Making ecosystem service assessment accessible: new toolkit brings clarity for non-specialists

17th October 2013

Increasing attention is being given to the benefits that people derive from biodiversity, in the form of ecosystem services such as food, clean water and climate regulation. However, the value of these services is rarely incorporated into land-use decisions. Demonstrating nature’s value in economic terms often carries weight with decision makers, and can lead to better-informed policy and practice that supports biodiversity conservation.

Until recently, methods and tools for ecosystem service assessment generally required substantial resources or specialist knowledge. This may now be set to change. Over the past couple of years, a group of researchers from 15 institutions have been working together to develop a ground-breaking new tool for assessing the value of services provided by nature at important sites for biodiversity conservation. The Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment (TESSA) guides non-specialists through a selection of accessible, low-cost methods, to identify the ecosystem services that are important at a site, and evaluate the benefits that people get from them now, compared with those expected under alternative land-uses. In addition to providing guidance on communicating results, TESSA enables users to indicate who will be the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as a result of any change in the state of the site and ecosystem service delivery. The researchers have now published a paper in the journal Ecosystem Services, providing an overview of TESSA, including examples of how it has been applied at sites around the world.

“This ground-breaking collaboration between many scientists has resulted in an innovative and valuable tool to help promote better planning decisions, and to support biodiversity conservation and ecosystem service delivery, and hence human well-being”, said Jenny Birch, BirdLife International’s Ecosystem Services Officer.

Organisations involved in the development of TESSA include CCI partners BirdLife International, the University of Cambridge, the RSPB and UNEP-WCMC. Cambridge-based Anglia Ruskin University has also been involved in the work. Funding for TESSA’s development has been through CCI’s Collaborative Fund for Conservation as well as the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and the Axa Research Fund.

The methods incorporated in TESSA have been applied at more than 15 sites, including many Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), in Asia, Africa, South America and the Pacific. Using TESSA, Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal) published a national review of biodiversity and ecosystem services at IBAs, jointly with Nepal’s Department for National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. The report was launched by Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in October 2012.

“Users of TESSA around the world have shown the critical role that local people can play in generating locally relevant data on ecosystem services, to inform management options at particular sites”, said Birch. “In each of our test sites, trade-offs have been revealed, and these have provided insights into the actions required to achieve biodiversity conservation, while ensuring fair and equitable distribution of costs and benefits to people.”

Dr Francine Hughes, Reader in Wetland Ecology and Conservation at Anglia Ruskin University, was one of the researchers involved in this collaborative project, which has applied TESSA at Wicken Fen, a wetland restoration project on the edge of Cambridge. “The toolkit has proved itself to be extremely versatile as it can be used at sites that have recently undergone ecological restoration, as well as in established nature reserves, and has demonstrated the increased value of ecosystem services on land that has been restored”, said Dr Hughes.

Available at http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/info/estoolkit, TESSA currently covers five classes of service: global climate regulation, water-related services, harvested wild goods, cultivated goods and nature-based recreation. The toolkit has already been downloaded by people from over 40 countries, including researchers, non-governmental organisations, students and government employees. Funding permitting, development will continue, with new modules on pollination, cultural services and coastal protection in preparation, and the release of a web-enabled version is planned.