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Tauro, A., E. Gómez-Baggethun, E. García-Frapolli, E. Lazos Chavero, and P. Balvanera. 2018. Unraveling heterogeneity in the importance of ecosystem services: individual views of smallholders. Ecology and Society 23(4):11.

Unraveling heterogeneity in the importance of ecosystem services: individual views of smallholders

1Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Morelia, Mexico, 2Department of International Environment and Development studies/ Noragric, Norwegian University of Life Sciences - NMBU, Ås, Norway, 3Norwegian Institute for Nature Research - NINA, Oslo, Norway, 4Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Cd. Mx., Mexico.


Stakeholder groups are not homogeneous across individuals and through time, especially in relation to the importance of ecosystem services. However, the approaches commonly used to characterize the average importance and values of stakeholder groups overlook the heterogeneity in the individual priorities. This heterogeneity is particularly relevant for smallholders, who play a key role in ecosystem management but are more vulnerable to globalization than owners of large plots. We analyzed the priorities differentially assigned to ecosystem services and the reasons associated with the importance attributed to those services by individual cattle ranchers on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We interviewed 27 cattle ranchers from neighboring rural communities. The services perceived by each rancher were identified from selected regional photographs. These services were then arranged in order of importance by interviewees, who were asked to provide the reasons for their choices. We used multivariate methods to examine the relationship between priorities for services and the livelihood of the individual. Interpretative qualitative methods elicited the reasons associated with the relative importance of the prioritized services. We identified 54 different services. Overall, individuals prioritized provisioning services directly related to their ranching activity. Individuals with the highest level of education and greatest diversity of productive activities (e.g., farmer, mason, merchant) also prioritized cultural services associated with ecotourism potential. The reasons associated with the importance attributed to the prioritized services varied widely among individuals. The list of ecosystem services perceived was context-specific, strongly influenced by the salient characteristics of the ecosystem and of the ranching way of life. A generational change in livelihoods has affected priorities. The reasons behind the importance of the prioritized services were diverse among individuals. By revealing the heterogeneity among individuals, we emphasize the need to make flexible policies that integrate diverse values and contexts to accomplish smallholder inclusivity.
Key words: cattle ranchers; family farm; Mexico; photo interviewing; tropical dry forest; well-being


The heterogeneity within stakeholder groups in relation to the importance of ecosystem services has seldom been explored. However, we know that stakeholder groups are not homogeneous across individuals and through time (Daw et al. 2011, Wieland et al. 2016). The individual experiences of daily life, individual opportunities and interests, and individual interactions with social-ecological systems (Long 2001, Lazos-Chavero et al. 2016) lead to unique and dynamic perspectives on ecosystem services. Yet, the heterogeneity within a particular stakeholder group is rooted in the diverse conceptualizations of ecosystems, and the recognition of this diversity of values is increasingly being identified as fundamental to the building of sustainability (Pascual et al. 2017). The work of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Ecosystem Services Partnership has emphasized the need to clarify how different people conceptualize benefits from nature so that the heterogeneity of these understandings is better communicated. This could contribute toward supporting inclusive decision-making processes and sustainable public policies (Jacobs et al. 2016, Pascual et al. 2017, Lau et al. 2018).

The study of socio-cultural values of ecosystem services is expanding (Castro et al. 2011, Iniesta-Arandia et al. 2014, Camps-Calvet et al. 2016), but scientists have overlooked the role of heterogeneity across individuals and through time. Nevertheless, standard procedures are based on the aggregation of individuals to assert group preferences, such as the calculation of means, which ignore the variation within a group. Because variation is ignored, assessment of individual choice is limited, and instead, vague generalizations about group choice are made (Hicks et al. 2015). Management based on the averaged interests of a group of stakeholders can lead to the exclusion of minorities or inconspicuous individuals (Daw et al. 2011, Wieland et al. 2016).

