Ecosystem change and human well-being: Cases from Indonesia, China and Japan


  • 2011•10•18

    Suneetha M. Subramanian

    Eco-system change and human wellbeing: Cases from Indonesia, China and Japan

    Photo: Tine Steiss

    Over past decades, human activity and ongoing poor land management has accelerated a decline in the health of ecosystems around the world, impacting on the well-being of the local communities that depend on ecosystem services. Southeast Asia, like other tropical regions, has witnessed large-scale changes to ecosystems and is considered one of the three major bio-cultural diversity hotspots in the world (Maffi, 2007).

    New collaborative research from the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) looks at the extent to which the well-being of local communities is dependent on ecosystem health, by studying the implications of ecosystem management on human welfare in three ecosystems: The Supa watershed in China (Yunnan province), Japan’s Kushiro watershed (in Hokkaido) and Bawan village in Indonesia (Kahayan watershed, Kalimantan). Each ecosystem represents a different socio-economic structure: Kushiro represents a rural landscape in a well-integrated market economy, Bawan represents a rural landscape managed primarily by the local indigenous populations in a subsistence fashion, and Supa falls between the two.

    The research sought to simultaneously trace changes to the productive resources of ecosystems over a period of 50 years (1960s to 2009) and changes in the dependence of local populations on ecosystems for their well-being.

    Linking science and stakeholder perceptions

    To illustrate these changes, we developed an indicator-based assessment framework that integrated both spatial and social science research methods. Research linked “objective science” with stakeholder perceptions, based in the immediate vicinity of the ecosystem. It analysed changes occurring to ecosystem services, the dependence of communities on local ecosystems for well-being and changes to resilience.

    Biophysical data was collected from land-use maps, records and Landsat (satellite) imagery, and analysed against a set of indicators such as forest area, resource availability, soil quality and flood frequency.

    This was combined with socio-economic data, obtained from participatory rapid appraisal (PRA) methods, involving diverse stakeholders (farmers, shamans, village leaders, elders, traders, and community representatives of both genders). Indicators of socio-economic change captured the dependence of an immediate population on ecosystems for meeting their well-being requirements (including food, fuel, clean water, health security, livelihood security and spiritual requirements). Such participatory research also helped foster knowledge-sharing between scientists and stakeholders and provided a means of “ground-truthing” satellite data on changes to natural systems.

    Capturing a snapshot of ecosystem and social change

    The research revealed diverse changes to both biophysical characteristics and human dependence on ecosystems for well-being.

    Biophysical changes to forest area and forest resources

    In Bawan village, more than 75 per cent of forest area is still present, although dense forest has declined. This decline is due to large-scale logging and deforestation, driven by private commissioning of forest areas and government policies of resettling people from other provinces within the forest area. The extent of forest resources available to the local community has also been reduced (by around 25 per cent), especially near polluted water bodies. Unlike the other two sites, in Bawan, floods have also become more frequent and soil quality has deteriorated.

    The case of the Supa watershed provided an interesting contrast. The past few years have witnessed a net increase in forest area, of around 14 per cent. This has been primarily driven by a government policy to return land to forests. Resource availability has also increased by 20 per cent, as a result of the expanding forest area.

    In Kushiro, around 10 per cent of forest area was lost primarily for agriculture use, pastures and dairy farming (the result of government policy since the 1980s). PRA respondents observed that this change had correlated with a reduction in the number of farming households (by about 55 per cent from 1976–2006), as agriculture became a large-scale activity. While the population of migratory birds such as cranes has risen due to increased environmental activities promoted by a local NGO, some native animals have become endangered and vulnerable.

    Changes to communities’ dependence on ecosystems for well-being

    Security of food, fuel, water, health, livelihoods and culture are central to ensuring the well-being of populations. Changes to dependence on immediate ecosystems to meet these needs reflects the extent to which ecosystems continue to provide various utilities to local populations, and thereby focuses attention on the challenges in meeting these needs.

    In Bawan, food self-sufficiency has been on the decline, due to a variety of factors including unseasonal rains and more frequent flooding, changing land use (from farmlands to rubber plantations) and less-productive crop yields. The villagers in Bawan traditionally were self-sufficient for their major food staples, including rice, corn and vegetables. Even at the time of the survey (2009), their production activities were aimed towards self-consumption (more than 80 per cent of food consumed is from the ecosystem), indicating a high dependence on the in situ ecosystem to meet this basic need. Bawan villagers currently spend about 20 per cent of their income on food expenses.

