Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Ecosystem services and the land-based professions – telling it how it is

Charles Cowap (chartered surveyor, Knowledge for Professional Practice), Prof Mark Reed and Prof Alister Scott (Birmingham City University) reflect on how the landbridge event on ecosystems services held in June helped inform a new policy and practice note exploring how land advisers can incorporate ecosystem services thinking into their everyday practice.

The language of ecosystem services can be disenfranchising and alienating, but it’s here to stay.  And however off-putting we may find the jargon, the concept itself really does provide a new lens through which to view traditional land use problems and opportunities. We have to get past the jargon to appreciate the added value and ensure its widespread assimilation into daily practice through continuing professional development and lifelong learning. 

When a group of land-based professionals came together recently under the auspices of landbridge to talk about these issues, there was concern that ecosystem services was an overly academic idea for the adviser in his or her day-to-day practice.  It was only after an amount of discussion and breaking down of the jargon that participants began to get to grips with what is involved.  There was an emerging consensus around the importance of place-making and place identity, benefits, risk and resilience as key unifying hooks to engage practice and understanding.  At that event, Alister Scott and colleagues from Birmingham City University even remodelled the Biblical story of Ahab and Naboth (Kings C21), with Charles Dickens’ Scrooge for modern times, using Provisioning, Regulating, Supporting and Cultural ecosystem services in a dream of land use futures.   This certainly helped to make the concepts more real for us.

The ecosystem services framework, and the wider Ecosystems Approach that it came from, promises changes to the way in which we all do our jobs, to the valuation, appraisal and management of the natural environment.   It could transform the way we manage land, undertake development, value assets, appraise plans, programmes and projects, and pay for a range of goods and services. This has far-reaching implications for the land-based professions, including for example, planners, chartered surveyors, agricultural lawyers, the agricultural supply industry and advisors such as agronomists and nutrition advisors, working in areas such as valuation, estate and property management, construction, property development and environmental services. 

So delegates at the event in Birmingham were calling for more tools that would help them to develop their professional knowledge.  They wanted, "a robust and mainstreamed toolkit", "tools for practical implementation of scientific and policy work into practice" and recognised the need for “professional confidence in an approach that has political support".  This in turn led to calls for "advocacy and promotion to a wider audience".

Some practitioners were curious as to " …how to value alternative land uses", while others stressed the "... role of [the] agricultural supply industry in knowledge transfer and policy adoption by farmers", coupled with a comment that "greater consideration is needed as to how to influence farmers to work for the environmental public goods".  This was also reflected by another participant’s comment about, "the need to identify win-win strategies to achieve adoption of environmental policies by land managers seeking to make a living".

A potential disconnect between current agricultural policy and the government’s adoption of the Ecosystems Approach in the Natural Environment White Paper was recognised by one comment, "Sustainable intensification as outlined in Prof Beddington's Foresight Report is the basis of future agricultural policies.  What is the role of the ecosystems approach in meeting this policy objective?"  A pertinent question indeed!

Researchers were also left with some questions from the event, for example one commented on a lesson learned: "knowing how non-academics view and use the Ecosystems Approach, learning the research priorities of these professionals", and recognising the importance of  "....the link to farming groups and related professional advice giving sectors".

A recurring theme was the importance of, "valuing things which have traditionally been unvalued and therefore neglected or exploited".  There was also a clearly articulated need for more accessible and concise information. 

Landbridge hopes to go some way towards filling that gap.  A new Policy and Practice note will be coming out, authored by us and with input from all the participants, enabling the ‘people on the ground’ to use ecosystem services in their practical land management.