Do ecosystem services really win arguments for biodiversity conservation? New report from BESAFE investigates

BESAFE (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Arguments for our Future Environment) recently produced a report on how we can use the value of nature to argue more effectively for conserving biodiversity. In a guest blog, the authors discuss the results that show a surprising range of motivations behind the conservation of nature. 

Is putting a value on nature really the best way to protect it? Despite growing evidence on the value of ecosystem services, biodiversity and natural capital are still being lost. The BESAFE project (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: arguments for our future environment) aimed to find out what can be done to argue more effectively in favour of protecting nature.

The project was built around 13 case studies covering key conservation issues across Europe. These included heated debates over wild mammals (fox and wild boar in Flanders; wolves in Norway); long-running campaigns to protect unique areas (the ancient Bialowieza forest in Poland; mire landscapes in Finland); and the interactions between agriculture, ecosystems and local communities (in the Sierra Nevada, Doñana wetlands and lower Danube national parks).

We wanted to find out whether arguments based on the value of ecosystem services to humans were effective in persuading decision-makers to protect biodiversity. But first we needed to know whether protecting biodiversity always resulted in better ecosystem services. We therefore reviewed over 500 academic papers on the links between different aspects of biodiversity (e.g. habitat area, species abundance, species richness, functional diversity, species size) and the ability of ecosystems to supply eleven different ecosystem services. We found that the links were overwhelmingly positive, with a few exceptions, such as the negative link between forest area and freshwater supply in certain contexts (e.g. plantations in drought-prone areas). In other words, protecting biodiversity will generally improve the delivery of ecosystem services. However, the opposite is not necessarily true – over-exploiting the supply of certain ecosystem services, especially food, timber and water provision, can have a damaging impact on biodiversity. 

So how effective are ecosystem service arguments in real-life decision-making? We used a variety of techniques to analyse the arguments used by different stakeholders, including local people, tourists, government, agencies, local authorities, scientists and NGOs. Along with stakeholder interviews and focus group discussions, we analysed official documents and media debates to record the progression of arguments over time, and used argument mapping software to record ‘trees’ of arguments and counter-arguments.

Some of the results were quite surprising. We asked three different groups of experts — national decision-makers, NGOs and researchers — to rank different arguments for biodiversity conservation. Although it might be thought that national decision-makers would be governed mainly by economic arguments based on the value of ecosystem services, and NGOs might favour ethical and moral arguments based on our duty to protect nature for its own sake, we actually found a broad mix of views within each group. Most participants accepted that economic analysis has a role to play in biodiversity conservation, but ethical arguments were also perceived to be fundamentally important.

Based on our analysis of real-life decision-making, BESAFE produced a number of recommendations for improving the way we argue for biodiversity protection. 

  1. Stakeholder engagement and co-operation is vital for successful outcomes. This allows us to move from an ‘island’ model, where biodiversity is only protected in isolated areas within the surrounding intensively used landscape, to a more integrated approach that embeds biodiversity conservation within all policy sectors (e.g. agriculture, forestry, water, energy, transport and urban planning), with the support of local people and key decision-makers in each sector. 
  2. Promote bottom-up initiatives at the local level. Rather than focusing only on top-down nature protection directives (though these are still important), authorities need to guide and encourage bottom-up collaborative decision-making processes involving all stakeholders, and actively support an ongoing adaptive management approach wherever possible. These initiatives may take time, but should focus on building trust and working towards generally agreed and accepted solutions – especially where there is conflict between biodiversity conservation and the use of natural resources.
  3. Tailor arguments to the audience. Arguments need to be framed to fit the values and goals of the audience, embracing the different types of values attached to nature, and using appropriate language. For example, over-emphasising the economic value of nature could alienate people who are motivated mainly by ethical and moral concerns. Also the language of ‘ecosystem services’ can be hard to understand, and simpler language can be more effective when communicating with the general public.
  4. Use positive arguments. Positive framing of arguments to emphasise benefits is often more powerful than negative framing that focuses on threats and losses. The concept of ecosystem services is useful for emphasising positive benefits, provided that it is properly explained to stakeholders. 
  5. Use a wider range of arguments. Arguments based on the economic value of nature for humans are often seen as central to gaining high-level policy support, but our results show that many decision-makers and other stakeholders also use and respond positively to ethical and moral arguments. Therefore, a wider range of arguments may be needed to engage all stakeholders, including those at the local and regional level. 

In summary, BESAFE found that arguments based on the value of nature for people can be highly effective in helping to frame conservation as a positive opportunity rather than a burden, but it is best to use them bundled together with arguments based on the rights of species to exist and on an “insurance policy” approach stressing adaptation and resilience. Arguments based on the value of nature for people should be seen as complementary, not as alternatives: the key recommendation is to ensure a better balance between the different types of arguments, and wider dissemination of these arguments to all stakeholder groups.

Further information

BESAFE website
Final brochure 


Author: Alison Smith, University of Oxford
Co-ordinator: Rob Bugter, Alterra or Paula Harrison, University of Oxford