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Ecosystem services secure human life in Finland

Open Ecosystems serve people - and they do it for free settings options
Nature is an ally of mankind. Humanity cannot thrive without forests, waterways, sea, and wetlands. They give us food, oxygen, materials, and other prerequisites for life. Ecosystems also take care of many vital functions: the nutrient cycle, binding carbon, water regulation, and pollination. Healthy and diverse nature secures the material and mental well-being enjoyed by humans.
A forest in its natural state absorbs the nutrients of runoff water and binds carbon. © Riku Lumiaro

Ecosystems serve people – and they do it for free

Benefits provided by nature for the benefit of humans are called ecosystem services. These free services can be maintained only if the ecosystems stay viable and functional. If we weaken the function of an ecosystem, the quantity or quality of the services that it produces can deteriorate. This has already been seen: damaged natural waters cannot produce the valuable fish that we want, a shortage of pollinators threatens crops of natural berries and agricultural plants.

The value of ecosystem services can also be measured in money. How much would it cost if we had to artificially bind the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere that the plant kingdom does? How costly would it be to replace caught fish with cultivated food or wood used in construction with other materials?

Three types of ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are divided into three classes: production services, regulatory and maintenance services, and cultural services. The most concrete of these are the production of food, raw materials, and materials. Ecosystem products that are important for Finns include wood and raw materials, as well as fish, berries fungi, game, and reindeer. Production of agricultural plants and domestic animals is also classified as production services. The reason for this is that agricultural production is dependent on both a functioning ecosystem on land as well as adequate water supplies, which are also regulated by ecosystems.

Kimalainen omenankukalla
A bumblebee pollinating an apple flower.  © Riku Lumiaro

Water regulation is an example of regulation services produced by ecosystems. Humus and soil that collects in living ground hold water and prevent it from being flushed quickly into a lake or river. This would provide sufficient water for agricultural plants, even in dry spells. Organic material also loosens the soil, making it suitable for plants. Many other vitally important things happen in the soil: organisms in the soil recycle nutrients that plants can use, while binding atmospheric nitrogen and purifying water. Regulatory services provided by vegetation include, for example, the production of oxygen, the binding of carbon, and the purification of air.

Cultural services are non-material benefits provided by nature for humanity. These include, for example, experiences and inspirations derived from nature, a pleasant living environment, and scientific knowledge. Nature is an important source of recreation and well-being for Finns, and it also creates preconditions for the tourism industry. Much of Finland's cultural heritage is rooted in nature.

Ecosystem services are under threat

As ecosystem services are free of charge, they are unappreciated by many. No value has been set for ecosystem services in the bookkeeping of the national economy, and they have not been considered in long-term calculations and forecasts. This indifference has led to powerful alterations and exploitation of ecosystems. The biological diversity which is essential for functional ecosystems has narrowed.

In Finland ecosystems have been undermined most by the exploitation of forest resources and land use and the changes that have occurred in it. None of the forest biotopes is classified as being expected to be preserved throughout Finland, and most are under threat. This means that the ability of forests to maintain species typical to forests, and the full variety of ecosystem services are threatened.


Despite the filtering action of peat bogs, solid materials that cloud waters flow into bodies of water below them. © Riku Lumiaro

Bogs which have been drained have fared even worse, losing more than half of their surface area. Draining has weakened the ability of wetlands to retain water, and to mitigate the effects of floods and secure an even flow of water to downstream areas. Wetlands without drainage ditches also bind nutrients and humus substances from runoff water, preventing eutrophication and turbidity. Turbid waters have led to a significant reduction in the populations of salmonidae and vendace. There is demand for these services provided by wetlands now that climate change is bringing us both heavy rains and longer dry spells.

People tend to wake up to the dangers of declining ecosystem services at a very late stage. The visible decline in the service means that the ecosystem has already undergone great changes that are not easily fixed. The reduction in pollinator insects is like the tip of an iceberg, indicating that there is something wrong in the care of rural habitats and that the problem probably affects many other groups of species.

Securing the services is worthwhile

Ecosystem services are closely linked to the well-being of nature. There are no magic tricks that would allow us to both treat nature in a reckless manner while at the same time securing the services provided by nature. Fortunately, this has already been understood. It has been recognised that preventing biodiversity loss is as important for the future of mankind as fighting climate change.

Lahtopolku Viikissä
Local nature is not only good for recreation, it has also been shown to promote health by increasing resistance to infectious diseases and reducing blood pressure. © Riku Lumiaro

As ecosystems serve us locally, we would do well to take care of local nature for our own benefit as well. The healthier and more diverse the nature that surrounds us is, the more likely we will be to enjoy abundant and versatile ecosystem services.


Finnish Environment Institute (Syke)