Identifying and assigning values to the intangible cultural benefits of ecosystem services to traditional communities in South Africa

Keywords: cultural ecosystem services, traditional communities, neoclassical economic valuation, deliberative approaches, types of value


Cultural ecosystem services make an important and valuable contribution to human well-being. However, research efforts in relation to ecosystems do not reflect this value, with the majority focusing on provisioning service contributions in developed countries, with cultural services largely neglected. Consideration of the contribution and importance of these services in South Africa focuses on the more tangible cultural ecosystem services such as recreational and educational benefits, with a paucity of research on the more intangible aspects such as sense of identity, belonging and worship of the ancestors. This lack of research is out of keeping with evidence of an intimate and profound relationship between the land and traditional communities in South Africa. Here we reflect on the available evidence of the nature of cultural ecosystem services to traditional communities in South Africa, and consider one aspect of the global debate on cultural ecosystem services by analysing the suitability of two predominant methods of ascertaining their value – neoclassic economic valuation and deliberative approaches – in a South African context. The types and nature of the values associated with cultural ecosystems, and the way of life of traditional communities, suggest the use of deliberative approaches is better suited to this task. It is hoped that these discussions will encourage researchers from a range of disciplines to engage in furthering research efforts in this area, and improve the evidence base on identifying, assessing and valuing these services, which are of significant importance and value to many of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of South African society.


  • Evidence from the literature suggests that cultural ecosystem services demonstrate a range of value types and ranges. The presence of a range of values puts cultural ecosystem services beyond the reach of neoclassical economic valuation methods.
  • Deliberative approaches are the most suitable method for eliciting the range and dimensions of value associated with cultural ecosystem services. There is a need for research in a South African context to develop frameworks and methods to identify, assess and measure the range of values associated with cultural ecosystem services.
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