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Summary of The Ecosystem Approach
and Ecosystem Management

New tools for integrated catchment management

What is the ecosystem approach?

The Ecosystem approach is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.

It is a holistic methodology for implementing the key objectives of the Conservation on Biological Diversity and delivering good ecosystem management.

It is particularly appropriate for application at the catchment scale.

What are the objectives?

To restore and sustain the health, productivity and biological diversity of ecosystems and the overall quality of life through a natural resource management approach that is fully integrated with social and economic goals. Sustainable living depends on the maintenance of the Earth’s vitality and diversity. It is concerned not simply with protecting or preserving existing species but involves:

• Maintaining life-support systems – ecological processes that keep the planet fit for life – they shape climate, regulate and cleanse water flow, regulate essential elements, create and regenerate soil and enable ecosystems to renew themselves

• Maintaining biodiversity – including species of plant, animals and other organisms, the range of genetic stocks within each species, habitat, ecosystem and landscapes (especially cultural components)

• Ensuring use of renewable resources is sustainable including natural and modified (e.g. cultivated) ecosystems together with the wild and domesticated organisms and products derived from them.

What is ecosystem management?

Ecosystem management is the manipulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes which link organisms with their abiotic environment and the regulation of human actions to produce a desired ecosystem state, and is an essential requirement to deliver all three objectives (above). Historically delivering these has been the responsibility of government departments, agencies or organisations with a nature conservation remit, which have been quite separate from the bodies responsible for water resources, forestry, agriculture or fisheries. This traditional sectoral approach forms an inadequate basis for managing ecosystems and delivering practical solutions to achieving sustainable ecosystem management.

Ecosystem management can include:

• Adjusting chemical conditions by controlling pollution or altering the input of nutrients and contaminants to the atmosphere, waters, soil or directly to vegetation

• Regulating physical conditions, for example controlling releases of water from a reservoir
or entry of saltwater into coastal impoundments

• Altering biological conditions, for example by the use of grazing to prevent scrubbing up of grassland, or controlled burning for heathland management

• Limiting human use of biological resources, for example by restricting the use of fertilizers and pesticides, or regulating fish net mesh sizes

• Intervening in cultural, social and economic processes, for example by compensating farmers for reducing the intensity of their operations in the interests of conservation.

Innovative tools and approaches are necessary to deliver the objectives of ecosystem management, and break the divisions among ecology, economics and social sciences.

Who uses the ecosystem approach?

The ecosystem approach has now been adopted1 by the IUCN2 contracting parties as the framework for balancing the three key objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity, namely the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources. The Convention interprets the ecosystem approach as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. It recognises the need for a more holistic methodology to tackle conservation alongside the legitimate but often competing and apparently conflicting demands of socio-economic and political agendas.

The IUCN Conference of Parties as well as other governments and international organisations are
called upon to apply, where appropriate, the ecosystem approach together with its underlying
principles and points of guidance (listed below)

The Twelve Principles of the Ecosystem Approach

1. Objectives are a matter of societal choice
2. Management should be undertaken at the lowest appropriate level
3. Consider the effects on adjacent/other ecosystems
4. Understand and manage ecosystems in an economic context
5. Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning is a priority
6. Manage within limits of functioning
7. Use appropriate spatial and temporal scales
8. Objectives for Ecosystem Management should be long term
9. Management must recognise that change is inevitable
10. Keep an appropriate balance between integration of conservation use and use of biological diversity
11. Consider all relevant information
12. Involve all relevant sectors of society and science

• Focus on functional relationships and processes
• Enhance benefit sharing
• Use adaptive management practices
• Carry out management actions at appropriate scale with decentralisation to lowest appropriate level
Ensure inter-sectoral cooperation.

Applications of the ecosystem approach can be a highly effective tool in implementing the integrated management of river basins in a practical way.

1 Decision V/6. Ecosystem Approach. Decision adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the
Convention on Biological Diversity at its fifth meeting, Nairobi 15-26 May 2000

2 International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources


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