By Emilia Pramova et al. Read the full article in People and Nature here.

What are cultural ecosystem services (CES) and how can we evaluate them? There is no simple answer. The concept generally tries to capture the non-material aspects of people’s relationships and interactions with ecosystems.

We knew it would not be a straightforward task when we set out to include some CES research within a broader ecosystem services project in the Peruvian Andes. As several People and Nature editors and authors have already pointed out, CES research is inherently interdisciplinary, employing a diverse set of concepts, methods, and epistemologies.

A little overwhelming, no?

Communicating CES concepts during research can be challenging or too restrictive, or the concepts themselves can be incompatible with different worldviews. For this reason, we decided to start with an open, exploratory approach. So rather than approaching interviewees with a list of questions or CES defined a priori, we used photographic prompts of known places in the region and encouraged our participants to share any feelings and thoughts that arose. The plain language summary of our paper is available here.

Lake Huicacocha in the Ampay protected area near Abancay, Apurimac, Peru. Photo by Bruno Locatelli.

We held these open discussions with 28 participants. After transcribing them we ended up with 139 statements related to our general research objective. We noticed that many of these beautiful, often poetic statements, contained emotions, sensations, memories, feelings, and also different articulations of connectedness with nature:

“These flowers are really beautiful; I saw them in the mountains. Flowers are a mystery, I like to smell them and to touch them. They maintain the cycle of life. They mean a lot to me. There is something in the flowers than is much bigger than us. There is also the wind in this place. The breath of the wind has been here for millions of years; we have to be grateful to be here too.”

We were actually surprised with the many personal emotions and also sensory experiences that people shared. We asked ourselves, ‘how can we analyze these statements?’ And to find answers, we felt we needed to step out of our comfort zone (the one of classical ecosystem services research within the sustainability sciences). So, we took a deep dive into different disciplines – from the various branches of psychology to outdoors studies, phenomenology, human geography, and social anthropology. What an interesting journey that was! And after many readings and stimulating discussions in our little group, we developed this simple framework (below) to help us analyze the statements. 

Proposed simple framework for analyzing the different dimensions of experience in interviewee narratives.

More than half of the statements included affective and/or sensory experiences and many included reflections on connectedness with nature. Our main goal with illustrating this in a paper was to show this diversity and to inspire more sensing and feeling in CES research. And this is because all three dimensions of experience – the affective, cognitive, and sensory – matter for human wellbeing, connectedness with nature, pro-conservation behavior, and equity in land use planning.

Research has shown that there is a direct pathway between sensory and affective experiences and both human wellbeing and connectedness with nature. Connectedness in turn fosters pro-conservation behavior. And perhaps most importantly, the recognition of the life experiences and relationships with nature of different groups of people is central to equity in ecosystem management, for example around protected areas or in ecotourism initiatives. Qualitative CES research can help in communicating these experiences and relationships to decision-makers.