Conversion factors for switching balances between services and disservices
What were the factors that determined when and why rats and plants were perceived as more beneficial than harmful and vice versa? We argue that there are three interconnected categories of livelihood factors: the institutional and governance context promoting cash crop production, the economy and market development, and the culture and identity of farmers. In addition, we identify a fourth category of spatial location (e.g., proximity of a service to the household). We propose that these interconnected sets of factors can explain situations where the balance shifts between services and disservices, but also situations where both services and disservices co-exist.
Institutional and governance context
Our findings showed how the institutional and governance context influenced the use of rats and plants in several important ways. Perhaps most important was the earlier mentioned government land use planning policy which has limited fallow periods to a maximum of 2 years, while at the same time promoting expansion of cash crop production. The effects of this policy were most pronounced in Phon Song due to the location in a core area of forest conservation. The shift to more permanent cultivation led to the requirement for heavy use of agricultural inputs and, according to interviewees, reduced the availability of wild food on agricultural fields. In other words, changes in rules governing agricultural practices, driven by the promotion of cash crops, have discouraged farmers from extracting potentially useful plant species. Under the more intensive farming system, wild plants are more likely to be considered weeds than they are beneficial resources.
The changing policy context in Phon Song has had a similar effect on the utility of wild animals. The shift to more permanent maize cultivation raised the profile of rats as pests and led to the application of rodenticides. Although their application was discouraged by the Lao authorities, many illegal rodenticides were still available locally as they continued to be demanded by farmers in the pursuit of profit. As rats were amplified as pests, this use of rodenticides also reduced their appeal as a food source. Our interviews revealed that villagers had heard recommendations stating that the collection of rats for food should be avoided where rodenticides were used, due to potential health effects.
Economy and market development
Broader changes in the local and regional economy influenced the values bestowed upon animal and plant species. First, it mattered whether the species behaved as a normal or an inferior economic good. Demand for normal goods increases as consumers become wealthier; demand for inferior goods decreases because consumers can afford more desirable alternatives (Wilkie and Godoy 2001). Some of the species that constituted provisioning services in the three villages appeared to behave like inferior economic goods, meaning that an increase in the ability to purchase alternatives led to reduced demand. In other words, the general trend towards higher cash incomes was reducing demand for some (inferior) services. In Phon Song, rice was considered the main alternative to wild food and the stronger shift to a market economy through the expanding cash crop production appeared to have reduced the demand for rat meat and plant vegetables and medicines—as evidenced by a much lower collection of these goods. Accordingly, the value of those goods as services declined rapidly, while the costs as disservices stayed the same, indicating that the balance between service and disservice have switched.
A second and related point is that the valuation of a species is sensitive to whether it is valorized purely for subsistence use or it also has a monetary exchange value. The inferiority of goods was primarily linked to local people’s perceptions of quality (e.g., plant versus western medicines) and time allocation (e.g., as people’s labor value may rise with commercial maize production, time spent gathering wild goods may be deemed a higher opportunity cost). Given that rats and plants were seldom marketed and villagers did not purchase rat meat nor wild plants to maintain their customary diet, the monetary value of e.g., rats as meat did not translate into actual expenses. By contrast, the monetary value of rats as disservices (loss of maize) was calculable—and known to farmers in Phon Song. In financial terms, rats were therefore more perceived as a disservice.
Culture and identity
We found that cultural factors also influenced the use of rats and plants. For example, we found limited harvest of weeds for medicinal purposes across all villages although potentially useful species were readily present in the fields. Villagers’ reasons for letting those species go unused included the construction of health centers based on Western rather than traditional medicine. Products from these centers had substituted the use of medicinal plants and this was not only a result of the changing economy but also corresponding changes in aspiration and self-identity. Our findings suggest that villagers’ lack of inclination to use medicinal plants was due to a changing cultural setting in which health centers had become a better fit with modern lifestyles and identities than the more traditional medicine practices they were replacing.
Such cultural aspects of modernization were also influencing demand for wild plants and animals for food. The modernization of agriculture in Phon Song was indeed accompanied by changing aspirations. Whereas ownership of assets such as motorbikes and tractors, according to our interviewees, rose, the cultural traditions related to wild foods seemed to be lost as agriculture became intensified and more permanent. This example illustrates how a changing cultural setting can shape a switch away from wild food collection and convert potentially useful animal and plants into disservices. But it also illustrates how economic and cultural factors are intertwined as lifestyles change with increasing market engagement.
In addition to the three livelihood-related categories of conversion factors described above, we found that the location of ecosystem outputs also mediated the use of those outputs. A few observations substantiate this point. For example, the spatial proximity to rats and certain plants clearly influenced whether or not they turned into a service or a disservice. Whereas the forest and fallows were anticipated to account for the bulk of wild products collected, our findings showed that the majority of wild foods in the shifting cultivation systems were in fact derived from the agricultural fields—for reasons of spatial proximity to the agricultural fields, ease of collection, and abundance of desired products. Vegetables could easily be gathered while farmers were working in the fields, while the amount of time spent gathering in old fallows and primary forests was considered burdensome due to the longer distances. In Phon Song, the use of chemicals had, however, rendered the use of plants and animals from the fields undesirable. Whether the plants available in certain agricultural fields turn into a service or a disservice will thus partly depend on the spatial proximity to that field.
