Paristhitiki sewa: a critical analysis of ecosystem services discourse in Nepal
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 12:55 by Sunita Chaudhary
In response to a call for science and policy action on global environmental decline, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was conducted in 2005 to develop a global knowledge base on the consequences of ecosystems degradation. The MEA (2005), involving more than 1400 experts across the globe, reported a drastic decline in the Earth's ecosystems,and highlighted how human-nature linkages are endangering ecosystem functions that are critical for human development. The benefits humans derive from ecosystems for their wellbeing and development were termed 'ecosystem services'. The 'ecosystem services' concept has since become one of the most popular frameworks for understanding human-nature systems. This has resulted in several research and policy initiatives including the formation of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a multilateral science-policy interface to assess the state of Earth's ecosystems and inform decision-making. Today, more than 126 countries are members of IPBES and different organisations from global to local are adopting the concept within their environmental governance and management initiatives. This thesis explores the concept of ecosystem services in the context of Nepal, a country that supports IPBES and is in the process of integrating these core concepts into policy. The thesis is theoretically framed by political ecology, an approach that explores how human-environment dynamics are shaped through politics, institutions, justice and power. A political ecology framework brings a critical social science lens to ecosystem services via an exploration of the science and politics behind the emergence of the 'ecosystem services' concept. This provides further understanding of the social and political realm shaping ecosystem services discourse and the implications of global discourse at national and local contexts. The thesis aims to investigate the evolution of ecosystem services as a globalising discourse and analyse frictions that emerge when encountering Nepal. As such, the thesis examines impacts, in terms of policy uptake, and potential, in how it may be taken up in the future and the risks and opportunities inherent in how the discourse is applied. To achieve this aim, the thesis focuses on four issues raised in the literature: i) the multidisciplinary nature of ecosystem services, ii) a lack of understanding about how ecosystem services is being integrated into national scale policies and planning, iii) environmental justice and ecosystem services at the community scale, and iv) and the lack of attention devoted to cultural ecosystem services. The political ecology framing of ecosystems services provides a multifaceted and relational approach to understanding the emergence and evolution of the concept. The concept originating in the United States, as an economic and ecological response to ecosystem degradation, rapidly expanded into a diverse range of disciplinary perspective shaping research, policy and practices in multiple countries. Despite its growing popularity, ecosystem services is dominated by economic and ecological approaches. This has resulted in a lack of attention being devoted to human, culture and justice dimensions. In Nepal, the ecosystem services concept is increasingly being integrated into environmental policies, potentially changing understandings of human-nature interactions and influencing how these interactions are managed locally. The thesis findings indicate that international actors are disproportionately influencing the concept in Nepal, with particular emphasis being placed on valuation through 'payment for ecosystem services'. Focusing on a case study of the Mai Pokhari Ramsar site, the research shows that valuation studies may result in greater levels of injustice unless disaggregated research is conducted to analyse the contributions of ecosystem services to human wellbeing. Access to ecosystem services is differentiated by social category with uneven distributive outcomes of benefits, participation and recognition. Further findings indicate that ecosystem service policy and approaches at national and international levels struggle to appreciate cultural services, particularly spirituality and sense of place, that are considered more important at the local scale. Drawing on these critical insights of how and why ecosystem services discourse evolved the way it did, the appropriateness of the current articulation, and various issues that are arising in Nepal, the thesis makes a case for a more relational and comprehensive approach to policy development. The thesis discusses the risks and opportunities produced through global national-local encounters of ecosystem services discourse in Nepal. As such, the thesis makes a contribution by advancing knowledge about ecosystem services and justice, revealing how important local cultural values are ignored at national and global scales. The thesis emphasises the importance of social science and mixed-methods analyses of ecosystem services and the particular value the political ecology research can bring.