Reconsidering ecosystems and their management

In order to deal with the sustainability issues that natural resources are currently facing, the creation of an "ecosystemic" management approach that advocates a global method of managing ecosystems is being encouraged by the international scientific and political community. As part of the ECOGOV project, funded by COTE LabEx at the University of Bordeaux and led by Irstea in partnership with Ifremer, Inra and EFI (European Forest Institute), specialists in political and natural sciences take stock: is this approach really being implemented, and if so, how?

What is an ecosystemic approach?

Given the threats to biodiversity, many natural science experts are defending the implementation of an ecosystemic approach to managing ecosystems. "According to supporters of this approach, it encourages a global view, one which takes into account interactions between animals, humans and their environment to take more account of global changes, explains Caitríona Carter, coordinator of the ECOGOV project and political science researcher at the Irstea Bordeaux Center. However, very few studies exist on the political dimension of its implementation in France. "This approach brings hope for the sustainable management of ecosystems despite representing new political and scientific challenges.

ECOGOV: an ecosystemic approach cannot escape the ideological debate

The aim of the ECOGOV project is to study the relationship between science and politics in ecosystem management. "A key result of the project focuses on the political scope of these relationships," explains Carter. "We have noticed that implementing an ecosystemic approach is not devoid of ideological debate, despite what supporters of the ecosystemic approach, who tend to see this approach as politically neutral, believe."

The study led by researchers from the ECOGOV project highlighted the existence of three "ideotypes," or ways of perceiving ecosystem governance, with each corresponding to a different hierarchy of ideological values.

The first is management of ecosystems for efficiency, where the government has a strong management role on several management scales (European, national, regional), making scientifically based decisions. Decentralized public stakeholders and other relevant parties are regular participants, but rarely define the problems that need solving.

The second is management of competition between ecosystem services, where the economic value of services provided by the ecosystems to society is defined by evaluations performed by environmental economists working with ecologists.

The third is an ecosystemic approach by committed stakeholders, where the government is one participant among many, and choices are made by communicating with decentralized public stakeholders, private stakeholders, NGOs and citizens. Many types of knowledge are involved.

Managing the creation of a "sustainable cake"

To illustrate the three perspectives, we can use the example of a "sustainable cake," where the manufacturers know what ingredients make up the cake, their interactions with the other ingredients, and their interactions with the children that will eat the cake.

  • Managing ecosystems for efficiency: parents will decide what ingredients are used to make a birthday cake, taking into account a series of scientific opinions on, for example, "healthy" and "sustainable" cake ingredients, as well as their own ideas of what their child would like.
  • Managing competition between ecosystemic services: parents will invite private cake-baking companies to bid for the cake, taking into account the environmental cost of manufacturing the cake. These costs will be used to determine both the baker and type of cake.
  • Ecosystemic approach by committed stakeholders: parents and friends of the child, and possibly the child as well, will discuss issues of taste, health and sustainability, trying hard to find a suitable compromise for the type of birthday cake.

Estuarine landscapes


Managing ecosystems in Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Subsequently, scientists investigated whether these different approaches were being used to manage three types of ecosystems in Nouvelle-Aquitaine: forest, estuarine and marine. They observed currently used practices and interviewed local stakeholders. Primary results revealed a mixture of disorganized management practices. Although an ecosystemic approach is used in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, it is often partially implemented and combined with other management methods. Researchers also asked whether the ecosystemic approach was implemented differently according to the various ecosystems. They found that in the cases studied, the marine and estuarine ecosystems are currently governed by ecosystemic approaches, whereas forest plantations are not, although their current management method is being called into question by stakeholders who defend the ecosystemic approach despite its risks. Where ecosystemic approaches were adopted, the management of ecosystems for efficiency approach, with the government playing a strong management role, was the one used for the marine, estuarine and forest ecosystems. Few participants had adopted the committed stakeholder or the competition between ecosystem services management approach. The next stage of the ECOGOV project will involve the relevant stakeholders and will look in greater depth at the consequences of implementing this hybrid management process.

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