A framework for the switching between services and disservices
Most existing ecosystem service frameworks are based on the implicit assumption that ecosystem outputs lead to ‘goods’ or services that provide benefits to humans. What we have illustrated above, with an empirical focus on shifting cultivation systems in Laos, is that some ecosystem outputs do not necessarily turn into goods although they have the potential to do so. Rather, they turn into disservices, they switch between being services and disservices, or they act as both services and disservices at the same time. Our findings suggest that two main categories of ecosystem outputs—animals and plants—include taxonomic groups and species that have a dual character of being both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or a service and disservice.
At the conceptual level, we propose that the switching between service and disservice is determined by what we call conversion factors—i.e., factors that mediate where certain taxonomic groups or species of animals and plants sit along a spectrum from service to disservice (Fig. 3). Based on our findings, we suggest four main categories of interlinked conversion factors: economy and market development, institutional and governance context, culture and identity, and location of ecosystem outputs. As we have outlined above, these four categories are all closely related to the agricultural system in place. We make no claim that these categories are the only conversion factors of relevance. Rather, our framework is meant to be a contribution towards a better understanding of when and why ecosystem outputs (1) turn into services rather than disservices and vice versa, (2) may act as services and disservices at the same time, and (3) are used by people in ways that influence the extent to which the same taxa cause harm or in other words act as a disservice. While the present study has focused on services and disservices in the social–ecological context of shifting cultivation systems in Laos, the suggested framework is internationally applicable given that there are many places around the world where (the same or other) plants and animals could be expected to fall along the spectrum from service to disservice (Schäckermann et al. 2015).
The proposed conversion factors build on existing theorizations of factors that determine actual use of ecosystem services. Cavender-Bares et al. (2015) argued that human values, ethics, and choices determine what is preferred and utilized by different stakeholders. Hicks and Cinner (2014) recognized that a number of ‘access mechanisms’ ultimately will increase or decrease the ecosystem services available to people. But we expand Hicks and Cinner’s categories of access mechanisms to also include spatial distances to ecosystem outputs—as we argue the distance and ease of access may determine whether outputs turn into services or disservices. Our finding that the agricultural fields provide the majority of wild food consumed also challenges the view that forest areas are the most important landscape type with regards to provisioning services (Wunder et al. 2014). Since we show how the available resources or outputs do not necessarily turn into services, the findings allow us to elaborate existing theorizations by suggesting that institutional, economic, cultural, and location factors not only mediate the ecosystem outputs’ beneficial value. Rather, the suggested factors can switch the balance between services and disservices.
The underlying argument is that presence and availability of ecosystem outputs do not necessarily mean that they will be collected and used as goods (i.e., services) (Andersson et al. 2015). If one accepts this argument at a more general level, the inadequacy of existing ecosystem service assessment framework becomes remarkably clear. When for example Mace et al. (2012) crafted their framework on linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem services, they argued that ecosystems ‘…start with fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes and leads through final ecosystem services to the ecosystem components and outputs from which humans directly derive good and benefits.’ Values are thereby ascribed to the ecosystem—nature becomes an active provider of services (Lele 2013). This inattention to social processes, the omission of disservices and the downplaying of possible switches between services and disservices is not just a simplifying assumption in such existing frameworks, but may potentially lead to overlooking a whole range of today’s environmental problems, from local to global (Lele 2013). Recognition of this additional feature of services and disservices as they are experienced by people has importance for the negotiation of trade-offs between different people and groups, an emerging role of ecosystem management. As we have shown with an empirical focus on shifting cultivation systems in Laos, ecosystem service frameworks need to engage with (1) the concept of disservices, (2) the conversion factors that determine where ecosystem outputs are positioned along a spectrum from service to disservice, and (3) the social processes that are implicated in the conversion factors.
In order to translate this into a better understanding of ecosystems, we, firstly, call for studies with a broad range of spatial scales (Cumming et al. 2006). It is likely that different conversion factors determine potential switches between disservices and services when one moves from the village level to the household or regional level. The general pattern derived from our analysis is that rats as an ecosystem output primarily switch into a disservice in the permanently cultivated maize systems as opposed to a service in the subsistence-oriented shifting cultivation systems. But some conversion factors, such as location of agricultural fields, may actually have caused certain households to be positioned differently in the spectrum from disservice to service. If households get time-constrained due to, for example, far away fields and they cannot devote time to set up and maintain rat traps, rats might switch towards being a disservice.
Secondly, we urge scholars to consider a range of time scales. Our study design allowed us to account for seasonal variations, but the same ecosystem output can also generate relatively more disservices in 1 year, and relatively more services in another. Taking the available plants in the agricultural fields as an example, certain species may switch into useful medicinal plants in some years (or months, weeks, or days), while the same species otherwise are considered weeds. In this regard, the balance between service and disservice may even be mediated by a particular household suffering from the specific ailment for which the plant provides treatment in a given year.
Our findings suggest that changes are required to make ecosystem service frameworks more apt and meaningful, not only for shifting cultivation systems but in all areas where diverse landscapes provide multiple outputs to their inhabitants. This is in line with recent studies illustrating that delivery of ecosystem services is insufficient as a general argument for biodiversity conservation (e.g., Kleijn et al. 2015). Our suggested framework for addressing both services and disservices should be of particular importance to scholars interested in linkages between ecosystems and human wellbeing. But it also provides new foundation for conservation and development interventions to avoid directing investments at inappropriate targets.