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The Ecosystem Approach Advanced User Guide


1. Introduction

Explanation
When considering the likelihood or ease of attaining the management objectives, attention should be given to the environmental conditions that limit natural productivity, ecosystem structure, functioning and diversity. 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.

Guidelines for answering this question
Identify practices that are not sustainable and develop appropriate mechanisms for improvement involving all stakeholders.  

Given the uncertainty associated with defining the limits to ecosystem functioning under most circumstances, the precautionary principle should be applied.  

Implement an adaptive management approach (see Task 9). 

Develop understanding of the limits of ecosystem functioning and the effects of various human use on the delivery of ecosystem goods and services.  

Where permissible limits to alteration of specific ecosystem components can be agreed, manage within these limits but monitor and assess the ecosystem response. Make sure the information is given at regular intervals to those responsible for setting the off-take or other limits.  

Encourage the use of environmental assessments and monitoring to establish ecosystem responses to disturbance, in order to provide management feedback and develop appropriate responses.  

Develop and promote appropriate management strategies and practices that sustain resources and maintain ecosystems within the limits of their functioning.  

Sustainable use management goals and practices should avoid or minimize adverse impacts on ecosystem services, structure and functions as well as other components of ecosystems.  

Formulate, review and implement regulatory frameworks, codes of practice and other instruments to avoid using ecosystems beyond their limits.

Tools
Monitoring methods
Interdisciplinary research
Public participation 

Further explanation
There are limits to the level of demand that can be placed on an ecosystem while maintaining its integrity and capacity to continue providing the goods and services that provide the basis for human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. Our current understanding is insufficient to allow these limits to be precisely defined, and therefore a precautionary approach coupled with adaptive management, is advised.  In this regard it should be noted that:
Just as there are limits to the demands (production, off-take, assimilation, detoxification) that can be made on ecosystems, so too there are limits to the amount of disturbance that ecosystems can tolerate, depending on the magnitude, intensity, frequency and kind of disturbance.
These limits are not static but may vary across sites, through time, and in relation to past circumstances and events.
Cumulative effects of interventions over time and space should be assessed when considering ecosystem limits. If these limits are exceeded, an ecosystem undergoes substantial change in composition, structure and functioning, usually with a loss of biodiversity and a resulting lower productivity and capacity to process wastes and contaminants.
There is considerable lack of knowledge and uncertainty about the actual limits (thresholds for change) in different ecosystems. While further research can reduce these uncertainties, given the dynamic and complex nature of ecosystems we may never have perfect understanding.
Given the pervasiveness of uncertainties in managing ecosystems, management will need to be adaptive, with a focus on active learning derived from monitoring the outcomes of planned interventions using a sound experimental approach that allows the effects of the intervention to be accurately determined.
Management to restore lost capacities or control use should be appropriately cautious and apply an adaptive management approach.

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme