We are increasingly aware that we need nature and biodiversity to survive and combat the climate crisis. Simultaneously, with more and more people needing space, food, water and other resources that nature offers, we are putting increasing pressure on the natural world. The choice of effective conservation tools and techniques should be guided by how people value nature. Each of us values and experiences nature in our own unique way, depending on our culture, background, context and many other factors.

Header photo: Woman in boat, Upemba, Democratic Republic of Congo © Paul Villaespesa / IUCN NL

Over the years, conservation values have developed and diversified from “nature for itself” (intrinsic value) towards a “people and nature” (material value) focus. In 2016, Kai Chan et al. [1]Chan M.A. et al., 2016 – Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. introduced a third dimension, which is the relational value of nature.

Intrinsic value of nature

Around the turn of the 20th century, the first pro-active conservation measures concerned the creation of National Parks. Based on the perception that nature has an inherent worth, in and of itself, the National Parks were saved from private development, preserved as a landscape in its natural state and a place were hunting was strictly forbidden. The world’s first National Parks gave very little to no space to people who had inhabited these areas for many generations.

The first national parks

  • In 1872, US President Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law to save Yellowstone from private development.
  • In 1909, the Swedish parliament accepted the proposition to establish Sweden’s first national parks, Sarek and its neighbour the Stora Sjöfallet to “preserve a high mountain landscape in its natural state”.
  • In 1925, Belgian king Albert, decreed the faunal and floral reserve in Congo named “National Park Albert” (now called National Park Virunga) where hunting of gorillas and other species was completely forbidden, except in the case of self-defense.

The intrinsic value of nature is viewed from an ecocentric standpoint, where the value is placed on the environment and the flora and fauna in it, and not only on the parts that are useful to humans.

Material value of nature

The most extreme way to use the material value of nature is shown by powerful institutions that promote a neoliberal notion of ecosystem services with a focus on markets and transactions (eg. carbon offset), payment schemes (eg. REDD), and cost-benefit analyses (eg. an oil palm plantation will in the short term create more revenue than agroforestry). Critics say that seeing the value of ecosystems in mere monetary terms has fallen short of slowing down biodiversity and forest loss and has also failed to achieve the intended objectives of supporting livelihoods of local communities[2] Yuliani, E. L. et all., 2022 – Relational values of forests: Value-conflicts between local communities and external programmes in Sulawesi.

Still, since time immemorial, people have used their natural surroundings to make a livelihood. We all depend on services provided by nature in the form of soil fertility, genetic diversity of crops, pollination of crops by insects, herbal medicine, etc. In tropical forests, indigenous people and local communities often directly depend on products from the forest for food and construction materials. Also, they use non-timber forest products in enterprises producing baskets from rattan, oil from candle nut, raisin from dragon blood etc. or they develop eco-tourism facilities for nature lovers.

The material value of nature is viewed from an economic standpoint, with a focus on financial gains and the organisation of a market, industry and trade in a landscape.

Relational value of nature

The cultural identity and well-being of a community may be rooted in the long-term care and stewardship of the forests in their territory and it may also derive from relationships with human and nonhuman beings, mediated by particular (sacred) places. The management and use of natural resources depends on the trust in neighbours, empathy, mindfulness, and purpose, rather than on the accumulation of things. In the industrialised world, development pressures overwhelm the environment. People’s emotional relationships with the landscape and nature are disturbed leading to demands for restoration and sustainable governance.

These relational values can be denoted by different names: spiritual value, eco-emotions such as biophilia and topophilia [3]Glenn A. Albrecht, 2019 – Earth Emotions, New Words for a New World, or landscape pain[4] Jantien de Boer, 2019 – Landschapspijn, Over de toekomst van ons platteland (Landscape pain, about the future of our countryside). The relational value of nature is not present in things but derivative of relationships with, and responsibilities for nature.

Values of nature and conservation of nature

IUCN defines a protected area as ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’[5]https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/pag-021.pdf. Out of the seven categories of protected areas that the IUCN has identified based on management objectives, only the categories Strict Nature Reserves and Wilderness Areas focus exclusively on the intrinsic value of nature. These areas are closed for permanent or significant human habitation and activities.

National Parks also focus on the intrinsic value of nature but acknowledge other values as well. For instance the Sierra del Divisor National Park in Peru, established in 2019, aims to protect the biological and geomorphological diversity of the mountainous region of the Amazonian plain. But it also recognizes the cultural diversity in the area and has formulated that the continuity of the ecological and evolutionary processes should be for the benefit of the local population.  In The Netherlands, National Park De Hoge Veluwe presents itself as a ‘social park‘ that is facilitating diversified groups of people to enjoy nature. At the same time it aims to maintain and develop the characteristic landscapes with its flora and fauna and hence keeps some areas (seasonally) closed for the public.

The category protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources, explicitly recognises the material and relational values of nature. The conservation of ecosystems and habitats goes hand in hand with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. In these protected areas most of the area is in a natural condition, a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management, and low-level non-industrial use of natural resources is compatible with nature conservation. In the projects supported by IUCN NL, these features are promoted under the headers of ‘social forestry’, sustainable community business, or ‘ICCAs – territories of life’[6]https://www.iccaconsortium.org/.

Conservationists also stress the importance of connecting protected areas through biological corridors, stepping stones and buffer zones. A buffer zone, for example, is a forest at the edge of a protected area that is open to community use under nature-friendly controls that do not impact on the aim of conservation[7]https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/pag-021.pdf.

All over the world material and relational values are the basis of regenerative agricultureinitiatives in buffer zones around protected areas where the use of chemicals is forbidden and biodiversity on all levels (genetics, species, landscapes) is promoted (eg. organic agriculture , agroforestry).

Importance of support base

With the right contacts, an (international) NGO may convince a (local) government to establish a protected area. However, this decision may be reversed after a change in government or when upcoming exploitation potentials are promoted by the private sector. Such an administrative reversal may be prevented if there is a strong support base among the people living in that area who are committed to protect the conserved area because they value the material and relational values embodied in the land use plan.

If we aim to achieve the “30 by 30” target, committing nations to setting aside 30 per cent of the global land and seas for nature by 2030, we need environmental and management policies that consider the kinds of relationships people already have with nature. Focusing only on intrinsic or neo-liberal material values may fail to resonate with views on personal and collective well-being with regard to nature and the environment. The discussion about environmental protection should be reframed by engaging with relational values and local material values. Building on local motivations to protect nature will open the door to new, strongly supported and potentially more productive policy approaches to conserve and regenerate nature.

Evelien van den Broek
Senior Expert Environmental Justice


1 Chan M.A. et al., 2016 – Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.
2 Yuliani, E. L. et all., 2022 – Relational values of forests: Value-conflicts between local communities and external programmes in Sulawesi
3 Glenn A. Albrecht, 2019 – Earth Emotions, New Words for a New World
4 Jantien de Boer, 2019 – Landschapspijn, Over de toekomst van ons platteland (Landscape pain, about the future of our countryside)
5, 7 https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/pag-021.pdf
6 https://www.iccaconsortium.org/