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Winners and Losers – Benefit Profiles of Ecosystem Service Users in Southwestern Ethiopia

Food, fuel, shelter, tools – these are all examples of key livelihood products that forests and farmlands provide to humans. While such ecosystem services are important for human well-being, their accessibility is modified by a set of mediating factors that determine how much and which benefits different people receive. Hence, different groups of people – although they might be surrounded by the same ecosystems – benefit differently from them, depending on complex mechanisms that either influence the stock or the flow of ecosystem services. In the context of a case study in southwestern Ethiopia, Schultner et al. (2021) explored benefit profiles of different beneficiary groups and identified reasons for unequal access to ecosystem services. To this end, they disaggregated ecosystem service recipients and scrutinized current and historical mechanisms shaping access to services.

In their analysis, Schultner et al. (2021) focused on eight key ecosystem services: the two most common farmland crops maize and teff; the most common cash crops coffee (left picture), khat, honey (right picture), and eucalyptus; as well as fuelwood and wooden tools. The map in the centre shows the study area in southwestern Ethiopia (from Schultner et al. 2021, p.3)

In the rural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia, farming livelihoods and ecosystems are tightly interlinked. Understanding how and why people benefit differently from the ecosystems that surround them is crucial in terms of environmental justice and social equity. Schultner et al. (2021) followed three steps, namely (1) the identification of distinct current beneficiary groups of forest and farmland ecosystem services, (2) the comparison of specific access problems between beneficiary groups, and (3) the examination of past historical access in order to understand whether and how access histories shape current ecosystem service use. The authors focused on provisioning services because of their pivotal importance for basic human well-being in the study area.

The analysis of more than 430 household surveys and extended interviews allowed Schultner et al. (2021) to identify five distinct groups of current forest and farmland ecosystem service users. These five groups differed significantly with regard to total flows of services they received, the access barriers they faced, and historical access patterns. While ecosystem users across all groups were negatively affected by changing environmental conditions, the authors identified one group which benefitted particularly little from surrounding ecosystems. This group – labelled “generalist losers” by the authors – included 19% of surveyed households. “Generalist losers” were distinctly restricted by specific access problems, including low economic capital, poor land access, and various problems stemming from rules and regulations. They contrasted most strongly with better educated community members who could capitalise on the indirect benefits from marketable ecosystem services.

The five profiles of disaggregated user groups of forest and farmland ecosystem services in southwestern Ethiopia (from Schultner et al. 2021, p.5).

Overall, Schultner et al. (2021) found that a complex set of ecological, geographical, social, economic, technological and governance mechanisms shaped differences in ecosystem service flows in communities. These mechanisms then resulted in different challenges for the five user groups. For example, while “forest beneficiaries” mostly struggled with wildlife damage, crop disease, and labour shortages, the relatively well-provisioned “generalist beneficiaries” and “cash croppers” were much less affected by such access barriers. Schultner et al. (2021) argue that these multidimensional access patterns require broad integrative approaches to understand who benefits from ecosystem services. In addition, to ensure that basic needs provided by ecosystems are obtainable by all residents, management and policies must acknowledge the different access realities of the five groups, and pay specific regard to already marginalised groups such as the “generalist losers”.

Access limitations mentioned by the different community groups ranked according to their overall importance across groups (i.e. economic reasons were mentioned most frequently) (from Schultner et al. 2021, p.7).

Schultner et al. (2021) further differed between direct and indirect benefits from ecosystems: while direct benefits support very basic human needs such as food and shelter, indirect benefits are important for poverty alleviation through economic improvement. By examining historic access patterns, the authors discovered that direct benefits were perceived to have declined over time by all groups. In contrast, access to emerging market-oriented services with indirect benefits such as cash crops had increased – especially for better-off groups who capitalised on market opportunities and agricultural intensification. Such shifts in land use and commercialisation of ecosystem services may entail advantages for those who can capitalise on such opportunities but may prove perilous for those who lack the capacity to participate. Again, this can lead to further marginalisation of already disadvantaged ecosystem service users. Hence, Schultner et al. (2021) conclude that a contextualised understanding how past and present access mechanisms affect different ecosystem service user groups is important. This knowledge can facilitate the sustainable and equitable improvement of human well-being, along with sustainable land use and biodiversity conservation.

Take a closer look at the findings from Schultner et al. (2021) in the original paper.


Published by Marina Frietsch

Social-ecological systems researcher.

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