Our life on Earth is intimately linked to forests. From the raw materials we obtain from them for construction, daily use products or medicines, to the air we breathe, we are dependent on the irreplaceable services that these valuable ecosystems provide.
Latin America and the Caribbean is known as a biodiversity superpower, largely due to its forests. The region has approximately a third of the world’s forests, half of its tropical forests and a quarter of its mangroves.
On the International Day of Forests, let us highlight the vital ecosystem services they provide and the importance of these ecosystems for our economies and our quality of life.
What are ecosystem services?
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal and microorganism communities and their non-living environment that interact as a functional unit. Our region has a wide range of ecosystems that generate valuable goods and services for humanity.
The IDB’s new Environmental and Social Policy Framework (ESPF) defines ecosystem services as the benefits that people, including businesses, communities, and society at large, derive from ecosystems. These can be generated by natural or modified habitats and are often sensitive to impacts from human activities.
There are four types of ecosystem services:
- Provisioning services, the most direct and tangible, are the products that people obtain from ecosystems. For example: food, drinking water, wood, medicinal plants.
- Regulating services are the benefits that people obtain from the regulation of ecosystem processes. For example: surface water purification, carbon storage and sequestration, protection against natural hazards, pest and disease control.
- Cultural services are the nonmaterial benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. For example: natural areas that are sacred places, areas of importance for leisure and aesthetic enjoyment, ecotourism.
- Supporting services are the natural processes that maintain the other services. For example: soil formation, nutrient cycling.
Forests and their ecosystem services
Forests provide all the types of ecosystem services described above, making them of great value to humans. They are key in the conservation of biodiversity as they are the primary habitat of a wide range of species; they provide food and essential raw materials that enable the economic development of many households and industries; they prevent land degradation and desertification; they sequester and store carbon from the atmosphere, making them great allies in climate change mitigation; they reduce the risk of natural disasters such as landslides and floods; they regulate the quality of surface and groundwater; they moderate the temperature; they have spiritual value in many cultures; they are recreation and ecotourism sites; among many other benefits.
A recent IDB publication on forests in the region states that Latin America and the Caribbean forests remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store almost half of the aboveground carbon in the tropics, circulate moisture at a continental scale and provide habitat for about half of the world’s terrestrial species.
However, these ecosystem services continue to be undervalued since most lack a market value, which results in them being left out of economic considerations. Deforestation and desertification due to human activities continue to be a real threat to the delicate balance of these ecosystems.
At the IDB, we recognize that protecting and conserving biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem services, and sustainably managing living natural resources are fundamental to sustainable development. In addition, we acknowledge that impacts on biodiversity can often affect the delivery of ecosystem services. Therefore, under the new ESPF, Environmental and Social Performance Standard 6 (ESPS 6) addresses how borrowers can sustainably manage and mitigate impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services throughout our projects’ lifecycle, including the identification of priority ecosystem services and the participation of people affected by potential impacts to these services.
Latin America and the Caribbean is a region with incomparable natural capital that places it in a privileged position. However, this also entails great responsibility in terms of developing policies and strategies to ensure its protection and conservation. Learning to appreciate the incalculable value of ecosystem services is an essential part of that work.
Do you want to learn more about how to address the risks and impacts to biodiversity and living natural resources? Check out this online course on ESPS 6 (currently available only in Spanish).