The ability of earth's ecosystems to provide goods and services to support human existence is under manifold stresses. It is important, as we enter the new millennium, to understand the magnitude of these stresses and the forces that drive them, to communicate this understanding to the citizens of the world, and to help build capacity and appropriate institutions to tackle the challenges before us (Ayensu et al
, 1999). History tells us that it is not adequate to merely address the key policy makers
, key decision makers in the world, for they have a strong tendency to believe that human ingenuity can always substitute for all of nature's services. For instance, soon after the Russian revolution Leon Trotsky declared : “the proper goal of planning is the domination of nature by technology ……. so that raw materials of nature will yield to mankind all that it needs and more besides". The underlying values have been shared by Governments of countries with free enterprise economies as well, so that environmental action has always sprung from broader public concern (Guha, 2000). An assessment of how the world's ecosystems are faring must therefore reach out not only to policy makers, but to the people at large as well. It should especially reach out to the weaker segments of the populations of the developing countries
, for these are the people who suffer most from a loss of nature's services. But these victims of environmental degradation are also forced by circumstances to be amongst the most active agents of destruction. The key to saving world's ecosystems therefore lies in developing an understanding of what is happening in partnership with these people and deploying this understanding towards promoting capacity and institutions to undertake positive actions.
Involving such a broader base of people in assessing the state of world's ecosystems calls for engaging in more locality specific assessments. This is because the ecosystems are tremendously variable in space and time and what is relevant to inhabitants of a coral atoll in the South Pacific is very different from what matters to peasants in the Andes. Furthermore neither of these groups of people would be particularly interested in very broad-brush pictures of what is happening to the world's oceans or mountains. Ultimately, therefore, we should aim to generate concrete, locality-specific assessments that would cover all of the world's ecosystems.
Obviously this is a Herculean task and one must begin with a more limited initiative covering a few, catalytic local level assessments. These local level assessments would also complement the regional and global assessments in forcing one to take a hard look at the quality of data available on the ground
; helping one guard against spurious certainties. For instance, it is now becoming clear that the concept of maximum sustainable yield from fish or forest tree populations is beset with many difficulties; yet a global assessment is likely to employ it on a wide scale. Looking at very specific fish populations and their histories would likely help us to appreciate the need for caution. Such is also the case with lists of endangered species. For instance, we found a frog species, Micrixalus saxicolous
, to be quite abundant along the hill streams in the site of the major case study which forms the basis of this document. At a 1992 meeting of the Indian Subcontinent Reptile and Amphibian Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of IUCN this species was listed amongst those “presumed extinct”.
The choice of the limited number of specific local level assessments could be made so as to cover as many as possible of the different biogeographic provinces or major ecological regions of the earth
; and within these regions different settings in relation to parameters such as human population densities, intensity of inputs into agriculture, and distance from protected areas such as national parks. This would complement well the broad brush global painting with a mosaic of much more detailed local pictures.
To assess the status and trends over time and forces driving these trends in the availability of ecosystem goods and services, as well as bads and disservices from the divergent perspectives of people relating differently to the natural world in a representative set of localities.
To inform the regional/global assessments on the state of understanding of the many parameters employed in terms of concrete, ground level data.
To create awareness amongst the public through concrete assessments including scenarios of likely futures and possible response options
, to which they can relate themselves, communicated in their own languages.
To appreciate the nature of institutions needed to take positive action in the particular social-economic-political contexts characterizing the different study localities.
To build broad based capacity to assess the ecosystem status, to elaborate appropriate institutions, to plan and implement environment friendly development.
India has developed a series of experiences pertinent to local level ecosystem assessments hand-in-hand with the elaboration of institutions of co-management of natural resources such as forest and irrigation and decentralization of institutions of governance down to village level. These have taken the form of Participatory Rural Appraisals accompanying development planning, Panchayat (= Village Council) Level Resource Mapping exercises in the state of Kerala and development of management plans for Village Forest Committees. Following upon these was the initiative of the Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions to record community level knowledge and practices of use of medicinal herbs as Community Biodiversity Registers (CBRs). This was followed by initiation of broader
, biodiversity focussed People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) activities at 10 sites in 4 states of the Western Ghats region as a part of the Western Ghats Biodiversity Network Programme co-ordinated by the Indian Institute of Science (Gadgil et al,
1996; Gadgil et al
, in press). Based on this experience was organised an all-India programme of PBRs as a part of the WWF sponsored Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Project. This programme covered a series of 52 villages representing a variety of ecological and socio-economic contexts of the Indian sub-continent (Figure 1). The PBRs involved local level ecosystem assessments along with an understanding of the development aspirations, conservation priorities and elaboration of biodiversity management plans. This exercise does provide an interesting model for local ecosystem assessments; however it leaves out such significant issues as soil and water and agrobiodiversity. We have therefore undertaken further field work in one of the PBR study sites, namely, Mala and neighbouring villages constituting a watershed contributing to the Swarna river in Karkala taluk of Udupi district in the state of Karnataka (Figure 2). Much of the discussion in this methodology manual is based on the experience of the 52 PBR studies along with the more elaborate work in the Mala cluster.
Local level ecosystem assessments should be organized as participatory efforts involving representatives of all segments of society enjoying the goods and services as well as suffering from the bads and disservices flowing from the pertinent ecosystems. At least some of these local people would be familiar with many facets of these ecosystems and would bring in their knowledge to the process. Much of this information especially relating to changes over time may only reside with local people; their active involvement is therefore very important. However most of them are unlikely to be familiar with the broader
, systematic framework within which their information needs to be organized. They would also be unfamiliar with important issues such as chemical composition of soils and waters. The assessment would therefore need to involve people with relevant scientific expertise as well; expertise in disciplines such as ecology and environmental chemistry, as well as economics and anthropology. It would be desirable that the technical experts be already familiar with the locality, the society and the culture. This would be achieved if they are associated with one or more neighbouring educational institutions.
The assessment should also involve creation of awareness, and building of capacity and appropriate institutions at the local level. This would be facilitated by the involvement of local NGOs
, of farmers’ co-operative societies, of governmental agencies concerned with resource management issues such as forest department and institutions of local governance such as village councils.
Figure 1. A map of India indicating the localities where People’s Biodiversity Registers were compiled as a part of the Biodiversity Conservation Prioritization Project during 1995-97 highlighting the location of Mala village cluster.