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The Ecosystem Approach under the Convention on Biological Diversity

The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted an ecosystem approach for the implementation of the objectives of the Convention. This was endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Special Session in June 1997. As the development of such an approach is still in its infancy, there is a need for discussion about the meaning of an "ecosystem approach" for implementation of the objectives of the Convention.

In order to further that discussion, the Governments of the Netherlands and Malawi co-hosted a Workshop on the Ecosystem Approach under the Convention on Biological Diversity which was held in Lilongwe, Malawi, from 26 to 28 January 1998.

The experts discussed the following questions:

1. What do you think should be an ecosystem approach?

2. Why should we take an ecosystem approach?

3. What are the principles of an ecosystem approach?

The participants of the workshop developed 12 principles that form the ecosystem approach. Those principles are reproduced below. The participants of the Workshop conclude that these 12 principles provide a good basis for discussion and suggest them to the CBD community (Parties, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, representatives of local and indigenous communities and non-parties) and the scientific community at large for further discussion and elaboration. The principles will have to be taken from a conceptual realm and made operational. Furthermore there are many dilemmas involved in the establishment of management objectives between stakeholders within an area, between local communities and central authorities, between a managed area and areas outside etc. Procedures and methodologies for arriving at balanced trade-offs are necessary.

The full report will be made available as Information Document No. 9 (UNEP/CBD/COP/4/Inf.9) at the 4th Conference of the Parties to the CBD to be held in Bratislava, Slovakia from 4 to 15 May 1998. The participants offer their findings on the concept of the ecosystem approach and its principles as a basis for initial consideration.

The full report can be downloaded from the Internet at < In case you might need an electronic copy but cannot access the document on the Web, please contact Gudrun Henne; Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity; World Trade Centre; 393, St. Jacques Street, Office 300; Montreal, H2Y 1N 9; Canada; Tel: + 1 514 287 7034; Fax: + 1 514 288 6588; e-mail: [email protected]; web:


What are the principles of an ecosystem approach ?

As they are all complementary and interlinked, the principles below need to be read in conjunction with each other. Together they characterize the ecosystem approach. All involved in implementing the ecosystem approach should remain accountable to their constituencies for the consequences of management actions. The ecosystem approach should include a system of accountability that addresses performance of managers and decision-makers, and achievement of management objectives. Management actions should strive for efficiency, effectiveness and equity. They should be taken with precaution.

1. Management objectives are a matter of societal choice.

Rationale :

Different sectors of society view ecosystems in terms of their own economic, cultural and social needs. Ultimately, all ecosystems are managed for the benefit of humans - whether that benefit is consumptive or non-consumptive.

2. Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level.


Decentralized systems can lead to greater efficiency, effectiveness and equity. The closer the management is to the ecosystem, the greater is the responsibility, accountability, participation, and use of local knowledge.

3. Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.


Management interventions in ecosystems often have unknown or unpredictable effects on other ecosystems and therefore need careful consideration and analysis. This may require institutions for decision-making which lead to appropriate compromises and trade-offs.

4. Recognizing potential gains from management there is a need to understand the ecosystem in an economic context. Any ecosystem management program should

(a) reduce those market distortions that adversely affect biological diversity;

(b) align incentives to promote sustainable use;

(c) internalize costs and benefits in the given ecosystem to the extent feasible.

Rationale :

(1) The greatest threat to biological diversity lies in its replacement by alternate systems of land use. This often arises through market distortions which undervalue natural systems and populations and provide perverse incentives and subsidies to favor the conversion of land to less diverse systems.

(2) Often those who benefit from conservation do not pay the costs associated with conservation and, similarly, those who generate environmental costs (e.g. pollution) escape responsibility. Alignment of incentives allows those who control the resource to benefit and ensures that those who generate environmental costs will pay.

5. A key feature of the ecosystem approach includes conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning.


Ecosystem functioning and resilience depends on a dynamic relationship within species, among species and between species and their abiotic environment as well as physical and chemical interactions within the environment. The conservation of these interactions and processes is of greater significance for the long-term maintenance of biological diversity than simple protection of species.

6. Ecosystems must be managed within the limits to their functioning.


In considering the likelihood or ease of attaining the management objectives, attention must be given to the environmental conditions which limit natural productivity, ecosystem structure and functioning. The limits to ecosystem functioning may be affected to different degrees by temporary, unpredictable or artificially maintained conditions and, accordingly, management should be appropriately cautious.

7. The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate scale.


The approach should be bounded by spatial and temporal scales that are appropriate to the objectives. Boundaries for management will be defined operationally by users, managers, and scientists. The ecosystem approach is based upon the hierarchical nature of biological diversity characterized by the interaction and integration of genes, species and ecosystems.

8. Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag effects which characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.

Rationale :

Ecosystem processes are characterized by varying temporal scales and lag effects. This inherently conflicts with the tendency of humans to favor short term gains and immediate benefits over future ones.

9. Management must recognize that change is inevitable.


Apart from their inherent dynamics of change, ecosystems are beset by a complex of uncertainties and potential "surprises" in the human, biological and environmental realms. The ecosystem approach must utilize adaptive management in order to anticipate and cater for such changes and events and should be cautious in making any decision with may foreclose options.

10. The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between conservation and use of biological diversity.


There has been a tendency in the past to manage components of biological diversity either as protected or non-protected. There is a need for a shift to more flexible situations where conservation and use is seen in context and the full range of measures are applied in a continuum from strictly protected to human-made ecosystems.

11. The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.


Information from all sources is critical to arriving at effective ecosystem management strategies.

12. The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.


Most problems of biological diversity management are complex with many interactions, side-effects and implications, and therefore should involve the necessary expertise and stakeholders at the local, national, regional and international level, as appropriate.

Prof. Philip L. Bereano e-mail: [email protected]