Questions and answers

These are the benefits that people get out of ecosystems, that is, services that the environment naturally performs and that will result in benefits to humankind. These include Provision services, such as the production of food, fiber, timber and drinkable water; Regulation services, such as the regulation of floods, droughts, soil degradation and diseases; Support services, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling;  and Cultural services, such as leisure, spiritual, religious and other immaterial benefits. That is the most accepted concept in the literature, extracted from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005).

An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal and microorganism communities (biotic component) and the non-living or abiotic environment (water, air, soil), interacting as a functional unit. Human beings are an integral part of ecosystems. Ecosystems vary enormously in size and are dynamic. A temporary pond and an oceanic basin may, for instance, be considered ecosystems.

Ecosystem Services generate benefits to society and directly or indirectly derive from ecosystem functions, which are those that generate the Ecosystem Services. They comprise the material, energy and information flows derived from natural ecosystems which, combined with anthropic factors, produce human well-being. A function starts to be considered an Ecosystem Service when it offers the possibility and potential to be used for human purposes. The Ecosystem Service can be the product of one or more functions. Ecosystem functions can be classified in: (1) Regulating functions: related to ecosystems' capacity to regulate essential ecological processes and life support, such as biogeochemical cycles, maintenance of soil structure, water absorption, filtering and supply, pollination, among others;  (2) Provisioning functions : production of food, staple fibers and energy for human consumption, through photosynthesis; (3) information functions: recreation, tourism, cultural and artistic inspiration, historical and cultural information; and (4) habitat functions:shelter and nursery for animal and plant species. Environmental services X Ecosystem Services Few authors in literature make a distinction between “ecosystem services” and “environmental services”. For those who conceptually separate the two terms, "ecosystem services" exclusively refers to the human benefits derived from natural ecosystems, and the term "environmental services" designates the environmental benefits resulting from society's intentional interventions in ecosystem dynamics, such as human activities for the maintenance or the recovery of ecosystem components. This concept emphasizes the human contribution to the maintenance or expansion of the flow of ecosystem goods and services. As many authors and public policies, including the Brazilian ones, generally use the concept of environmental services, that is the term that will be adopted throughout the present text..

The air that we breathe, the soil that we cultivate, the water cycle, the plants that feed us and many other ecological goods are the result of a set of processes maintained by living beings or by biotic components that constitute ecosystems, jointly with the non-living or abiotic environment. The biosphere, which is the set of existing ecosystems in the planet, is the product of life on Earth. Therefore, the human species is, in the end, completely dependent on ecosystem functions and services. The following are examples of environmental services that are important both for current society and for future generations, as well as for the sustainability of production systems: (1) maintaining air quality and pollution control by regulating the composition of atmospheric gases, through higher carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions; (2) temperature and rainfall control, through the biogeochemical carbon cycle and the vegetation's evapotranspiration that contributes to maintaining the relative humidity in the air; (3) regulation of surface runoff, increased water storage, flood control, and aquifer transfer and recharge; (4) establishment and maintenance of soils and soil fertility through the decomposition of organic matter and the interactions between plant roots, bacteria and mycorrhiza; (5) degradation of industrial and agricultural dejections and ciclagem of minerals; (6) reduction of the incidence of pests and diseases through biological control; (7) pollination of agricultural plants and wild plants through the dispersion of seeds; and (8) scenic beauty and maintenance of the landscapes. Changes in the way ecosystems naturally operate can have direct or indirect effects on the production of environmental services. And that influence can be positive or negative. For instance, when vegetation near springs is deforested, it is very likely that the amount of water they provide will diminish or even dry out, and so will their water quality, as the water will be exposed to contamination by pollutants, sediments and coliforms. This change in the environment causes a negative effect on water provision, an environmental service, which in turn will negatively impact water supply for the population that would benefit from this natural resource in its original conditions.

