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The Ecosystem Approach Advanced User Guide


1. Introduction

The information that follows provides a guide to creating the structures and processes necessary for implementing the ecosystem approach as part of a project to address a particular issue. It is aimed at those working to achieve sustainable management of ecosystems, although much of the information could also be applied to projects seeking the creation or development of legislation or policy. There is no correct way to create a plan, every situation is different and it is important to modify the plan to fit the circumstances under which the project will operate.

Identifying the issues
The processes through which issues are identified and the project plan developed can be difficult to separate. The use of the ecosystem approach should begin with an issue. Having identified the issue (or several) it can be assessed against the tasks set out above in Section 3.

However, once the potential tasks for action have been identified a draft management plan should be produced before actions have been finalised. This is necessary so that there is an opportunity for stakeholders to feed into the management processes at an early enough stage to ensure they are part of the management process. If the involvement of stakeholders is left too late they might feel they can not contribute to the management process or the issues that concern them might not have been addressed. As a consequence it will be more difficult to develop relationships based on trust between the different people and organisations involved.

Creating a Draft management plan
The objective of the draft management plan is to:
  • Set out the tasks that need to be undertaken to meet the issue(s) and the objectives of the ecosystem approach.
  • Determine who needs to be involved in the tasks and what mechanisms could be used to encourage participation.
  • Set out a draft timetable for actions and target dates for completion (though it is important to keep these as flexible as possible especially during the initiation phase of the project).
    Timing
    Before setting up a project choosing the right time for its establishment is important. There might be opportunities or circumstances which can help or hinder the project’s success. For example:
  • Political stability – a return to a more stable political situation can provide an opportunity to develop a new project.
  • New government policies and strategies can create conditions under which a project can thrive. Likewise the ratification of international conventions can provide an opportunity for a country to review environmental policies, legislation and practice.
  • Re-organisation and re-structuring to government departments and institutions can provide opportunities.

The time taken to put in place actions that can restore or maintain ecosystems should not be underestimated. At the project initiation stage the likely time required for the various elements of project preparation, enactment and follow-up should be evaluated. Stakeholders should be given realistic timings so that they do not become disillusioned or frustrated by the time taken to put plans into action and for results to be achieved.

Key actors
One of the first tasks is to decide which organisation should lead the project’s development and subsequent implementation. These roles do not have to be undertaken by the same organisation, for instance a government department might provide the initiative to set up the project but it would actually be run by a local or regional organisation in either the public or private sector, or an implementing body might be created specifically to address the issue.

Reliance should not be placed on one organisation to carryout the project as this can jeopardise the likely success. Successful projects often have one fully-committed organisation (either governmental or non-governmental) which works with other partner organisations. The lead organisation should be able to act as:
  • An effective facilitator and co-ordinator working with all stakeholders.
  • Provide clear reasons for and evidence of the decisions taken.
  • Be willing to listen to the views of others and adapt to their needs if that is required.
    Engaging with stakeholders

There are many different ways to encourage stakeholders to participate. Workshops and focus groups can be one way to engage a number of stakeholders at the same time. In other circumstances one-on-one liaison might be the best approach initially before advisory/working groups can be established. Tools such as decision trees can be very useful for explaining the range of issues affecting an area and for capturing new issues. Later on decision trees can also be used to develop pragmatic steps for addressing problems. More information on engaging stakeholders can be found under the sourcebook section on tools and approaches or search for case studies / tools on the database under public participation.

Setting Objectives
All projects need well defined and readily identifiable objectives. These and any actions should be agreed through discussions with stakeholders so that an understanding of the issues and actions necessary to address them can be agreed and understood. The objectives should be closely related to the issues identified. The use of decision making tools can be useful in this respect. For example having established a problem tree when identifying the issues to be addressed can then be used to create an objective tree. In this case each issue is paired with an objective so that if the issue is a decline in native invertebrates, the objective would be to halt the decline and adopt management necessary to increase native invertebrates.

The setting of objectives can also provide a useful starting point for creating monitoring actions.

Project design
The development of the project plan should consider

Adaptive management
The management plan should be flexible, with a clear aim and methodology for reaching decisions and undertaking actions, which in turn are realistic and clearly justified. Progress should be assessed against agreed targets which can be reviewed as necessary to allow for any change in circumstances. All outputs should be agreed and discussed with stakeholders to allow them the opportunity to contribute to this process.

Long-term viability
The ultimate aim for any project should be the continuation of the objectives beyond the project’s lifespan. This includes providing implementing organisations with the resources to continue long-term management after the project has finished. The development of an exit strategy at the beginning of project so that at the end it is agreed who and how organisations can continue to meet the objectives. This can also strengthen commitment to the project as it is clear how it will continue into the future.

