Ecosystem services

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Tropical forests provide many
ecosystem services, including the supply of
clean water. Photo: ITTO

Few people realize the full extent of the ecosystem services performed by natural forests. They deliver clean drinking water to communities living downstream, protect soils, provide habitat for an array of plants and animals, and store huge quantities of carbon.

But because they do many of these things for 'free', forests are rarely adequately valued. Instead, forests are often cleared to make way for what might at first seem like more profitable land uses - such as agriculture, ranching and urban development. This is happening in the tropics today, just as it did in non-tropical countries - such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and many countries in Europe - in the last few centuries.

How can the remaining tropical forests be spared the same fate that befell millions of hectares of temperate forests? Many people argue that the key is to increase the revenue that can be generated by natural forests and that one way to do this is to start collecting fees for the ecosystem services that forests provide.

ITTO is studying the potential markets for the services performed by natural tropical forests. It commissioned a background paper on the topic and funds projects to investigate options for payments for services. But change will not come easily: people who have been receiving a service for free are often reluctant to start paying for it. Some tropical forest owners have started seeking payments for services such as biodiversity conservation or carbon storage – but so far the transfer of such payments from the international community has been small.

For a detailed account of ITTO's action agenda, please refer to the ITTO Yokohama Action Plan, or click on Resources and Project portfolio to see more about ITTO's work on ecosystem services.