The Millenium Ecosystem Evaluation classified environmental services in four basic categories: provisioning, regulating, cultural and support services (Figure 1). Support services are those that are necessary for the production of all the other ecosystem services. The benefits are mostly indirect, such as soil formation, the production of oxygen, and primary production. For the other services, the benefits are normally direct. Provisioning services are the products that people get out of ecosystems and that are offered directly to society, as natural food, fuel, staple fibres, freshwater and genetic resources. Regulating services are the benefits obtained by society from the natural regulation of ecosystem processes, such as air quality maintenance, climate regulation, soil erosion control, regulation of water flows (water cycle) and the control of floods, preventing floodings and contributing to recharge aquifers, water purification, reduction of the incidence of pests and diseases through biological control, pollination of agricultural and wild plants. Cultural services are the immaterial benefits that people obtain from ecosystems through cultural and spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation such as leisure and ecotourism, and the aesthetic experience.

Figure 1: Classification of Environmental Services. Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005).

The indicators are quantified, scientifically-based information used to measure environmental services. Their purpose is to survey environmental services in different contexts, in order to measure ecological, social or economic aspects. They are a simple way to express processes that are complex, as they represent a (quantified) measurement that illustrates and communicates a set of ongoing phenomena, and make monitoring possible throughout time. They are used to diagnose environmental conditions, monitor environment dynamics, show changes or diagnose the cause for an environmental issue.

Payments for Environmental Services (PES) consist in the transfer of funds (money or other resources) to contribute to the maintenance or the provision of environmental services. As the benefits of environmental services are enjoyed by all, the principle is that it would be fair that the people who contribute to the conservation and maintenance of environmental services receive such incentives. PES are used as an environmental management tool, generally with the aim of maintaining or increasing the supply of strategic environmental services. The idea is that is not enough to fine those who pollute river or deforest a spring (Polluter Pays Principle), but it is necessary to reward those who perform activities or action that favor the supply of environmental services (Principle of Supplier-Receiver).

PES generally have the following characteristics:

  1. a voluntary transaction
  2. in which a well-defined environmental service, or a land use that can ensure such service,
  3. is acquired by at least one buyer
  4. from at least one supplier of the service
  5. on the condition that the latter ensures the provision of the service.

In sum, it is an innovative, voluntary and negotiated strategy, which is distinguished from "command-and-control" measures.

Environmental valuation is a tool to attempt to estimate an economic value or, in other words, the price of goods and services provided by nature, such as the value of biodiversity, recreation and scenic beauty benefits or opportunities, or the value of plant pollination by insects. With the economic valuation, it is possible to attribute a monetary value to environmental resources. Valuation can be used to: assess ecosystems' total contribution to human well-being, help decision makers elucidate different forms of incentive mechanisms in ecosystem management, and assess the consequences of an action in the environment and thus compare this action to alternatives. According to some views, valuation provides the opportunity for an assessment of the benefits humans receive from ecosystems, recognizing dependence and helping in society's awareness with regard to the importance of preserving and maintaining ecosystem services. In the new economy of nature, the idea is that instead of exploring and destroying nature and natural resources, the basis or the goal of economic activities must be the conservation of nature. The economic value of the environment can be composed by the value of its use and its non-use. Use values can be aggregated into: (1) direct use value is one that derives from the direct use of the resources by individuals, such as: food, medicine, product extration, visitation, etc.; (2) indirect use value comes from the benefits derived from the ecosystem functions, such as soil protection, the maintenance of the biodiversity, and the climate stability resulting from the preservation of the forests; and (3) option value that is attributed considering direct and indirect use in the near future and whose preservation can be threatened, e.g. undiscovered benefits from biodiversity resources.  And the non-use value or passive value derives from moral, cultural, ethical or altruistic stances with regard to non-human species' rights to existence or the preservation of natural attributes, even if they do not represent current or future use for individuals.

Yes, agriculture is a major supplier of provisioning services: food, staple fibers and energy. And most of it is located in rural areas, where the generation and maintenance of most environmental services occurs. However, historically, the model of agriculture observed in the country has generated a series of ecosystem desservices, resulting in deforestation, loss of habitats and nutrients, sedimentation of water bodies, soil and water contamination by pesticides and fertilizers, and greenhouse gas emissions, among others. However, the situation can be reversed into the provision of environmental services through suitable property and landscape management, adopting crop rotation and integration practices, no-till farming, contor farming, soil cover, soil and water conservation, optimization of inputs, conservation of permanent preservation areas, and fragment conectivity. Based on rising studies about world and national ecosystems, assessing the impacts of land uses and climate change on environmental services, some solutions have been proposed, but there is a lot of progress to be made yet.  Embrapa and partners have built the "Environmental Services in the Brazilian Rural Landscape Research Network", in light of the reduction in environmental services in rural areas due to gaps in scientific knowledge and social perception. It is expected to generate support information for the conservation, recovery and valuation of environmental services in natural systems and in agricultural production systems.

