Ecosystems need strong legal frameworks

Legally binding planning at multiple levels, from local to central governments, will help ensure continued protection and improvement of ecosystem services, says Leony Aurora


‘If it’s not statutory, you’re wasting your time. No one is going to be held accountable’, said Prof Darryl Low Choy of the Griffith School of Environment in front of more than 350 experts on environmental services at the 6th Annual International Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Bali, Indonesia, 26–30 August 2013.

Southeast Qld map

Planning areas of Southeast Queensland. Source: Government of Queensland

In 2004, the government of the state of Queensland in Australia decided to make their regional planning statutory, that is, legally binding, in response to the rapid expansion of urban areas. More than 1 million people — roughly 5 percent of the entire country’s population –  had been moving into the southeast part of the state over a decade. Because it is a law that can only be changed by an act of the state parliament, the plan is binding on all government institutions at all levels, as well as private enterprises and individuals.

The plan, which Low Choy helped develop, is currently in its second iteration for 2009–2031. It also serves as an umbrella for other non-legally binding documents, such as the natural resources management (NRM) plan that talks a lot about protection and, indeed, enhancement of ecosystem services. The regional plan has adopted the targets and timelines of the NRM plan, making them de facto legally binding.

Ecosystem services was only one of eight sets of values that the planners for Southeast Queensland used to direct its planning, said Low Choy. Others included biodiversity, nature

based recreation, agricultural land, good quality settlements, scenic amenity, cultural heritage, and indigenous values.

‘Ecosystem services as a concept by itself will not alone deliver the goods for the statutory plan but in combination with other frameworks; they will be mutually supportive’, he said.

These values and the landscapes that support them are often in contest with one another, particularly in regions with diverse stakeholders.

‘Planning is all about trying to reconcile the conflicts between those values,’ said Low Choy. In essence, conflict resolution has to be incorporated in the planning process, not after a plan is issued.

Resolution of conflicts can only be carried out through extensive engagement with all of the people with an interest in an area, who should be armed with the best available science. In Southeast Queensland’s case, this consultation process took as long as four years.

For developing countries, such extensive engagement with stakeholders, along with the cost of gathering and analysing the scientific information needed might prove to be prohibitively expensive. These countries should look for development funds from donors or other sources, said Low Choy.

‘Basically, it boils down to political will. Unless there’s political acceptance of the importance of the issue the resources will be difficult to find’, said Low Choy.


Edited by Robert Finlayson



CRP 6 logo - small web

The conference is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry‘s component on landscape management for environmental services, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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