Thoughts about ecosystem services and human-nature relationships

By Tibor Hartel

The boring introduction

I am recently travelling quite a lot in western, developed countries (e.g. in UK, Germany, and Netherlands) and back to my home area – the Saxon landscapes from Southern Transylvania. While doing these travels, as naturalist in my soul (and ecologist in my profession) I try to look around and observe what is going on around me. In the landscapes, in the society, professional circles, how people behave, what they know, what they value. And being quite well ‘linked’ in the professional network, I have the opportunity to learn about advances in sustainability sciences, and ecology. And to combine these nice theories with the perceived real world. Being embedded in an eastern European culture, the intense exposure to a ‘western’ culture is sometimes shocking. You feel the power of rule, order, and (not surprisingly) economy. Maybe the whole situation (i.e. difference between east and west) can be described with a simple comparison: if a meeting is planned to start at 14.00 and last one hour in Germany, then that will happen. In Romania, 14:00 is somewhere between 12:30 and 15:00. The many jokes and coffees can make the meeting basically endless. If we elevate this ’12:30-15:00’ ‘rule’ to a whole society, we may be surprised: this ‘relaxation’ which is visible at every level and aspect of the society gives a lot of space for socialization, biodiversity, including large carnivores (and big, sometimes painful social chaos as well, nothing is perfect:) ), while the plan, rule and order in each possible aspect of life extirpates biodiversity (but creates social security and economic security). But this is a separate story (you may think about it: how this can be possible, if it is at all).


(New) Links need to be established between people and nature – scientists say

This whole situation I described above makes me realize things which were considered just as ‘given’ from Transylvania.

One is the ‘issue’ about the connections between people and nature. Theories say that sustainable nature conservation should include people. ‘We should aim to place farmland biodiversity “in the hands and minds of farmers.”’ – was the conclusion of a recent paper published in Conservation Letters. Strategies should be built to maintain connections between people and nature, and adapt them to the modern times, as we cannot trap people in the past. And, of course, we need to maintain the ecological knowledge and so on. Lots of funds and projects to assess and understand the nature of links between people and nature (i.e. social-ecological systems), mostly conducted in developing countries.

Many nice things should/could be done to achieve sustainability. And we know all of them. But, let’s look around in the reality which surrounds us. As naive (even stupid, why not) persons. Forget the papers and theories what our scientific culture put on us. Good to know them, but let’s forget them for a moment – perhaps this helps us more to see the reality (?).

The reality from my (naive, stupid) perspective is that the ‘spectrum’ of connections between people and nature is very, very reduced in many parts of western Europe, compared to e.g. the traditional rural landscapes of Transylvania.

The links between people and nature in most parts of the developed countries I experienced are reduced largely to biking and jogging and walking in paved roads/paths in the forest and between large, extremely monotonous agricultural parcels in farmlands. Nobody leaves these paved (mostly) paths. It is not allowed, or, leaving them is useless: nothing to be found in mostly monotonous landscapes. The many ‘fruits’ of the nature (let’s call them services, goods) are untouched and not harvested as ‘it should be’ (in a traditional society). Let me quote my good friend Alex Gota – and his experience in a western well developed society: ‘…plenty of blueberries full of ripened fruits. Nobody cares about. Of course I start to pick them and eating. Delicious!!! Not far from me, a guy with his son, climbing up slowly. “Dad, wtf this guy is eating?!!!. Dad: I don’t know, but could be poisonous, don’t forget!!!’. I also experienced this: my hands started to shake when I saw many exceptional fruits which I would collect (quickly!!!) at home, but no one touched them here. To catch a toad one need permits, and if you want to decorate your room with the beautiful flowers from a grassland (as most of people I know do in Transylvania) – forget the idea. It is not allowed, and, there are almost no such flowers in the pastures! All in all, the connection between people and nature, in western Europe, is resumed largely to one single petal: a physical presence, very reduced spectrum of (well directed) activities (running, walking, jogging and maybe bird watching), and virtually no touch with nature.

The complete opposite happens in the traditional landscapes of Romania. People still drink water from nature, they feel the dust, enjoy the smell of flowers, the taste of the mushrooms, fruits what nature give you, to feel that exceptional ‘stress’ when you know: there are deadly carnivores in that landscape where you are, to feel the freedom for going where you want and can, and to feel the endless space and the life around you. Kids grow up by climbing the trees around the village. Hungarian colleagues documented an exceptionally rich botanical knowledge even in kids in Eastern Carpathians (Romania). One person, without any formal education told me with one drop of tear in his eyes (he was very emotional), while he do the hard subsistence farming: ‘I see these landscapes from my soul, I feel them’. The meaning of what he told is not in his words: it was in his accent, his face and his eyes. This simple sentence contained – for me – all the knowledge and wisdom published in top journals and more. And I know: it is a privilege to be able to meet such people.

All these things, and more, were always in the front of my eyes, but I realized this only now, after a longer ‘presence’ abroad, I can see them, and appreciate them purely as they are. Without theories and strategies. Just as a human being.


Vanishing links, despite theories, meetings and congresses 

To turn back to the initial problem, i.e. building links between people and nature. From my Eastern European, half-traditional perspective, the links between people and nature happens necessarily at many levels, as described above: in mind, philosophical system (religion), in the physical world, in your senses and so on. People are built for doing this, by evolution. The whole is needed. To me, the links means necessarily something similar to what I experience in Transylvania – this is not negotiable.

It is not fair to put people in the situation to loose the multiple connections between them and the natural systems, and then teach them about the importance of ecosystem services and our dependence from these goods and services.

One may feel, that allowing people only well directed walks in the so called nature, isolating every marsh from people with fences and not allowing the possibility for them to feel the taste, smell and sometimes ‘pain’ caused by that nature – a healthy connection will remain a dream, which looks good in papers, only, but not in reality. Some things cannot be and should be formalized. They must remain informal, natural. We need the whole package. People are whole packages. Not bits of it.

What to do in this situation?

People (western and eastern) should think about this more realistically, I guess. It is possible that there is so few/small nature left, and the density of people is so high, that allowing everybody to go and behave in nature as traditional people do – would be harmful for the little patches of natural systems (i.e. there is no place for everybody in nature…sad, but it may be true…At this point, it is a privilege to be ecologist because we have that formal training to be allowed to go/have access in places/resources where other people are not, and enjoy that). Ok, I am fine with that, if it is true. But what to be done in this respect? How could one imagine a ‘harmony’ between the social ecological systems in a way that people are – practically – excluded from nature? I think that traditional rural societies indeed need to be studied. But it is time also for some more realistic approaches about the limits and possibilities of reconnecting people with the biosphere. Nice words and too many papers can be helpful, and give us hope, but if not managed well, they can be traps as well e.g. by generating unrealistic hopes and expectations and trials. Comments welcome.

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