Antonio Tironi, César López-Santiago, Govindhaswamy Umapathy.


Identifying which ecosystem services are relevant to different stakeholders and understanding stakeholders’ perceptions of such services is useful for making informed decisions, especially in regions of the world where the achievement of biodiversity conservation goals is threatened by economically productive activities. In this article, we assess social preferences for ecosystem services in a biodiversity hotspot in central Chile. We use a consultative case study to ask local stakeholders (n = 70) from the Campana Peñuelas Biosphere Reserve to identify the most important ecosystem services the area provides for them and inquire about the perceived vulnerability of the services to changes in the future. We also explore the association between the perceived importance of ecosystem services and the sociodemographic and cultural characteristics of the respondents, which allows us to identify contrasting stakeholder perceptions of different ecosystem services. The most important services for local actors were the drinking water, fresh air and climate change control, genetic pool of plant communities in central Chile, and educational value. From the perspective of local actors, the services that could be threatened by negative changes in the future in terms of their provision included the possibilities of developing conservation activities focused on iconic threatened animal and plant species, water regulation, food from agriculture, and drinking water. Contrasting perceptions about the importance of ecosystem services emerged among stakeholders. While small farmers and members of local organizations attributed higher importance values to provisioning services, scientists and rangers and administrators of protected areas as well as teachers, NGO members and local government employees attributed more importance to the regulating and cultural services associated with threatened species. Our results can serve as a source of information for the planning and decision-making processes related to the search for socially and ecologically sustainable solutions for land use management.

Partial Text

In recent decades, the concept of ecosystem services (ES) has had important impacts in both scientific and political forums [1,2]. ES can be defined as the aspects of ecosystems that are used (either actively or passively) to maintain human well-being [3]. This definition considers ecosystem organization, processes and functions utilized by humanity [3]. Policy initiatives, such as the Aichi Targets and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that explicitly recognize the importance of the ecosystem services approach to ecosystem management have stimulated assessments and valuations of ecosystem services in different regions of the world [4]. Although these policy platforms have explicitly recognized the importance of understanding the social dimensions of ecosystem services (e.g., assessing societal preferences for and perceptions of ecosystem services using non-economic approaches [5], uncovering divergent interests regarding ecosystem services from different local actors [6,7], or understanding how people respond to the management of such services [5], the assessment of these social dimensions of ecosystem services is still lacking. Much work has been done to conduct ecological assessments and economic valuations of ecosystem services [6,8]. The ecosystem services approach recognizes that healthy ecosystems depend not only on the ecological properties of ecosystems but also on their capacities to fulfil social needs [9]. In addition, the economic valuation of ecosystem services (i.e., the process of valuing the contributions of the ecosystem services and biodiversity at the level of the life and well-being of social actors, conceived in terms of individual utility [10] does not capture the full range of benefits people obtain from ecosystems [11,12]. If only ecological and economic criteria are considered in the assessments of ecosystem services, it can lead to conflicts in ecosystem management when social contexts are not appropriately recognized [13,14]. In this regard, identifying which services are relevant to different stakeholders and understanding stakeholders’ perceptions of such services [6,15–18] is relevant to making informed decisions, especially in regions of the world where the achievement of conservation goals is threatened by economically productive activities. On the one hand, ecosystem management is largely about regulating human actions towards ecosystem services [5]. Human actions are conditioned by the perceived benefits that people get from ecosystems and consequently such perceptions of benefits affect engagements or not in behaviours that ensure the continuous flow of desired ecosystem services ([5]: 181). On the other hand, different stakeholders can have different relationships with the same ecosystem. For example, scientists and administrators of protected areas may value a natural area because they want to safeguard threatened species and they recognize the scientific and educational value of the ecosystem. Local farmers can value the same area because their lifestyles are based on agricultural and farming activities; additionally, they may be guided by traditional ecological knowledge. Furthermore, tourists and urban-dwellers may value the area because they can appreciate its scenic beauty, but they do not have a close link or a long-standing connection to the ecosystem [6,7]. Divergent social interests may lead to conflicts over the use of territory, which threatens the achievement of conservation goals [19], and these conflicts can lead to the development of policies that result in very different outcomes and involve different beneficiaries [20]. Including a priori analyses of the social dimension of ecosystem services as part of ecosystem management may contribute to improving the provision of ecosystem services for all stakeholders, thus reducing conflict [8].

The necessity of exploring the social values that different stakeholders attribute to ecosystem services has been widely recognized [6,65]. In our study, different actors revealed contrasting preferences for services. In this context, our research has allowed us to link different types of actors with different ecosystem services, and this approach can facilitate subsequent planning and decision-making processes that pave the way for the use of methods that involve more interactive and deliberative participation [5]. In addition, the justifications of the importance of ecosystem services provided by the participants shed light on the perceptions that guide the values placed on different ecosystem services. In this regard, our work, despite its consultative nature, provides elements that allow us to the understanding of the diversity of orientations of value associated with benefits of nature in Chile.

The biosphere reserve model explicitly recognizes the necessity of integrating different actors into the design and implementation of effective mechanisms of biodiversity conservation at local, regional, national, and global scales. Accounting for social preferences for ecosystem services enables the multiple ways by which people benefit from nature to be visualized. In countries such as Chile where economic criteria are often given more weight than other ecological and socio-cultural criteria in territorial management, ignoring information generated from social approaches can hide the complex socio-ecological webs that are not necessarily visualized through existing legal regulations or policies. However, understanding these webs is key to advancing towards sustainability. This fact has important policy implications as it forces scientists and decision makers to recognize the legitimacy of the interests of local communities in nature, thus favouring a more transparent decision-making process. In this regard, our approach contributes to a better understanding of how the different social actors of a biosphere reserve in a biodiversity hotspot in South America perceive ecosystems from the perspective of the provision of different benefits through the following specific findings: a) divergent perceptions of ecosystem services emerged from different stakeholders; b) there was an urban-rural dichotomy in terms of preferences for ecosystem services; c) local ecological knowledge (e.g., that of small farmers) emphasized provisioning ecosystem services (e.g., beekeeping, food from agriculture, and drinking water) as well as cultural services associated with plants, while more expert knowledge (i.e., that of scientists or environmental professionals) leads to the favouring of regulating services (e.g., fresh air and climate change regulation) and cultural services (e.g., possibilities of developing conservation activities focused on threatened animals and plants). Thus, locals are guided by subsistence logic—the reproduction of their lives and their way of life—that is mainly linked to provisioning services, while scientists and environmental professionals perceive the benefits of natural systems on a more global scale by focusing on regulating services.

Ethical approval for this study was obtained from the Research Ethics Committee in Social Sciences and Humanities of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the University of Chile. Anonymity and confidentiality were explicitly granted to respondents. Participants agreed to respond to the questionnaire once they had given their informed consent, which was reviewed and approved by the mentioned Ethics Committee.