Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly to how a finer scale analysis allows to research different patterns in comparison to a coarse scale approach.

Adept Foundation booklet

Adept Foundation booklet

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe” explores the unequal distribution of nine provisioning ecosystem services among potential beneficiary groups in Southern Transylvania and the contextual factors that explain this distribution. Data collection was based on group interviews. For analyzing the data we used an informed grounded theory approach operationalized in two iterative cycles of qualitative coding, performed similarly to how I explained here. Initially inspired by Daw et al. 2011 and by the literature on access (Ribot and Peluso 2003), this paper proposes a conceptual model based on six mediating factors that better situate the relation between human well-being and nature’s benefits. The developed model is in line with reflections on the co-production of ecosystem services by various elements and forms of capital pertaining to the social and ecological system (e.g. Palomo et al. 2016, but see also here for a total zoom out).

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Factor 1 characteristics of the appropriated ecosystem services
We separated the investigated ecosystem services in three categories based on their capacity to generate indirect benefits such as cash income or employment.
Factor 2 policies, formal institutions, and markets
Factor 2 is about the visible institutional and policy contexts shaping the well-being contribution of nature’s services to humans. In our study area, these were frequently associated with the perceived effect of specific policies such as the European Common Agriculture Policy and its agri-environment measures.
Factor 3 social and power relations, and informal institutions
The intricate webs of power, knowledge and social relations among beneficiaries further enhance or block access to ecosystem services benefits.
Factor 4 household decisions and individual contexts
Well-being circumstances like income levels, abilities, preferences, livelihood decisions, and strategies at individual or more aggregated levels such as households add more complexity to the ecosystem services–well-being relationship.
Factor 5 different perceptions and understandings of equity
Mental models of fairness and adjusted expectations distort outcomes of the ecosystem services–well-being relationship. Our study illustrated that what is regarded as legitimate is linked to locals’ judgments and mental models, placing fairness in the eye of the beholder.
Factor 6 individually held values
Finally, the sixth factor pertained to values and norms held by participants.

The above factors share similarities with others identified in the recent literature (e.g. Hicks and Cinner 2014), although they may differ in terms of jargon, but less so in terms of content and meaning. The delineation of these factors is based on the analytical assumption that our model facilitates the study of ecosystem services–well-being relationships by deconstructing their contextual complexity. In reality, these factors interact (see last section before the Discussion) and future studies may reveal the ways this happens in different settings. For example, in Transylvania, the conventional discourse that regards ecosystem services as instrumental to poverty alleviation is overly simplified and ineffective. Objective needs versus subjective wants, perceptions and attitudes about who is entitled to benefit from ecosystem services, they all make a difference. Likewise, the deeply held values (factor 6), may reverse the self-reinforcing dynamic of the other factors that perpetuate the gap between winners and losers.

Group Interview

Beyond the importance of the factors and their dynamic which is detailed in the paper, I would like to take a more scientivist stance, and highlight a few place-based insights that it is worth being acknowledged in addition to the conceptual contributions of this paper. What I found most striking about this piece of research is the story it told (together with the other papers from my thesis) about who are the winners and losers that benefit the nature of Transylvania. Many studies now show that ecosystem services flow unequally to different beneficiaries (e.g. Felipe-Lucia et al. 2015). In the case of Southern Transylvania benefits seem to flow to supertenants (Romanians or foreigners living outside the village, but having economic connections to it) and much less to small scale farmers. Hence supertenants (sometimes called ‘townsmen’ like in this excerpt from my pilot study: “P1: Let’s be grateful there aren’t too many of these. P2: Yes. There are not too many townsmen who invested here”) are socially and physically disconnected from these landscapes. They are less vulnerable to changes in ecological conditions and not part of the rural communities. Meanwhile small farmers, through their practical connection to the land, are considered genuinely and functionally connected to the landscape. The extent to which supertenents may or may not be potential actors in the land grabbing phenomena remains yet to be investigated. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery surrounding their identity from the perspective of our interviewees still remains fascinating, even after such a emotional strenuous fieldwork as this study entailed, and the many challenges we faced in getting participants around the table. Despite occupying sizeable land surfaces, supertenants did not seem to occupy the mental space of our participants (largely rural community members). They were very seldom spontaneously mentioned, usually requiring prompting. Their access to land however explained many of the unknowns and question marks surging during the group interviews, such as the apparently untraceable but largely detectable vanishing of ‘the commons’, known to be ‘at the heart’ of the traditional Transylvanian villages.

As a follow up to this study and supported by our understanding of these particular social-ecological systems and human-nature relationships that we built during the past Romania project, we will try to further explore the transformative role of values and social relations. By conducting a transdisciplinary case-study in Southern Transylvania, within the Leverage Points project, we will focus on associative structures around land access for small-scale farmers, and their importance for moving towards sustainability and its intra- and inter-generational equity dimensions.



Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S., & Pomeroy, R. (2011). Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38(04), 370-379.
Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Martín-López, B., Lavorel, S., Berraquero-Díaz, L., Escalera-Reyes, J., & Comín, F. A. (2015). Ecosystem services flows: why stakeholders’ power relationships matter. PloS one, 10(7), e0132232.
Haines-Young, R., & Potschin, M. (2010). The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. Ecosystem Ecology: a new synthesis, 110-139.
Hicks, C. C., & Cinner, J. E. (2014). Social, institutional, and knowledge mechanisms mediate diverse ecosystem service benefits from coral reefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17791-17796.
Palomo, I., Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Bennett, E. M., Martín-López, B., & Pascual, U. (2016). Disentangling the pathways and effects of ecosystem service co-production. Advances in Ecological Research.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., … & Muradian, R. (2014). Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. BioScience, 64(11), 1027-1036.
Ribot, J. C., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A theory of access*. Rural sociology, 68(2), 153-181.
Spangenberg, J. H., von Haaren, C., & Settele, J. (2014). The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy. Ecological Economics, 104, 22-32.


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