Concerns regarding the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on human subsistence are growing, and this has led to numerous calls for land-use strategies to meet specific goals, including dedicating large areas to biodiversity conservation (e.g. half-earth), large-scale tree planting to mitigate climate change, or increased local food production to support food security. But land is finite, and different stakeholders tend to prioritise different services. Further, services trade-off meaning any particular land use cannot provide all ecosystem services: forests provide timber and store carbon in trees, while grasslands support livestock and croplands give us cereals and vegetables.
Trade-offs between services mean that in any landscape, compromises must be made regarding the relative proportion of different land uses. How do these compromises affect the benefits that different groups of people derive from nature? And can we design “optimal” landscapes, that balance the needs of multiple groups? These were the questions I found myself addressing during my postdoc at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Our team is also part of the Biodiversity Exploratories - a massive collaborative project where researchers examine relationships between land use, biodiversity and ecosystem services in three regions of Germany - which made it possible to acquire all the data needed to address this issue.
First, Sophie Peter, a researcher at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt, asked representatives of different stakeholder groups in the three Exploratories which ecosystem services they valued. The final list included 11 services, including provisioning services that represent the production of material goods; cultural services, related to people’s experience of nature; and one service related to climate mitigation. Then, Sophie conducted a large-scale survey (Peter et al. 2021) in which respondents had to rate their priorities for each service.
The next step was to quantify the supply of each service in a range of land uses. We focused on forests, managed grasslands, and croplands, which cover most of Germany’s rural landscapes. Indicators for some services were pretty straightforward, such as the species richness of birds and plants for the biodiversity conservation service. Others were more complex: how to represent a landscape’s regional identity or aesthetic value based on ecological indicators? We spent many hours scratching our heads over these, and even conducted sub-projects - for example, a mini-survey to identify which bird species were of cultural importance in Germany.
All of these discussions took place during the challenging time of Corona-lockdown, which significantly impacted teamwork. After several months of online and home working: collaborative data collection, long zoom meetings to discuss indicators, and coding to simulate virtual landscapes based on this massive dataset, the lockdown eased. For the first time in ages we could discuss preliminary results in person, sitting under a tree in our institute’s small garden. Our first results showed that there were landscape compositions that maximise the benefits that people derive from nature on average, but that maximising the average often meant one or few groups would lose benefits. As this could result in increased conflicts, can we still call it an optimal landscape? We were all happy to see each other, intense discussion ensued, and ideas flew. By the end of that meeting, we agreed that our “optimal landscape” should not look only at the average benefits people derive from nature, but also at their equitable spread across groups.
We found that compared to the current situation in our three study regions, a slight increase in forest cover and grassland deintensification would increase benefits for all stakeholder groups, and in an equitable way. On the contrary, any large-scale change focusing, for instance, on reforestation or biodiversity conservation only would risk greatly increasing inequities – unless people’s priorities change (e.g. a reduced food demand). This is an important finding, especially in the context of current discussions around biodiversity conservation, such as the 30x30 target that was recently adopted at the COP15 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Something not shown in our paper is that in follow-up workshops, we showed these results to some of the stakeholders who participated in the initial survey. They were very interested in the results shown - which was encouraging! - and curious to test a whole range of new scenarios. However, they also had important suggestions for improvement. First, that our models should consider the feasibility of the scenarios in view of local constraints (e.g. we cannot plant crops on steep mountain slopes). Also, while we identified which landscapes would currently best fit people’s demands, we don’t know if these landscapes would be sustainable in the long term, or in face of global changes. We are now looking forward to integrating this feedback into the next phase of this work.
Our results provide new and important insights into which large-scale land use policies could provide high and equitable nature benefits to a range of people, especially in rural Germany where the work was conducted. The approach we developed is more broadly applicable however, and we encourage further large-scale interdisciplinary studies to further explore the links between landscape management, social equity in people’s benefits from nature, and environmental sustainability.
Thanks to Peter Manning and Sophie Peter for commenting on a previous version of this post.
Peter, S., Le Provost, G., Mehring, M., Müller, T., & Manning, P. (2022). Cultural worldviews consistently explain bundles of ecosystem service prioritisation across rural Germany. People and Nature, 4, 218– 230. https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10277