Mountain forest ecosystems provide a wide range of benefits, not only to local residents, but to those living downstream: from reducing floods to stabilizing slopes and supporting rich biodiversity. Understanding these contributions is key to sustainably managing mountain forest services — but large-scale assessments are still rare, especially in data-poor regions.
In response, scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner institutions in a new working paper compiled the most relevant tools and approaches to assess the sociocultural, economic and ecological values of mountain forest ecosystems, with a focus on southern Asia.
“This working paper wants to help researchers and land managers understand the various assessment methods, so that they are able apply them in their own countries and landscapes,” says lead author and CIFOR senior scientist, Himlal Baral.
Understanding the direct and indirect benefits of forest ecosystems to human well-being is important globally, but especially so in mountainous areas, as illustrated in the paper by case studies in Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Iran and Nepal.
Steep slopes and elevation create geographical barriers to accessing mountain forest landscapes, meaning that “local communities are isolated from urban areas, and so rely heavily on mountain forest ecosystem services for basic needs such as food,” explains Baral. In many cases, mountain people are also more vulnerable to climate change and poverty, he says.
At the same time, natural geographical barriers often result in communities with their own distinct cultures and social systems, and in “more primary forests, higher carbon stocks and richer biodiversity compared with lowland areas,” states the paper.
Gauging stakeholders’ perspectives, analyzing markets and scenario modeling are three ways of assessing ecosystem services. “Some of these approaches are simple, user-friendly and readily available,” Baral points out. “Even people with little experience and technical expertise can use them.”
The various tools falling into these three categories are differentiated in terms of required data, technical capacity, time and cost, and “have their own strengths of being able to assess a particular value,” notes the paper.
This means they can be jointly implemented to assess multiple values of mountain forest ecosystem services, and to shed light on the trade-offs and synergies between them. For example, “restoration efforts to enhance one service could compromise — or improve — another service.”
A case study in Nepal’s community forests, for instance, illustrates the combination of free-access satellite images, repeat photography, and participatory approaches to engaging local communities and experts.
The paper indicates this three-pronged approach “can be used to quickly map and prioritize ecosystem services’ values,” and to demonstrate the positive impact of restoration efforts over the last two decades.
In Bhutan, a tool known as benefit-transfer showed that the average total value of forest ecosystem services was over USD 14.5 billion per year, while in India, stakeholder and household analyses revealed that local livelihoods near the Maguri Mottapung wetland hinge on 29 ecosystem services — something that “suggests the urgent need for a participatory management plan engaging local communities.”
For Laxmi Dutt Bhatta, a senior ecosystem management specialist at ICIMOD and co-author of the paper, the assessment of ecosystem services is key to “showing the overall value of forests to countries and communities; to following up their evolution, and to informing decision-making.”
Co-author Sonam Phuntsho, who is a senior forestry officer at the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER), agrees: “Forests are a critical natural asset in Bhutan, where the majority of the population directly depends on forests for various services. But there is very limited information on their value so far.”
From Phuntsho’s perspective, having an overview of studies and methodologies in the region is now “extremely useful” for the country, as payment for ecosystem services is gradually picking up.
In Indonesia, the so-called Q methodology has helped lay the ground for payment of ecosystem services by identifying stakeholders’ anticipated benefits and concerns, while the study in Nepal “could be very much replicated in Bhutan, given the rapid increase in community forests,” Phuntso says.
Assessing mountain forest ecosystem services brings opportunities, but also challenges that must be reflected in assessment design.
These include the complexity of defining and classifying ecosystem services, intricate relationships among services including trade-offs and synergies, and the limitation of assessments to build successful payments for services.
Bhatta highlights two additional issues that will have to be addressed to understand the evolution of such services in the next 50 years: uncertainties associated with climate change and the scarcity of data on mountain forest ecosystem services, especially in data-poor regions such as South Asian mountains, and the Hindu Kush Himalayas.
Despite these challenges, lead author Himlal Baral is hopeful about the future of ecosystem service-based management. “In the past, forests just meant timber to many, but awareness is increasing,” he says.
“Now, a growing number of people associate forests with mitigation of climate change, water, biodiversity and landslide protection, so we are moving in the right direction.”
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