Realising the benefits of nature

This thesis presents a place-based social–ecological study of ecosystem services (ES), situated in a mountain landscape and small rural community within a biosphere reserve in Chiapas, south-eastern Mexico. I aimed to reveal important interactions between ecosystems, ES, and people, and address the main sustainability challenge of reconciling local livelihoods and nature conservation.

The general research questions were: (1) Where and how are ES co-produced? (2) How are ES governed? (3) Who benefits from the provision of ES? Mixed-methods research was used to address these questions. First, I carried out a biophysical assessment of ES supply across the landscape, including ES valued by local stakeholders. Closed forests and riparian areas, complementary ES hotspots, supplied a diverse array of ES across a multifunctional landscape. Nonetheless, forage cover presented important trade-offs against most other ES, revealing the impacts of agricultural expansion and opposing stakeholder demands.

Human input in the co-production of ecosystem services shifts the emphasis on nature as a provider of services to people having agency in their own well-being.

Second, an integrated ES cascade framework was used to study the co-production pathway of forest pine resin. Substantial human input and coordinated efforts were required to extract resin and realise its benefits, and people’s values were central to resin co-production. A high proportion of income from resin was gained through labour and social networks, simultaneously most social conflicts occurred over labour relations and organisation as well.

Third, I analysed ES trade-offs in four alternative land use scenarios at the farm and landscape level. The intensive cattle ranching and forest restoration scenarios presented hard ES trade-offs, compared to the more moderate land use zoning and integrated agroforestry practices scenarios. Forage production presented recurring trade-offs against other ES. Lastly, ES trade-offs were similar in each scenario, but the magnitude of these trade-offs varied considerably between small and large farms. My study can inform sustainable land management and local decision-making.

The importance of human input in ES co-production shifts the emphasis on nature as a provider of services to people having agency in their own well-being. Hence, local communities should be supported as promoters of biodiverse agroecosystems and active stewards of nature, while examining the role or labour in ES provision. Landscape multifunctionality should be explicitly integrated into land planning, taking into account the diversity of farms and paying special attention to riparian areas, e.g. through stakeholder engagement in restoration efforts.

Finally, the productivity and sustainability of cattle ranching needs to be improved through biodiversity-based land management practices. New modes of environmental governance are called for, in which macro-level structures provide incentives and support community-based governance. People’s values in ES co-production should be at the centre of land management initiatives, integrating the community’s diverse views, ways of relating with nature, and socio-cultural perspectives.

We need a better understanding of human well-being in the local context, and should investigate how human well-being is affected by environmental impacts, changing access to ES, and the distribution of benefits within the community. Learning organisations that enhance collaboration and communication between different stakeholders to advance shared goals, can play an essential role in forming shared social values around nature and people’s well-being.