Focus on people to protect forest benefits


To calculate the real value of a forest, we need to learn how people benefit from it, according to new study published in Nature Sustainability. A wholesome forest holds a treasure trove of benefits for individuals — it may filter water to downstream communities, supply timber for construction, and provide a location for people to connect with nature. However, forests — or some other ecosystem — will not necessarily offer the very same things to everyone.

“Context matters,” says Lisa Mandle, lead scientist at the Stanford Natural Capital Project and lead author on the paper. “If we want to protect the critical natural assets we all depend on, we need actionable policies that incorporate people’s diverse needs. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach when we’re talking about people and nature.”

There is a growing worldwide movement to invest in nature as a way to protect vital resources and improve climate resilience. However, for character to be factored into policies, sustainable development programs, and other management decisions, the researchers state the science behind them has to be more inclusive and people-centric.

They also say a focus on equity is vital. People benefit from nature in different ways — a forest might offer valuable wood for one group while providing deep cultural significance for another. When most of the people or groups getting those benefits are not considered, the men and women who rely on nature the most can be left behind.

“If you don’t know who specifically would benefit from which ecosystems, how can you prioritize where and how to conserve?” said Taylor Ricketts, director of University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment and co-author on the paper. “We want to make sure the benefits of ecosystems are shared equitably, so that we don’t make existing racial and social inequality even worse.”

Nature-based solutions can create triple-win scenarios from procuring local water supplies to notifying coastal growth plans, knowing the values that nature provides to people can be a powerful instrument for decision-makers. But too often, the studies don’t pay enough attention to the people part.

“People need to see themselves — their values and needs — supported in conservation efforts. Often, research will try to assign an overall dollar value to nature without thinking about who will benefiting from it. That’s like saying you have $50 of food in your pantry, but you don’t know what kind of food it is or who will be eating. You can’t plan your meal without knowing what you have and what your diners need,” said Mandle.

The investigators recommend actions to their scientific community that concentrate on building understanding around who’s profiting from forests in the communities they are hoping to serve. They highlight direct involvement with individuals, so that policy and science can be better equipped to satisfy societal needs, enhance equity, and protect vital resources.

“This is a call for us all to do a better job. We can better deliver the information needed to move towards a more sustainable and equitable future,” said Mandle. “And that’s what we’re all working toward.”

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