Ecosystems Approach

What is the Ecosystem Approach?

The term 'Ecosystem Approach' was first used in the early 1980s, but only found common acceptance at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit where it became the primary framework for action under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD defines Ecosystem Approach as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.”

The Ecosystem Approach recognizes the need for planning based on natural ecosystem boundaries rather than on political or bureaucratic borders and aims to achieve integration of the three goals of sustainability: sustainable use of natural resources, impartial sharing of the benefits derived from their use and conservation of natural resources.

Central to the Ecosystem Approach is the acknowledgement that mankind is part of any ecosystem in which it exists, mankind is therefore placed as being central to the IUCNs definition of what the Ecosystem Approach entails: “The Ecosystem Approach places human needs at the centre of biodiversity management. It aims to manage the ecosystem, based on the multiple functions that ecosystems perform and the multiple uses that are made of these functions. The ecosystem approach does not aim for short-term economic gains, but aims to optimize the use of an ecosystem without damaging it.” Furthermore, it extends biodiversity management beyond protected areas while recognising that they are also vital for delivering CBD objectives.

The 12 principles of the Ecosystem Approach

1. Participation in decision making
2. Decentralisation of management to the lowest appropriate level
3. Consideration of management effects on other ecosystems
4. Management of ecosystems in an economic content
5. Conservation of ecosystem structure and functionality
6. Ecosystems must be managed within the limits of their function
7. Management at appropriate spatial and temporal scales
8. Long term ecosystem management objectives
9. External and internal changes to the system
10. Balance between conservation and use
11. The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.
12. The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.

Progress made to date regarding the Ecosystem Approach
There has been considerable progress in the development of sector-specific approaches incorporating many elements of the ecosystem approach. In particular, relevant tools have been developed in forestry, fisheries management, and watershed management - sectors associated with the Convention's programmes of work on forest biological diversity, marine and coastal areas, and inland water ecosystems, respectively. These sectors have recognized principles that are consistent with the ecosystem approach, and are moving to develop goal- or target-oriented approaches that include stakeholder participation, adaptive management, and monitoring/feedback systems.

Ecosystem approach is an overall methodological framework for supporting decisions in policy-making and planning.

There is no single correct way to achieve the ecosystem approach to management of land, water, and living resources. The underlying principles need to be translated flexibly to address management issues in different social contexts. Already, there are sectors and governments that have developed sets of guidelines that are partially consistent, complementary or even equivalent to the ecosystem approach (e.g. the Code for Responsible Fisheries, the Sustainable Forest Management approach, adaptive forest management).

References and Links:

Laffoley, D.d'A., Maltby, E., Vincent, M.A., Mee, L., Dunn, E., Gilliland, P., Hamer, J.P, Mortimer, D., and Pound, D. 2004. The Ecosystem Approach. Coherent actions for marine and coastal environments. A report to the UK Government. Peterborough, English Nature. 65pp.

UNEP: One Planet Many People

Ecosystem Approach homepage (
Definition of the EsA:
The ecosystem approach is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.

Decision V/6: Ecosystem approach (
the EsA description, with 12 Principles and 5 points of operational guidance are listed.

Decision VI/12: Ecosystem Approach (
Recognises a/o the necessity to apply the EsA in national policies and legislation and underlines the importance of developing regional guidelines to apply the ecosystem approach. Furthermore it urges parties to (continue to) submit case studies, convene a meeting of experts to compare the ecosystem approach with sustainable forest management and develop proposals for the refinement of the principles.

Decision VII/11: Ecosystem approach: (
Acknowledges that there has been significant experience in implementing the ecosystem approach, as well as in implementation of similar approaches to management under other national, regional and international processes, but that additional efforts are needed to ensure effective implementation of the approach.