An ecosystem comprises all the plants, animals and micro-organisms as well as environmental variables, within a specific physical area. The term ‘ecosystem’ includes biotic (living) and abiotic (inanimate) components of a given area, as well as interactions and connections among them. Complex interactions such as energy flow, nutrient cycling, predation and competition between organisms exist among the components of the ecosystem. Examples of ecosystems include rainforests, woodlands, coral reefs, lakes, grasslands and even deserts.
In the “Ecosystems and Human Well-Being – a National Assessment” project, ecosystem services are defined as processes taking place in ecosystems that are important for human existence and well-being.
There are several types of ecosystem services:
*Provisioning services – material products taken from ecosystems and directly consumed by humans. Provisioning services have many benefits, including food, water, wood for construction and heating and more.
*Regulation services are processes in the ecosystem that contribute to regulation of biotic and abiotic environmental conditions for humans. Regulation services include climate control, flood prevention, prevention of soil erosion, pollination, pest and disease control and more.
*Cultural services are components and processes in ecosystems that enrich human lives in non-material ways. Benefits from cultural services may be physical, such as leisure and tourism, intellectual, such as education and scientific research, or symbolic, such as art and religion.
In recent years ecosystem services have been the subject of increased attention from scientists and decision makers dealing with open landscape management. This increased attention resulted from increased awareness of the dependence of social systems on ecological systems and the interactions between them. The objective of the ecosystem services assessment approach is to estimate the benefit that humans derive from the services and from the environment, and to ascribe to it a measureable value. Thus it will be possible to express in an accessible language the importance of functioning and healthy ecosystems and their biodiversity.
By quantifying these services, it will be possible to promote effective communication with managers, decision makers and the broad public about the value of ecosystems, a value that is social, health-related, and economic, no less than it is ecological. Complex connections exist among biodiversity, ecological processes, services to humans, their value and their contribution to our well-being. Their clarification in an accessible language allows presentation to decision makers of a more entire and science-based depiction of the consequences of planning and development decisions.
This different perspective on environmental issues does not come from the notion of “either nature loses or humans lose”. This is a different path that aims to find more balanced solutions without ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. In this approach, humans continue to receive all the benefits they depend on for their existence and well-being from a healthy environment and functioning nature. This perspective stems from the understanding that we depend on our environment, and the decisions we make can have a negative (or positive) effect not only on other species but also on the ability of these systems to continue supporting human society.