Traditional agricultural activities have suffered a notorious recession in recent decades in many Euro-Mediterranean regions. This recession originated in changes in the type and intensity of land utilization, such as intensification of the management system, reduction of grazing and abandonment of remote rangeland areas. Consequently, a general process of vegetation encroachment and landscape closure is happening.
The “Sierra y Cañones de Guara” Natural Park is a protected mountain area located in Northeast Spain that constitutes a representative example of this process. Today, about half of the park consists of private and communal shrub rangelands, and the main agricultural activity is grazing livestock, with some agriculture (olive trees and cereals) in more favorable areas. The park constitutes a Special Protected Area (EU Birds Directive) that includes three Sites of Community Importance (EU Habitats Directive). Originally created to protect scavengers, which are highly dependent on carcasses of domestic animals for feeding, the park attracts many visitors due to its rich geological (canyons, caves, etc.), cultural (prehistoric and megalithic art, traditional buildings, villages, etc.) and natural heritage (endangered species, diversity of landscapes, scavengers and other birds of prey, etc.).
In highly multifunctional landscapes like this one, the current debate is about shifting the emphasis of the agricultural policies toward the supply of public goods. Therefore, the efforts to quantify the biophysical effects of agricultural practices on the environment and to integrate relevant agri-environmental indicators into policy design are increasing. However, studies that simultaneously consider all ecosystem services delivered by agriculture and value them from different perspectives, are still missing.
In a recent study, researchers from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, CITA-Spain and Wageningen University were able to elucidate the socio-cultural and economic values of a number of ecosystem services, previously defined in biophysical terms, in “Sierra y Cañones de Guara” Natural Park. They combined deliberative (focus groups) and survey-based stated-preference methods (choice modeling) to, first, identify the perceptions of farmers and other citizens of the ecosystem services provided by mountain agriculture and, second, to value these in economic terms according to the willingness to pay of the local (residents of the study area) and general populations (region where the study area is located).
In a first stage, the deliberative research showed that the cultural services (particularly the aesthetic and recreational values of the landscape), supporting services (biodiversity maintenance) and some regulating services (particularly fire risk prevention) were clearly recognized by both farmers in the area of study and urban residents, with different degrees of importance according to their particular interests and objectives. The availability of high quality food products linked to the territory was also highly valued, especially by urban citizens.
In a second stage, local and general population respondents were asked to choose their most preferred policy scenario among three alternatives. The status quo scenario corresponded to the current delivery of ecosystem services previously identified, whereas the liberalization (reduction of agri-environmental support) and targeted support (additional funding to agri-environmental schemes) scenarios represented different combinations of levels of ecosystem services delivery.
The analysis of responses allowed obtaining a ranking of ecosystem services, as well as the willingness of the society to pay for their delivery. The prevention of forest fires (≈50% of total willingness to pay) was valued by the general population as a key ecosystem service delivered by mountain agroecosystems, followed by the production of specific quality products linked to the territory (≈20%), biodiversity (≈20%) and cultural landscapes (≈10%). The value given by local residents to the last two ecosystem services differed considerably (≈10 and 25% for biodiversity and cultural landscape, respectively). The authors were able to obtain the Total Economic Value of Mediterranean mountain agroecosystems that was ≈120€ per person per year, three times the current level of support of agro-environmental schemes (see graph).
The authors conclude that there is a large underestimation of the socio-cultural and economic values of ecosystem services of Mediterranean mountain agroecosystems, the welfare loss linked to environmental degradation in these areas and the cost of inaction. It is therefore necessary to value public goods in monetary terms to compensate farmers in an equitable way for their delivery. By individualizing support, monitoring and valuing objective indicators for ecosystem services and targeting particular agricultural practices, so-called “green” subsidies may truly become Payments for Ecosystem Services.