Yes, it does. With the visibility of the importance of the maintenance and provision of environmental services for the well-being of present and future generations, and the recognition of the economy's dependence on them, there have been advances in terms of federal, state and city legislation and public policy. The table below presents some examples of government initiatives that were pioneering in their focus on the provision of environmental services. There have also been great contributions in that direction, such as the discussions about the New Forest Code (Law nº 12651/2012), which clearly mentions environmental services and stipulates compensation for environmental services and Programs for Environmental Regularization: Guidelines for Brazilian states ( The estimates indicating high direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector, and the Brazilian Government 's voluntary commitment pledged at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to reduce between 36.1% and 38.9% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions projected for 2020, which includes the commitment to reduce 22.5% of agricultural sector emissions, gave rise to the creation of Law nº 12187 which established the National Policy on Climate Change, which in turn induced the elaboration in 2012 of the Sector Plan on Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change for the Consolidation of a Low Carbon Economy and Agriculture - ABC Plan. The ABC Plan also expresses the need to reduce farmers', rural communities' and ecosystems' vulnerability and broaden systems resilience, with the aim of promoting the sustainable use of biodiversity and water resources; instruments to mitigate climate change risks of compensation for environmental services; and stresses the valuation of environmental services offered by agroecosystems ( The "Water Producer" Program by the Brazilian National Water Agency was a pioneer in the Payment for Water Environmental Services in Brazil (, a voluntary commitment with main purpose of controlling diffuse agricultural pollution, prioritarily aimed at watersheds of strategic importance for Brazil (SANTOS et al., 2010). It is a very interesting program that the country needs; considering that the priority actions and the highest percentage of funds destined to watershed committees are for containing pollution of water resources (by domestic and industrial sewage) in urban areas, diffuse pollution, which mainly happens in rural areas, remains second place in the agenda. It is also justified by the fact that Brazil has average erosion rates in a range between 15 to 20 tons/ha/year. Erosion causes fertilizer, liming and organic matter losses estimated at R$ 7.9 billion per year. Considering the effect of erosion in the depreciation of land and reservoirs, and other costs related to road conservation and water treatment, Brazil's losses would total around R$ 13.3 billion per year, according to GEO Brasil (2002) estimates. Payments for water environmental services have expanded in the country ever since, however, there are many gaps and demands for support. A lot is due to the fact that despite many bills in the National Congress, Brazil has not approved a National Policy on Payments for Environmental Services yet, which would bring guidelines and support to ongoing PES..



Program Bolsa Floresta da Amazônia  - Amazonas State Government

Payment for environmental services to populations who live in Amazon forest areas and who commit to reducing deforestation

Chico Mendes Law in the Amazon Forest Provides benefits to rubber extraction workers
Program of Social-Environmental Development of Rural Family Production (Proambiente) Related to sustainable best practices performed by
family farmers in the Amazon region
Green or Ecological Tax on the Circulation of Goods and Services (Green ICMS) Mechanism that allows cities to access funds raised by states to compensate environmentally protected areas and suitable basic sanitation conditions
Low Carbon Agriculture Program (ABC Plan) Grants benefits and credits to farmers who want to adopt sustainable agricultural practices in their property

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was requested in 2000 by then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and was lead between 2001 and 2005, involving more than 1,300 scientists and 95 countries (TEEB, 2010). It evaluated the consequences that changes to ecosystems cause to human well-being, and the scientific foundations for the actions required to improve the conservation and sustainable use of such ecosystems. This single effort to systematize information concerning ecosystem services and their contribution to human well-being demonstrates that the international community recognizes the need and the urgency of taking innovative measures to protect ecosystems, conciliating their conservation with economic development (ANDRADE and ROMEIRO, 2009). One of the publications that makes a critical analysis of this project is MONTES and SALA (2007). To learn more, check the list of publications produced by the Network on Environmental Services in the Rural Landscape.