Understanding the heterogeneity of individual preferences for ecosystem services can be deepened through the exploration of their importance (Klain et al. 2014, Asah et al. 2014). Assessing the values of ecosystem services through the lens of their importance allows for the exploration of the meaning attributed to the ecosystem services (Pascual et al. 2017). An assessment of the importance of ecosystem services involves both unraveling a hierarchy or the ranking of priorities (quantitative aspects) and analysis of the narrative that justifies the reasons for such importance (qualitative aspects). While the concept of importance has been explored in the valuation of ecosystem services (Klain et al. 2014, Haida et al. 2016, Arias-Arevalo et al. 2017), more emphasis is needed on the interindividual heterogeneity of such importance (Lau et al. 2018) and on indepth explorations of the reasons associated with the identified priorities (but see Klain et al. 2014, Arias-Arevalo et al. 2017).

The study of perceptions and priorities, and the reasons for the importance of ecosystem services is vital in the case of smallholder cattle ranchers who manage a large portion of the world’s biodiversity and yet are excluded or marginalized from decision-making processes (Apgar 2017). In Latin America, approximately 80% of agricultural production units are family units (FAO 2014), and of those, 64.5% are livestock ranchers (Rodríguez et al. 2016). Smallholders contribute significantly to global agriculture (IFAD-UNEP 2013) and food production in Latin America (FAO 2014), but they also face poverty and food insecurity (CELAC 2014). Cattle ranchers have cleared large forest areas to expand grazing lands (Lazos-Chavero 1996, Gerritsen and van der Poegl 2006) in response to the global demand for meat (FAO 2014) and to national public policies (Lazos-Chavero 1996, Chauvet 2001). Hence, it is crucial to understand the viewpoints of smallholder cattle ranchers and to include them in decision-making processes by making the heterogeneity of the importance they attribute to ecosystem services within this group more visible. The integration of heterogeneity into more legitimate, flexible, and inclusive productive and environmental policies will be tightly linked to the environmental governance of the Latin America region.

In this work, we make visible the heterogeneity of the importance of ecosystem services within one group of rural smallholders: the cattle ranchers. We analyze their individual priorities for ecosystem services in order to explore how priorities are linked to livelihoods and to ascertain the reasons for the importance attributed to these services. In particular, we analyze (1) which ecosystem services are perceived and prioritized by cattle ranchers, (2) how socio-demographic factors associated with their livelihood relate to these priorities, and (3) the reasons behind the importance of the prioritized services.


Study site

We performed this study on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, near the Biosphere Reserve of Chamela-Cuixmala, in the municipality of La Huerta in the state of Jalisco (Fig. 1). This zone forms part of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network. Information provided by each site of this network will contribute to global understanding of the sustainable management of key ecosystem services (Maass et al. 2016). For more than 40 years, researchers from different disciplines and various institutions in Mexico have selected this area as a site for investigation. This has yielded a high number of ecological and social studies (including more than 1000 theses, papers, books, and book chapters), thereby making this site one of the most studied in tropical America (Perez-Escobedo 2011, Schroeder and Castillo 2013).

Inhabitants of the lands adjoining the reserve maintain a 70–80% tropical dry forest cover, with different degrees of conservation, comprising different sized patches (Sánchez-Azofeifa et al. 2009). Average precipitation is 788 mm per year, with 80% falling between June and October (García-Oliva et al. 2002). Water is the most limiting physical factor in the ecosystem (Maass et al. 2005). Land in the municipality of La Huerta is dedicated partly to agriculture (24.74%), pasture (1.75%), and residential use (0.17%); the rest consists of forests, jungles, and lakeside vegetation (72.7%) (INEGI 2009, 2015).