Financial stability is also key to long-term viability. Where possible self-financing strategies should be developed to ensure sufficient resources are available. These may come from, income generated from products or services from the ecosystem or where non-tradable services are generated (eg national park or watershed protection) it might be appropriate for government funding.

Defining the boundaries, scope and time scale
Although boundaries lead to limitations these can be necessary for managing ecosystems. Tasks seven and eight in Section three above identify what issues need to be taken into account when developing the boundaries.

Producing the project work plan
The first task of the core work team is to produce a work plan, which should be done in a participatory and collaborative manner, using logical framework techniques to facilitate problem analysis and planning.

A research plan might also be required; this will cover collecting social, ecological and economic data. Where ever possible links should be made with the academic and research institutions specialising in the area (either geographic or sectoral), and should use the capacity of local communities to provide baseline information.

The creation of the work plan is a unique opportunity to define a clear public image for the project and to communicate it as widely as possible. This is important because the ecosystem approach is still a new concept to many which might not be widely understood or appreciated. The best project image is one that clearly promotes it as a capacity-building and conflict solving exercise, with a group of unbiased experts working in close association with the various interest groups.

Reducing risk to project outcomes
Risk analysis should be used to identify critical issues/risks to the project. For example:
Is there sufficient scientific and other knowledge available to undertake identified field activities? If not, it might be necessary to undertake surveys etc before moving on to specific activities.
  • Is the project expected to have significant environmental or social impacts? All projects should be assessed to ensure negative impacts are not detrimental.
  • Has there been previous communication with local groups, organisations or individuals? If not, or where there have been difficulties before, a preliminary consultation phase might be needed to build confidence and good working relationships between the project and the local people.
  • Legal barriers to project implementation should be considered. For example Wildlife and environmental legislation might not be compatible with sustainable use of natural resources.
  • Land tenure and access to natural resources for local communities - if security of land and access to the benefits is not clear, local communities can not be expected to take responsibility for management.
  • Legal boundaries of a protected area which are not clearly defined, making implementation of management measures difficult.
  • Do organisations have the correct resources for implementing parts of the project plan identified for them? If not, training and capacity-building might be necessary.
  • Do institutional barriers affect project implementation, for instance does an inappropriate agency have responsibility for management? It might be necessary to seek new legislation or work with the agency to find appropriate mechanisms.
  • When attempting to restore degraded ecosystems it might be necessary to carry out a pilot project to assess restoration techniques before working on a larger and hence more risky scale.

Monitoring and evaluation
Monitoring can be used to assess progress and determine how future management can be developed to meet the project’s goals. The monitoring of activities, aims and objectives should not be fixed but remain adaptable to changing conditions as knowledge, understanding and issues are raised and resolved. Sufficient time should be allowed for effective monitoring and any changes should be supported by evidence as to why the change was made. This provides information to those assessing the project’s success and stops targets being revised down for convenience of action. Monitoring should cover both the short and the long-term to allow initial results and the future sustainability of the ecosystem.

Wherever possible local people and organisation should be involved in monitoring. Local groups will be more likely to collect information which they can analyse and use themselves in managing the ecosystem. This information can be complemented by other monitoring activities.

Indicators can be used to monitor success, for example by showing practical and visible project outputs, such as species distribution maps, new government regulations protecting wildlife, establishment of new partnership organisation. Changes to the abundance of species, increased productivity or access to a resource can also be used as indicators.

It can be difficult to assess changes to attitude, awareness and behaviour, without considerable monitoring effort. This type of monitoring can be very effective for showing how understanding of resource use has changed or whether there has been effective devolution of decision making in resource use to an identified group.

Ecosystem health can also provide a valuable mechanism for assessing a project’s achievements. For example by assessing changes to biological diversity, food chain characteristics, ecosystem productivity or ecosystem functions.

Project Implementation
Key concerns in implementing natural resource management projects include Length of time allocated to the project to achieve an impact on the health and integrity of ecosystems, is crucial. Improved ecosystem management and natural habitat restoration may require 10-15 years of work before results become apparent.

Staff competence and commitment is vital to project success

The creation of a network of partner agencies and interest groups, which will progressively take on the implementation of the project activities is vital. This will help empower others and stop the project becoming an institution with its own agenda.

Political, institutional and community support must be secured to fulfil the project goals and objectives.

Project implementation generally follows a series of stages, some of which overlap and can include several steps. For example
Stage 1
a. build project team
b. produce work plan and develop links with the local community and other stakeholders
c. establish advisory committees

Stage 2
a. determine project activities
b. desk-based actions
c. capacity building
d. review project (adapting monitoring and research as required)

Stage 3
a. putting agreed plan into action

Stage 4
a. continuation and forward planning
b. strategic plan for future initiatives

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme