An Inclusive Future: Managing the Rural Ecosystem

Pesapane_Uganda_2013 (366)Standing in a forest you are surrounded by movement. Even as you still your breath you can hear the leaves on the ground twitch and rustle, and the green around you waves in the wind. Imagine you can feel the ground beneath your toes. Imagine sweet pine scent kisses your nose. Are you separate from this place in this moment? Or are you, too, a natural being?

There is not a single place on this planet that has not been influenced by our spreading population. We’ve spent gales of breath arguing back and forth about whether this influence is good or bad, but when all voices have fallen silent it remains that humans are animals and we are fierce competitors in the natural world.

All our resources come from natural systems, from ecosystems. Like every other animal, we need them. But unlike most other animals, we can plan our use of these resources so that our children can live as well or better than us. So how should we treat these systems? How should we manage them?

Ecosystem management is a more recent approach, emphasizing a holistic perspective that seeks to nurture the processes and interactions between all organisms in an ecosystem. Only just last year, UNEP created the Global Center for Ecosystem Management. Quite unlike the hitherto popular conservation approach of single-species management that manages for one endangered, flagship, or keystone species, ecosystem management pursues a utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number.

And refreshingly, this number includes the people relevant to the ecosystem. Whatever communities and cultures that interact with the ecosystem are included in it. Furthermore, the goals of management are frequently focused on the benefits people receive from the ecosystem.  Ecosystem management calls for improved, functioning ecosystem services, which predictably aid in human habitation (and incidentally that of other animals). In other words, we manage the more neutral ecosystem processes in order to have an ecosystem that provides services to sustain human communities (and preferably also maximizes biodiversity). This makes ecosystem management an easier sell than most conservation efforts. Why should I pay to restore this ecosystem? So I can have clean freshwater, clean air, better produce, and less disease.

Ecosystems can be found at any scale. If you turn over a rock and arbitrarily decide that the boundaries of the system are the edges of the rock, you will have a very simple mini-ecosystem. Ecosystems, as they are defined in ecosystem management, also include people. Rural System is therefore managing a rural ecosystem where the human system has merged with the “natural”. Management of this ecosystem, now that it includes this sociocultural sphere, factors in economic costs, profits, human health, land productivity, and survival of native species. Rural System is proposing ecosystem management. Yet it is perhaps a form of ecosystem management that is more human-focused and more complicated than ever before.

The question is, is such a system too complicated? Can GIS software and the proposed prescriptive software go far enough to make this ambition possible? Let us know what you think in the comments below!


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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.

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