We worked in the nine “ejidos” adjacent to the reserve (Fig. 1). An ejido is a semicommunal form of land possession that existed until 1992 but since then has been given over to private land tenure. These ejidos stretch from the coast up to an altitude of 332 m above sea level (INEGI 2010), with areas of rolling hills and varying levels of both agricultural and ranching productivity that is determined by soil type and water availability. The combined population of all these ejidos is 4597 inhabitants (20% of the total population of the municipality of La Huerta), and individual ejido populations vary between 19 and 1300 inhabitants (INEGI 2010). Historically, property titles have been assigned to men, known locally as ejidatarios; they have possession of the land and are involved in productive management activities (Lazos-Chavero et al. 2016). Although, since 1992, the law allows the possession of land by women, the rural family model still supports traditional practices where male ownership and management of land dominate (Almeida 2012, Vázquez-Garcia 2015). A total of 957 ejidatarios and their families live in the nine ejidos studied (RAN 2016), of whom 189 were beneficiaries of financial incentives for promoting ranching activities in 2014 (SAGARPA 2016). These financial incentives are applied at the federal level. For example, the federal policy “Livestock Productivity Stimulus Program (Programa de Estímulos a la Productividad Ganadera, PROGAN)” is a stimulus for buying cattle. But the local inhabitants also demand the generation of other policies that combine productive development with environmental conservation and territorial planning (Cano-Castellano and Lazos-Chavero 2017).

The ejidos included in this study were created between 1950 and 1975 within the framework of the “March to the Sea” (Revel-Mouroz 1972, Castillo et al. 2005, 2009), a national policy aimed at colonizing the coasts of the country. Ejido land was distributed by the National Agrarian Reform (Castillo et al. 2009). In 1992, agrarian reform was abolished, and land ownership was transformed from collective forms of property to private (Warman 2003), thereby reducing the frequency and importance of collective decisions. The consequent increase in individual decision-making drove a change in the collective action and reduced conformity concerning the use of some common resources, such as the forest. Nevertheless, for scarce and vital common resources such as water, the people maintained their collective agreements (Schroeder and Castillo 2013).

Academics have been present in the area since the creation of the Chamela Biological Station by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1971, but especially during recent decades, with the initiation of projects that linked the station, the university, and the local population (Castillo et al. 2005). A solid basis for further indepth exploration concerning priorities for ecosystem services has been established through research into the environmental history of different ejidos and towns (Castillo et al. 2009), perceived ecosystem services (Godínez-Contreras 2003, Martínez-Hernández 2003, Cordero-Cueva 2005, Maass et al. 2005, Gómez-Bonilla 2006, Solórzano-Murillo 2008, Sánchez-Matías 2010), their ecological value (Saldaña-Espejel 2008, Trilleras-Motha 2008, Flores-Díaz 2015), their socioeconomic value (Naime-Sánchez 2016), and their management (Cohen-Salgado 2014, Urgachetea-Salmerón 2015).

Data collection

We interviewed 27 cattle ranchers between February and June 2015; they represented approximately 15% of the cattle ranchers in the region and were provided with financial incentives aimed at fostering ranching activities. We defined the group of cattle ranchers as those ejidatarios who had representation in the ejidal assembly and whose capital was invested in cattle. The sample was designed to include the greatest possible difference among individuals, all men, in the nine ejidos, in terms of age, education, occupation, and quantity of cattle, and we included 2–4 ejidatarios for each ejido. Their ages ranged between 34 and 79 years (average 62), which provided an age structure similar to that described by Torales-Ayala (2015) in his study of ranching culture in the same area. Emigration has resulted in a lack of young producers (Cohen-Salgado 2014, Torales-Ayala 2015), a phenomenon that is common not only in the study area but throughout Mexico (Nawrotzki et al. 2013). Our sample size of 27 reflected our aim to study the cattle ranchers’ experiences with the ecosystem services rather than to obtain a large sample size. The positive attitudes of the cattle ranchers who participated in the indepth interviews gave us confidence in the information collected. However, the small sample size limits the statistical power of the analysis, so the quantitative results should be interpreted as exploratory rather than conclusive.

Interviews were individual and took place in the cattle ranchers’ houses. We initially selected a group of seven cattle ranchers with whom we had maintained frequent contact, who had participated in other academic research projects, and with whom trusting relationships had been established. This rapport gave us access to each individual’s point of view (Tickle-Degnen and Rosenthal 1990). Initiating interviews with key cattle ranchers had a snowball effect (Faugier and Sargeant 1997), meaning that interviews were not completely independent of each other. The sample revealed its saturation point as soon as referenced names began to be repeated.

