Targeting ecosystems services for conservation reveals broader gains than a traditional focus on biodiversity might, according to work by RFF’s Juha Siikamäki, Peter Vail, Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, and Francisco Santiago-Ávila.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, biodiversity and ecosystems are among the region’s most valuable assets and of strategic importance for attaining long-term sustainable development. But traditional conservation approaches that focus only on biodiversity may miss opportunities to provide benefits in the form of ecosystem services to the people living in the region.
Latin America and the Caribbean cover vast areas on both sides of the equator, including a wide range of tropical, subtropical, and temperate ecosystems, and even the icy waters off Antarctica. The region contains close to 800 million hectares of forested areas, 570 million hectares of wild savannas, 700 million hectares of productive lands, and 27 percent of the planet’s available drinking water.
The region is known for its exceptional biodiversity. South America alone accounts for half of the global terrestrial biodiversity. Some of the world’s most biologically diverse countries are situated in the region, including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. More than half the Caribbean flora cannot be found anywhere else on the globe.
At the same time, the region is rapidly changing in ways that put pressure on biodiversity. Between 1950 and 2010, the population in Latin America and the Caribbean grew by more than 250 percent, and the last 20 years have seen a near doubling of the GDP. As the countries in this region become wealthier, the urban and middle class populations grow. So, too, does the demand for energy, water, food, forest products, land, and minerals. Now at a crossroads, the region faces an enormous opportunity and challenge to ensure that ecosystems are managed sustainably to provide the services needed to meet this demand.
Traditionally, conservation efforts tend to focus on areas unique in biodiversity, such as those with the greatest number of species. But a more comprehensive approach is becoming popular that considers broader ecosystem benefits in addition to biodiversity. Conservation funding can be seen as an investment with measurable returns—often in biophysical quantities, such as the number of species, but sometimes also in dollars. At its core is the concept of ecosystem services (see the box below).
Despite the fact that many ecosystem services are not readily transacted and valued by the market, they are still economically valuable. Over the last several decades, economists have developed different approaches to determine the value of non-market benefits so that they can be considered alongside market values in the management and protection of ecosystems. Estimates of the value of ecosystem services in various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean are sparse, but what information we do have offers cues about the drivers of the value of ecosystem services.