The role of cultural ecosystem services and community-based conservation in the collaborative governance of Irish peatlands
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Human societies face huge environmental and societal challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss, and social unrest as intersecting crises and periods of rapid change impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. There are a wide variety of concepts, approaches, and tools employed to respond to these challenges including the idea of enhancing the capacity of social-ecological systems to sustain the vital flow of ecosystem services(ES) that humanity depends on. Thisresearch examinesthe concept of ecosystem services as a metaphor and practical conservation tool, highlighting both the flexibility in its application alongside concerns about its effectiveness and anthropocentric focus. The aim of this thesis is to increase the visibility of the systems and structures underlying the framings used to justify different conservation approaches in order to realise more equitable and actionable outcomes for people and nature. The framing of nature’s benefits to people as ‘ecosystem services’, using the context of peatland conservation in Ireland, is the overarching concept being explored. The central question is whether the ES framework is an effective, inclusive and actionable framework for delivering better outcomes for people and peatlands. The thesis also examines the role of local conservation initiatives in the governance of peatlands, and how community voices and values can be included when applying the ES approach. Organised around three journal articles, the research explores a different facet of ecosystem services including cultural ecosystem services of peatlands; the broader context of ecosystem services as co-produced in social-ecological systems; and applications of the ES concept in Ireland. Each of these articles primarily explores the context of peatland conservation, with related applications in ES research and agriculture also emerging in the course of the research. The first phase of this research involved conducting an in-depth literature review to identify ES frameworksthat relate to cultural services, to present a theoretical basisfor the study, and to provide a rationale for the chosen methodology design. The research applied a mixed methods approach with case studies of three peatland sitesin the Irish midlands. The methods employed included an online survey, mapping workshops with participants in the three case study sites, and qualitative semi-structured interviews with a selection of individuals working in ecosystem services research, policy and practice in Ireland. Empirical findings of thisresearch support the idea that cultural ecosystem services are not adequately accounted for in ES assessments and valuations and that their integration is crucial in order for applications of the concept to be credible. Furthermore, the research reveals the need for such assessments to include temporal, sensory, and emotional aspects of people’s experiences with landscapes in order to adequately represent the deeply meaningful relationships people have to these places. This study also highlights the reciprocal nature of people’s interactions with peatlands as they work and volunteer to restore and care for these places, countering the idea of a one-way flow of services from nature to people. This research reveals how the restorative ‘work’ carried out by communities stems from the resourcefulness of communities on the ground who are actively shaping and managing these landscapes in novel ways. These new cultural practices and narratives manifest in the diverse forms of volunteer work and community activities that draw on an extensive network of resources, partnerships, and local ‘economies’ to achieve their aims. Finally, the findings reveal a range of ways the ES concept is being applied at local and national levels in Ireland, examining the consequences and effects of the ES framing to better observe and manage power dynamics and inequities in its application. Fostering transparency and reflection on values, language and power dynamics helps make visible the cultural and social structures that underlie the ES framing and encourages the development of ES approaches that are effective inclusive, and actionable.