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Pamela Katic/IWMI

Breaking down the ecosystem service parlance

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Participatory ranking of ecosystem services helps our project find out what really matters to communities.

Ecosystem services is a term that does not translate easily into different languages, making it difficult to explain across cultures and contexts. The challenge becomes even more daunting when we want to understand how local communities use, perceive and value different ecosystem services: how can we collect views from others on a concept that is described by an amalgam of financial, conservation, regulatory and scientific parlance?

Ranking of agroecosystem resources by a women’s focus group in Northern Ghana.
Pamela Katic/IWMI

In a recent project in the North of Ghana, I was tasked with designing a qualitative instrument that can provide information on how ecosystems are affected by irrigation activities in order to complement quantitative data on the linkages between the well-being of communities using irrigation and the local ecosystems they depend on.

I boiled this task down to two questions:

  1. What are the local criteria for human well-being?
  2. Which ecosystem services are recognized and valued by the community?

Rad resource

I approached this challenge by designing focus group discussions with farmers based on the “Participatory Ranking Method”, in which participants identify ecosystem services as products or benefits they derive for their well-being from different resources present in their local agroecosystems (farms, livestock, dams, rivers, forests, scrublands and wildlife).

Later, they rank these “larger” resources from most important to least important rather than ranking all the individual services separately. Since women and youth are involved in different roles in irrigated production, I thought it was better to break the discussion into three groups in each community: adult men, adult women and youth. By using this method, I was able to identify which resources (and their services) are more meaningful to certain groups and locations.

There were some differences in the way communities practicing different types of irrigation perceive the resources available in their local ecosystems. Unsurprisingly, dams were relatively more important in communities with small and large dams. Farms were consistently perceived as the most or second most important in at least one of the three groups (men, women, youth) in every community.

Among sex/age groups, men in most irrigation schemes ranked farms and livestock as the top two resources, suggesting that men consider material wealth more important for their well-being than other aspects such as a clean environment, health or social networks. Generally in the region, male household heads and adult male family members are the sole owners and managers of farm assets (mainly land and livestock) thus being significantly more involved than women and youth in irrigated agriculture. In addition, in most cases, adult men are the ones who use the lands allocated to families by public irrigation schemes. Although there is increased access to land for farming purposes by women and youth, these groups still don’t own land and mostly have to negotiate for contract lands from adult males or authorities of irrigation schemes.

In contrast, water resources were in general considered very important by women in all irrigation schemes. As women are traditionally in charge of household chores, such as cooking, washing and caring for their children, they are much more involved in the fetching and use of water than their male counterparts (as in most parts of Africa). Easy access to good quality water is especially important to women, because it can dramatically reduce their workloads, and free up time for other economic activities. The youth group had a similar ranking to women, with dams or rivers considered the top resource in half of the communities suggesting that women may be playing a critical role in shaping the younger generations’ views on how to manage the local ecosystems they depend on.

Interested in exploring participatory tools, here’s what worked during our implementation:

  • Start with a participatory ranking of the local criteria for well-being to understand what well-being means for different groups.
  • To facilitate ranking of agroecosystem resources, I used pictures representing different resources that stimulated discussion and understanding.
  • Include a presentation by groups at the end of the exercise and an open-ended discussion to contribute to learning and communication among groups.
  • Make sure the moderator and note-taker change their group they work on across communities.
  • Ask local evaluation or project teams about cultural practices to consider before a focus group discussion. In Ghana, we started each discussion with a prayer, followed by a re-cap of previous fieldwork activities undertaken by the same project.

Has anyone had experience using participatory tools to understand relationships with ecosystem services in West African communities?


Great work Pamela! Thanks for sharing.