    The food security situation for people in the Supa watershed area was similar to the situation in Bawan, with more than 75 per cent of food sourced from the ecosystem. However, in Kushiro, whilst historical dependence on ecosystems for food was high until the 1950s, today less than 10 per cent of the food (mainly vegetables) consumed by the population comes from the local ecosystem.

    Access to clean water has been one of the most severely compromised ecosystem services in Bawan village. Since the 1960s, the Kahayan River has become unfit for consumption due to pollution from agriculture, illegal mining activities, forest degradation, logging and increased use of fertilizers. In contrast, in the Supa watershed area, access to water and water quality has been consciously improved through various water augmentation programmes. In Kushiro, the population has been chiefly dependent on water distribution services provided by the government.

    Other changes impacting on community dependence on ecosystems included:

    Fuel sufficiency – Dependence on the ecosystem for heating and cooking has been reduced in Bawan (with the arrival of gas and electricity), whilst in Supa the population continues to derive 75 per cent of fuel from the ecosystem. In Kushiro, people are not dependent on the ecosystem to meet fuel requirements.

    Health security – In Bawan, traditional medicine (derived from ecosystem services) is practiced along with modern therapeutics, and traditional healers remain highly sought after. This is not the case in Supa or Kushiro.

    Livelihoods – About 80 per cent of total livelihood activities in Bawan village are traditional in origin and depend highly on ecosystem services (such as rice, corn, vegetables, fishery-related activities and rubber and rattan plantations). Whilst the financial return from such activities is usually low, they continue to be a way of life for the majority of people, even if the returns only supplement other sources of income.

    In the Supa watershed, the number of traditional activities has declined to about 30 per cent of all activities, indicating that the region is primarily driven by income derived from activities not directly linked to the ecosystem. In Kushiro, except for some limited agriculture and farming activities, there is no dependence of the population on any traditional activity for securing their livelihoods.

    Cultural dependence – In Bawan, local people continue to have a high dependence on the ecosystem for meeting their various spiritual and cultural needs. This is clear from the continued existence of sacred areas that are well governed and maintained and from the conservation of educational forests initiated by research organizations. Such areas also show a high diversity of plant and animal species.

    In Supa watershed, although sacred areas are present, they are not actively governed or maintained, and dependence on the ecosystem for cultural and spiritual reasons has not been remarkable over the last 50 years. In the Kushiro area, since the 1980s, protection of natural areas, especially the wetland areas, has been encouraged to promote tourism. This has improved efforts to govern such locations for recreational purposes.

    Building resilience, managing change

    Managing complex ecological, social and economic transformation requires strategies that buffer against unexpected change and allow the sustainable flow of goods and services. Resilient systems need to cover both natural and social contexts and enable the population using an ecosystem to respond proactively to changes.

    Whilst the three research sites scored almost uniformly on all indicators for socio-economic resilience, their “natural” resilience was very different. This is reflective of the development path that societies adopt, irrespective of ecosystem backgrounds and differences in natural endowments.

    Indicator-based research enabled a comprehensive chalking of these different paths and the role of diverse actors in responding to ecosystem change. By linking both biophysical changes and changes to human well-being and ecosystem dependence, research demonstrated that data obtained from objective sources, when integrated with more subjective data, can provide rich details on changes to ecosystems. This approach highlighted transformations occurring both currently and historically over time, and cast light on what drives these changes in specific locations, and how this translates in terms of development priorities for the different stakeholders.

    The three case studies implicitly highlight the different kinds of trade-offs that can occur in use of ecosystem services. Policy decisions related to land use have played a major role in shaping the current state of ecosystems in all three contexts, thereby implying the need for more informed decision making. Multi-pronged measures aimed at optimizing trade-offs between conservation and development goals are required. And, development goals need to be sensitive to local inclinations to use products and services from immediate and familiar ecosystems – which is the idea behind participatory planning.

    Whilst still a “work in progress”, the analytical framework developed in our research can provide policy makers with a simple depiction of the complexities involved in land-use decisions, especially in ecosystems supporting diversity. For local stakeholders, it can also help communicate the challenges to their well-being and to ecosystems. By doing so, this framework can also help identify solutions and actions that the local populations who depend on natural areas for their welfare and well-being can explore.

    This article is an abbreviated version of M.S. Suneetha, J.S. Rahajoe, K. Shoyama, X. Lu, S. Thapa and A.K. Braimoh, “An indicator-based integrated assessment of ecosystem change and human well being: Selected case studies form Indonesia, China and Japan,” Ecological Economics, vol. 70 (2011), pp. 2124 – 2136.