Science - July 7, 2010

Saving nature saves money too

Alterra scientists argue for the ecosystem services approach, which they say will increase the support base for nature conservation.

Alterra is preaching a new gospel: a nature policy based on the useful functions of nature and landscapes. At the heart of this approach lies not conservation but the continued and optimal provision of ecosystem services.
Alterra researchers have outlined these ideas in a Dutch booklet called 'Nature for all: participating, investing and benefitting. Nature policy at present is mainly focused on conservation in reserves, explains co-author Kees Hendriks. But by itself, that is not enough to safeguard biodiversity. There is plenty of nature present outside the ecological main structure and the Natura 2000 areas. Nature that we shouldn't manage like a reserve, but from which we can all benefit.

And the best way to do that, say Hendriks and his colleagues, is to see nature as a provider of what they call ecosystem services. These are services such as food production or the provision of clean water and air, recreation and wellbeing. We are not used to putting a price on such services, and that needs to change. 'Because they certainly don't come free', explains Hendriks. 'They are free as long as such a service is working well. But if you mess things up, it costs a lot of money to put them right again.
'What you need to do, really, is to make the hidden costs and - especially - the hidden benefits of ecosystem services visible. Take water purification: you can opt for a technical solution, with purification in a concrete tank, or you can invest in a reed-bed helophyte filter, which delivers not just water purification but a host of other services such as nature, water storage and recreation.' New nature policy demands a change of mindset, according to Hendriks. From an emphasis on defensive nature conservation in reserves to a more economics-based way of thinking of nature as a reservoir of useful functions for society. Functions which have to be paid for by the user, one way or another.
The useful functions of nature vary from place to place. Hendriks and his colleagues therefore divide the Netherlands into three types of landscape: nature landscapes, agricultural landscapes and multifunctional landscapes. Each type provides its own types of service. 'It is a sketch of how the Netherlands could look in a few decades' time, based on current developments. This division into three is useful for targeting ecosystem services that are important for each type of area.'
A new approach of this sort also increases public support for nature, according to Alterra. 'People have to realize that nature is not just beautiful, but is also something to enjoy. Nature is useful and you can make money from it. So you should look after it.'