The flow of ecosystem service benefits is always mediated by social systems. Every human use of nature has a socio-cultural context: relatively enduring relationships and understandings among individuals and groups that shape both the ends and means of actions affecting ecosystems. This context can determine the nature of received ecosystem benefits, their value, and their beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries.
Humans do not experience their environment as an external and objective reality. Rather, “nature is seen by humans through a screen of beliefs, knowledge, and purposes, and it is in terms of their images of nature, rather than of the actual structure of nature, that they act.”1 Such “images of nature” are not universal. Although many societies consider pigs a valuable source of meat, Islamic and Judaic communities consider them to be unclean animals, not to be eaten.2 For these religious communities, pigs provide no provisioning service.
Socio-cultural shaping of the flow of ecosystem benefits can be seen in the social mapping of fuels within a landscape. In the Peruvian Andes, for example, rights to fuel wood are determined by multiple factors. For fuel from planted trees, these include “community residency, house and field ownership, and the degree of human labor in tree planting and harvest—a complex mix of ownership and usufruct [use] rights.” In contrast, trees in the uncultivated monte are a common pool resource; rights to fuel are conveyed by membership in a nearby community.3
In the United States, access to lands and resources for non-commercial hunting, fishing, and gathering is shaped in complex ways by socio-cultural factors, involving both law and customary practice. Two centuries of American Indian treaties and case law have overlaid the territory of the United States with a grid of native resource rights. In the post-contact era, pre-contact tribal fishing practices at “usual and accustomed” places were recognized as rights retained by tribes, even when the use of such sites required access across private property.4 Similarly, in rural America, it is customary to hunt on other people’s land. Though the landowner’s permission is required, the practice is sufficiently common to be recognized in state fish and game regulations.5
Human ecology mapping(HEM) is becoming popular as a tool to chart the complex connections between humans and landscapes. Human ecology mapping refers to a broad suite of techniques, including community values mapping, counter-mapping, cultural opportunities mapping, landscape values mapping, mental mapping, participatory mapping, place-based mapping, public-participation geographic information system mapping, and social values mapping.
Aside from helping analysts quantify (though not monetarily value) cultural ecosystem services that cannot be assessed using more traditional biophysical modeling and nonmarket valuation techniques, HEM offers a promising approach to mapping cultural ecosystem services.6 It couples existing and emerging technologies to visually capture the interactions in socio-ecological systems, helping analysts to answer questions such as
- Where do conflicts arise over land rights, uses, and access?
- How and why does the spatial distribution of human activity vary temporally (seasonally, annually, and so on)?
- What values are associated with sites within the project area?
Therefore, HEM may be a valuable tool in understanding the socio-cultural context of ecosystem services.
Different situations will require greater or lesser attention to the socio-cultural context of ecosystem services provision and value. Understanding how social systems mediate the human experience of the environment and the consequences of environmental change is basic to several disciplines, including environmental anthropology, environmental sociology, and human geography. Ideally, understanding the social-cultural context for the natural resource management decision at hand will be one of the first steps in an analysis of that decision.
Allen, S.D., D.A. Wickwar, F.P. Clark, R. Potts, and S.A. Snyder. 2009. Values, Beliefs, and Attitudes Technical Guide for Forest Service Land and Resource Management, Planning, and Decision-making. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-788. Pacific Northwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Portland, OR. http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/pnw_gtr788.pdf.
This Forest Service guide provides a conceptual overview defining values, beliefs, and attitudes and suggesting ways for incorporating them into decision processes.
McLain, R., M. Poe, K. Biedenweg, L. Cerveny, D. Besser, and D. Blahna. 2013. “Making Sense of Human Ecology Mapping: An Overview of Approaches to Integrating Socio-Spatial Data into Environmental Planning.” Human Ecology 41 (5): 651–65. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10745-013-9573-0.
This synthesis paper describes several techniques of human ecology mapping.
Vaccaro, I., E.A. Smith, and S.Aswani, eds. 2010. Environmental Social Sciences: Methods and Research Design. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Environmental-Social-Sciences-Methods-Research/dp/052111084X.
This book summarizes methods and research strategies for social research focused on environmental issues.
Winthrop, R. H. 2014. “The Strange Case of Cultural Services: Limits of the Ecosystem Services Paradigm.” Ecological Economics 108:208-214. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914003152.
This article discusses the limitations of ecosystem services frameworks in incorporating cultural services using several examples from American Indian communities of the Pacific Northwest.
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