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Humans need not be enemies of healthy ecosystems, argue two scientists

[Editor's note: Jude Isabella is filing Hook items as she attends the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting being held in Vancouver.]

Good environmental news is hard to find, so what a relief to sit in on a session where scientist Heather Tallis shared creeping evidence that when humans exploit the environment, it's not always a slam dunk that they will decimate it. There may be practical, sustainable ways to manage an ecosystem that still benefits humans.

Called Six Things Everyone Cares About: Connecting Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, six presenters, including Tallis, shared case studies showing that "healthy ecosystems" and "humans" can be uttered in the same breath. Each talk focused on one particular ecosystem service: food, water, energy, protection, livelihoods, and happiness.

Ecosystem services are the benefits derived from an ecosystem, in this context, the benefits valued by humans. Tallis, lead scientist of the Natural Capital Project, deals with water. The suspicious among us might, as Tallis pointed out, call that evil systems services with a focus on markets, monetization and ultimately the privatization of nature. But wait -- a country too often associated with terrorists, drug cartels, and violence has found a way to regulate the water supply in a way that, so far, takes into account all the human users in a watershed.

In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Tallis works in Colombia on a project in the northeastern part of the country, which has the largest coal deposits in Latin America. Another project is in sugarcane country in the southwest. Both explore the use of water funds.

"It's not a market," Tallis says. "There's no market involved, no monetary value is used."

Water usually ends up in valleys, where the wealthy can take advantage of it by building water treatment plants and infrastructure. This in turn creates unequal access and quality control. To alleviate the inequity, a water fund gets the relatively wealthy users at the bottom end of the water system to pay, or do in kind investments, to improve watershed management. They, in turn, receive an improved water supply, higher quality of water, and other benefits of a healthy watershed. A healthy watershed in turn helps the poor who live upstream. (It sounds an awful lot like the resource management technique used by First Nations in the Pacific Northwest -- potlatch reciprocity.)

For example, near the city of Cali, the sugar cane growers' association, the regional environmental authority and grassroots organizations are building a water fund to deal with reforestation, soil improvements, education, and other programs designed to protect the watershed. It can be as easy as fencing cattle out of streams and planting trees to decrease erosion.

"I want to emphasize, there was no change in ownership or access rights; no monetary valuation is used in assessment; water quality and supply improved for the payers and the poor; and sometimes there was a livelihood improvement for providers," Tallis said.

To get the most out of these ecosystem services, the users have to decide how to spend the fund (called The Water for Life and Sustainability) over the next five years. That's $10 million to be spent in the best interest of at least nine watersheds. Paying into the fund is voluntary, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

Tallis's presentation reaches a conclusion similar to that offered by an anthropologist at a very different symposium, Climate Change and the Impact on Human Evolution. Andre Costopoulos, a McGill University anthropologist, cheekily titled his presentation "If Humans Are So Smart Why Are We Always In So Much Trouble?" The question he asks is that for a species that sees itself as forward-thinking decision makers -- we alone among the animals can plan ahead -- we have not arrived at the present state after a series of good decisions. So how important is it for us to know the difference between actions that enhance our evolutionary fitness and actions that don’t? If we are so good at thinking ahead and planning, we would be "overfit" for our environments.

Through a series of graphs, charts, and intellectualized explanations, Costopoulos concludes that the human brain is not a forward-thinking decision machine. It's a diversity machine and a bank of unexpressed traits we've seen in others that we need. With cultural diversity come a lot of solutions, Costopoulos said, and we need to disagree to find answers to problems. Plus, we need the ability to implement a neighbour's solutions -- maybe solutions that look a lot like a water fund.

Jude Isabella writes about marine biology and sustainability for The Tyee and others.

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