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Ecosystem Services, Wellbeing and Justice

DEV Key ContactNeil Dawson

Project Dates: 2013 - 2016

Project Status: Complete



There are enormous efforts and investments to try to protect tropical biodiversity, undertaken by governments, national or local NGOs and through international conservation organisations. But protection of biodiversity often involves tradeoffs with the use of resources by local people, for example to find food, firewood, building materials or to feed their livestock. Reconciling biodiversity conservation goals with local needs and priorities is a major challenge, particularly in the tropics where levels of poverty are high and livelihoods are strongly connected to land and natural resources. In our previous project 'Just Ecosystem Management', we found that the use of justice analyses improved our conceptual understanding of such tradeoffs and provided theoretical insights into how we might work to resolve them. Studies of environmental justice explore a) the distribution of costs and benefits between different groups of people, b) the extent to which people can participate in and influence management decisions, and c) recognition of people’s varied knowledge and experiences in those processes. In this follow-on project, we combined the insights from environmental justice theory with recent innovations in wellbeing research and aim to provide more practical insights which may contribute to both long-term ecosystem management and poverty alleviation.

Environmental justice (EJ) research is emerging as a means to explore trade-offs in ecosystem management. Such approaches tend to recognise that stakeholders may not agree on a single definition of what is morally right, that plural conceptions of justice exist and may not be easily reconciled. Studies of environmental justice therefore look beyond tangible costs and benefits to comprise three interrelated dimensions: distribution of direct and indirect benefits from natural resources, procedure relating to decisions which govern them and recognition of culture, knowledge and needs of different groups in those processes. By looking beyond the distribution of gains and costs such an approach may serve to illustrate in detail the circumstances under which trade-offs or synergies exist between conservation and human wellbeing. This means the contribution of EJ studies is in looking for solutions to social trade-offs, mutually compatible pathways forward. And justice research contributes by bringing forward the perspectives of people that are commonly least well represented: poor and marginal groups.

Objectives of equity and justice are gaining credence in conservation policies, like the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. But these terms are poorly defined in policy and there is a lack of understanding how to implement just or equitable policies. So research like ours which tests methods for understanding what justice is and how to promote more just policies and outcomes has relevance to conservation practice.

The project tested these ideas through empirical, multidisciplinary research in the Nam Et-Phou Loeuy National Protected Area (NEPL) in northern Laos. NEPL is a mountainous tropical forest ecosystem of great biodiversity value, but also with high poverty levels. The NPA was established by the Lao Government in 1993 with support by international conservation organizations to conserve critical forest habitat and associated biodiversity, including, among 18 endangered species of large mammal present, one of the most important tiger populations in Indochina. The NPA is now run jointly by the Lao government and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Local people and livelihoods had undergone considerable change in the past 20+ years. They had traditionally survived through shifting cultivation of rice in the forested uplands and complemented this through hunting, fishing and foraging in surrounding forests, rivers and farmland. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war (locally known as the American war and which had enormous often overlooked impacts on Laos), civil war continued to rage between ethnic groups in Laos with one, the Hmong, having been supported by the Americans to try to avert a communist takeover of power. In the 1980s the rural population were relocated from their forest homes to new villages along roadsides and where the old villages had been, the NPA was soon established. The new villages were easier to access and promote development for and so in the 2000s clean water, electricity, health centres and schools have been set up. And since 2008 livelihoods have changed dramatically as farming has shifted to cash crops, growing maize to sell as feed for cattle in nearby Vietnam. This has raised local incomes hugely for many households and catalysed a rapid modernisation, with many households suddenly owning motorbikes, TVs, mobile phones and other technologies. But conservation organisations have focused largely on protecting wildlife and with minimal engagement with local communities other than education programs to promote the value of tigers and other animals, understanding of the impacts of these social changes on conservation and related opportunities and risks has been minimal. The study therefore aimed to highlight perspectives of a diversity of local inhabitants and draw implications for conservation and development practice.    

To do so we conducted social research around NEPL NPA. We spent one year among 3 villages to gain their trust and to develop understanding of people’s lives, what they prioritised and valued and how that had been changing. We assessed wellbeing and perceptions of justice relating to ecosystem management among 100 households through a series of semi-structured interviews, life histories and focus groups to further explore and validate the results. Alongside this we monitored agricultural practices and collected household diaries to evaluate use of different natural resources from the surrounding landscape at different time of the year. Social research was supported with fine-scale mapping showing annual changes in land-use from 2000-2015.

Three villages were selected because of the different conservation strategies affecting each of them: Phon Song bordered by ‘Total Protection Zone’ with no entry or resource use allowed; Khon Ngua where the border of the protected area was negotiated so that the village borders a ‘Controlled-Use Zone’ where limited resource use is regulated, and; Son Khua where a buffer of ‘Controlled Use Zone’ exists but an ecotourism scheme also operates which employs villagers and distributes monetary benefits to each household (map and pictures can be provided).

Our study found that around NEPL, rapid changes in economic welfare occurred simultaneously with rapid land-use change. Conventionally measured poverty rates fell 70% in 10 years, driven by transformation from subsistence shifting rice cultivation to cash cropping maize. At the same time, protected area and land-use zone boundaries were established. These changes are leading to a complex set of material, social and cultural outcomes for surrounding populations.

Access to land to produce or afford enough rice for a family, alongside opportunities to forage for meat and vegetables were central to local conceptions of wellbeing. Access to land differed considerably within villages, partially mediated by conservation interventions. Not all were better off under the changes, with food security worsening for many of the poorest households. Despite modernisation people were still highly dependent on the surrounding landscape for natural resources with hundreds of different plants and animals being collected for a wide variety of local uses as well as a few for sale. Even for households who were becoming better off, issues relating to the restrictions placed on their land use and resource collection by conservation, the top-down way in which decisions are made and the lack of attention to local priorities and values meant that many considered the impacts of the NPA to be unfair. As a result both new and old claims to land within the protected area have emerged or re-emerged, resulting in tensions between conservation and development trajectories. 


Selected Outputs:

Book: Sikor, T (2013). The Justices and Injustices of Ecosystem Services. Earthscan Publications, London

Policy Brief: Linking Conservation and Development in a Time of Rapid Change at Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area Lao PDR. The same Policy Brief in Lao language.

Participatory Manual: The Participatory Tool for Community Ecosystem Service Assessment and Dialogue in National Protected Areas (CESAD)

Broegaard, R. B., Rasmussen, L. V., Dawson, N. Mertz, O., Vongvisouk, T. & Grogan, K. (2016). Wild food collection and nutrition under commercial agriculture expansion in agriculture-forest landscapes. Forest Policy and Economics,

Rasmussen, L. V., Mertz, O., Christensen, A. E., Danielsen, F., Dawson, N., & Xaydongvanh, P. (2016). A combination of methods needed to assess the actual use of provisioning ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services, 17, 75-86.

Rasmussen, L. V., Christensen, A. E., Danielsen, F., Dawson, N., Martin, A., Mertz, O., Sikor, T., Thongmanivong, S. & Xaydongvanh, P. (2016). From food to pest: Conversion factors determine switches between ecosystem services and disservices. Ambio, 1-11.

Martin, A., Coolsaet, B., Corbera, E., Dawson, N. M., Fraser, J. A., Lehman, I., & Rodriguez, I. (2016). Justice and conservation: The need to incorporate recognition. Biological Conservation, 197, 254-261.


Partner Organisations:

  • University of Copenhagen
  • National University of Laos
  • Nordic Foundation for Development and Ecology (NORDECO)
  • Wildlife Conservation Society Lao PDR