Holland, Breena (2017). 'Conservation and Social Justice: Valuing Capabilities in Interdisciplinary Socio-ecological Assessments in the eastern Himalayas' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Introduction: Ecosystems Services and Human Wellbeing

Biodiversity conservation in some forested rural societies in the tropical south has been associated with growing inequality. Borrowing from a conservation toolkit originating in USA, the designation of “Protected Areas” (PA) in tropical countries poses specific barriers to well-being achievement. In indigenous and other local communities in South Asia, Africa, and South America, PAs have produced displacement, restriction of resource access and control, and negative lifestyle impacts. In India, those studying conservation impacts on livelihoods, and making a case for community based conservation, tend to reduce wellbeing assessment to the measurement of income accruing from forest dependency. As an application of the dominant income-based and utilitarian approaches to well-being assessment, this construes the benefits of forest ecosystems in terms of the resources and services they provide, and offers a convenient ‘calculability’ of the material impacts resulting from PA type conservation.

The ecosystem service view of forests was popularized in the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MA) of 2005, which adopted a multidimensional view of ecosystems. For example, a forest ecosystem’s services are defined to include the “provisioning” of fruit and fodder, the “regulation” of water flow, the “supporting” role of nutrient cycling, and the “cultural” benefits of recreational opportunities and aesthetic experiences. Unfortunately, applications of the MA framework have assumed a more limited view of the human lives to which those services contribute, focusing narrowly on the benefits of forest ecosystems related to agricultural production and recreational tourism. In this respect, the MA treats humans as less multidimensional and dynamic than the ecosystems providing services. More specifically, the MA framework does recognize human freedom, choice, health, good social relations, and basic material needs as items central to human wellbeing, and it also recognizes institutions as central to ensuring equitable and secure access to services for vulnerable people. However, market calculation of services has dominated MA analysis, propelled by an assumption that service monetization will reveal value that rational actors seek to secure through sustainable use of forest ecosystems. Human well-being and agency construed more broadly – as involving relationships with forest ecosystems that go beyond agricultural production and recreation – has not been systematically assessed and expressed in measurable terms. Further, in interdisciplinary work, while social assessments predominantly have been exercises in ascertaining the dependency of incomes on forests, ecological assessments have hardly involved robust field analysis that establish service links and flows.

How does one reconcile the multidimensionality of ecosystem functioning with the multidimensionality of human functioning? What are the empirical and theoretical challenges of employing capabilities in socio-ecological assessments? Can assessment of ecosystem services, a framework that naturally lends itself to quantification in market-based environmental valuation, be compatible with qualitative and normative wellbeing approaches that emphasize freedoms and justice?

The Study: Ecosystems Services and Capabilities in Darjeeling

We propose a panel addressing these questions based on our interdisciplinary socio-ecological assessments of forests and dependent farmer households in the Eastern Himalayan region of Darjeeling. We assessed the relationship between ecosystems and human capabilities as relevant in the regional-local context of east Himalayan forest conservation and development. The assessments, conducted in eight villages near the Singalila national park and Senchel wildlife sanctuary, involved rigorous biodiversity and water assessments, as well as capabilities-based wellbeing assessments conducted through household surveys. As Holland (2008) states, Nussbaum defined her list of central human capabilities abstractly so that they could be nationally and locally contextualized. Starting from Nussbaum’s capabilities, we collected ‘contextual’ data on how forests relate to villagers’ capabilities of bodily health (diet, cultivation, non-timber forest produce & fuel wood collection); control over material and political environment (tenure, resource access, institutions, rights legislation); practical reasoning (agro-pastoral aspirations, observation and opinion on ecosystem services, tourism); affiliation (empathy, sympathy & sensitivity to environmental challenges of community); senses and thought(modern & traditional knowledge, cultural services viz. place attachment and identity ); and emotions (landscape sentiment, disaster response and relocation). Adhering to Holland, we treated these capabilities as dependent on the functioning of ecological systems, and therefore, as features of an independent ‘meta capability’ – sustainable ecological capacity – that makes all the central human capabilities possible. Forest ecosystems are understood as providing service bundles/sets that enable human capabilities, including the capability to have relations with other species and the natural world in specific human-wildlife and human-landscape relations.

The location of the assessments were two non-contiguous forest-farm landscapes whose villages and households within villages were chosen based on ecological, institutional, legal and social (occupation, class and caste) criteria, which allows for comparison of the circumstances conducive to having capabilities. In assessing the relationship between ecosystem services and human capabilities, we focus on the ecological variables of access to produce within forests, and water availability. The environmental inequities are revealed in how households with different caste, class and even spatial identities are able to access or convert provisioning and regulating services into the capabilities listed above. Further, returning to the narrow conception of human wellbeing MA analyses adopt, we demonstrate why the role of human agency in ‘co-producing’ ecosystem services through human-ecosystem interactions is crucial to understanding the ways in which some households or villages either ‘over’ or ‘under’ serviced.


  1. Holland, B. 2008. Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum’s, ''Capabilities Approach'': Why Sustainable Ecological Capacity Is a Meta-Capability, Political Research Quarterly. 61.
  2. MA (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), 2005. Ecosystem and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington DC.
  3. Nussbaum, M.C. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Belknap Press. Harvard.
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