Friday, May 30, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences – Part 1

In the part of India where I stay, a new international airport is coming up. The airport will be spread over around one thousand hectares now occupied by croplands, small lakes, grassy areas, forest and seven little villages. The project is expected to speed up development in this area. Residential areas are already under construction, commercial and industrial areas are sure to follow.
The farmers and villagers who own the land in the seven villages are called Project Affected Persons (PAPs). Their land is being acquired by the government. But it’s not only the PAPs who will be selling land. Anybody who owns land in the neighbourhood of the upcoming airport will get good price for it. The crop fields, empty moors, grass patches where cattle and herd graze, water bodies, marshy lands will soon give way to neatly planned town sectors with their perpendicular streets, residential complexes called Greens, Gardens and Meadows and supermarkets on the corners.
A residential complex or a commercial building is of course a very valuable piece of property. A small corner in such an establishment might cost you around ten million rupees, if it is near a centre of commerce. So it is not unjustified that the farmer who sold the land got a handsome compensation.
Scientists want us to believe that the land, if kept as it is, will be worth much more. They claim that the natural habitats on earth provide us what they call as Ecosystem Services. The combined value of ecosystem services provided by entire earth is three times the world GDP, according to the researchers. It means that if we destroy a natural habitat for human development, we are losing heavily.
It is really difficult to believe. We can understand some uses of wild land of course. Trees make oxygen. They are also somehow responsible for rainfall. Good fertile land can be used for agriculture. Also the green patches are pleasing to the eye. We need a few gardens around, so that we can jog and take our kids there in the evening. But placing such high price on a empty patch of grassy land or a strip of mangroves really seems unreasonable.
It is probably because of our inability to value the ecosystem that we are destroying them at an alarming rate. The example given above is a real one, and it is not a rare one. All over the world, human development is coming at the cost of the ecosystem. Not only that the services provided by the ecosystem are worth trillions of dollars, but most of them are not replaceable by technology. If we continue to harm the earth’s natural habitat at this rate, we will cause irreparable damage to these services that are vital to our well being.
This is the reason why it is so important to understand the value of the ecosystem services. A residential complex or a factory built on a piece of land is easily valued and traded in markets, but the ecosystem that existed on the land is not, thus it gets ignored by the commercial world. Science is trying to fill this gap by evaluating the ecosystem services and linking them to a commercial value.
In the next few parts we will get familiar with some of these Ecosystem Services (ES), understand their value in monetary terms and see how they are getting depleted due to human activities.