Natural resources and ecosystem services

sustainable land management

We study the sustainable use of natural resources (soil, water, plants, and animals) and analyse changes in terrestrial ecosystems (particularly arable land, grazing land, and forest). Both natural resources and terrestrial ecosystems are threatened by overuse, climate change, desertification, and increasingly competitive and globalized use demands. Our aim is to identify current developments and the potentials they offer for greater sustainability: together with diverse stakeholders, we strive to harness these potentials and promote more sustainable land use practices.

Monitoring changes in ecosystems and natural resources

We combine a variety of methods from the natural and social sciences to monitor and assess – at different spatial and temporal resolutions – natural and human-induced changes in ecosystems. For example, we collect field data at automatic monitoring stations, investigate the physical properties of soils, identify vegetation change using satellite images, and interview local stakeholders. Long-term observations – especially in Central Asia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Switzerland – allow us to make informed statements about threats and potentials for sustainable land use in these regions.

Jointly seeking solutions to ensure healthy ecosystems

Land and water degradation is one of the biggest challenges for sustainable development. In arid regions, degradation manifests itself as desertification; worldwide, it increases the risk of natural disasters and food shortages. Ensuring ecosystem functions and services as a basis for food security in the affected regions requires global exchange of knowledge about possible solutions. Creating platforms to facilitate this exchange and promote mutual learning between practitioners and scientists is our aim. The WOCAT network, for example, collects knowledge about sustainable land management: by spreading good practices, it contributes to maintaining landscapes and improving local people’s livelihoods.

Valuation of ecosystem services

Ecosystems perform important functions. These include the production of food, fodder, timber, and energy. Ecosystems are also habitats, regulate and store water and nutrients, and fulfil natural and cultural functions. Based on their various functions, ecosystems provide services – ecosystem services – that have a direct benefit and therefore a value. However, this value depends on the actor, place, and time; it may compete with other ecosystem services, requiring trade-offs; and it may be affected by geographically distant decision-makers. We develop methods to identify, measure, and value ecosystem services together with diverse local and global actors. In doing so, we aim to make visible the impact of land use decisions, and to support evidence-based decision-making.