Interviews were organized in the following way: (1) opening with questions that referenced the photographs, (2) looking at drawings of perceived services on cards, (3) ranking drawings with ecosystem services prioritized over a horizontal gradient, and (4) completing a sealed questionnaire. Data collection and analyses combined qualitative and quantitative approaches (Driscoll et al. 2007). This mixed-method strategy permits complementary information to be obtained and results from both methods to be triangulated (Bryman 2006). Interviews were conducted in Spanish, the cattle ranchers’ mother tongue. The interviews lasted on average 1 h 20 min (ranging from 45 min to 2 h and 10 min) and were recorded in audio form (24 of the 27) as long as prior authorization had been given by the interviewee. When the audio recording was not possible, we took notes.

Open interviews and photographs

In order to reveal ecosystem services as perceived by cattle ranchers and to understand their productive activities, we used 12 photographs that covered a wide variety of landscapes where cattle ranchers live (Appendix 1.1). The authors selected the photographs based on their more than 15 years of field observations and scientific work in the region. The photographs depicted diverse types of ecosystem services. Referring to each color photograph, printed on 19 x 21 cm paper, we asked, “What benefits do you observe here?” We used the term “benefit” rather than “services” because we considered it to be more general and comprehensible to interviewees. Photographs were presented to visually motivate the identification of services because images have been shown to recapture knowledge and memories from past life experiences (Harper 2002, Berbés-Blázquez 2012), unlike interviews based solely on words. However, unintended biases could have emerged from the properties of the pictures. The amount of light or detail in each photo can contribute to emphasizing the perception of specific components. All photographs were shown to all cattle ranchers. We acknowledge that each cattle rancher may have had a different perception of the same photograph (Beilin 2005, Sherren et al. 2010). Rather than eliminate this subjectivity, we wanted to allow it to be expressed. We noted any services mentioned by interviewees as they viewed each photograph. In this way, we obtained a list of ecosystem services as expressed in the daily language of the interviewee.

Drawings of perceived services

When pertinent, the nomenclature of the perceived services was standardized to resemble that already reported for the region. We relied on 17 hand-drawn cards for the team of interviewers, each representing an ecosystem service (Appendix 1.2) that had been identified in the literature for the study site (Godínez-Contreras 2003, Martínez-Hernández 2003, Cordero-Cueva 2005, Maass et al. 2005, Gómez-Bonilla 2006, Solórzano-Murillo 2008, Sánchez-Matías 2010). Some services (15) could be identified in some of these drawings (Appendix 1.2), while others (22) were drawn on the spot by the interviewers.

Ranking of priorities and the reasons associated with the importance of prioritized services

In order to identify priorities for ecosystem services, we implemented a ranking that consisted of placing the drawn cards over a horizontal gradient of importance plotted on a flip chart. We discussed with the interviewee all the drawn cards (with the names of the ecosystem services) that corresponded to the services he had identified in the photographs. We presented the flip chart and explained the horizontal gradient, from the most important services (to the right, with a “smiley face”) to the least important (to the left, with a “neutral face”). We helped him rank the relative importance of the different services, iteratively comparing the services to help him decide which was the most important one (see Appendix 1.2 for details). We asked him to place the cards on the flip chart, refining even more the discrimination of the relative importance of the services through their position along the horizontal gradient. We then confirmed the ordinal importance attributed by the interviewee (moving from 1, the most important, to “n,” the least important) by reviewing the cards and their position in the gradient (of the flip chart) and tagging each with its respective number. This tagging was particularly important when services were grouped very close to each other on the flip chart. Regarding the service positioned in first place, we then asked, “Why is this service the most important for you?” The answer to this question enabled us to analyze the reasons associated with the importance attributed to those services.

Closed questionnaire to characterize the livelihoods of the cattle ranchers

We explored 11 variables (Appendix 2) in socio-demographic and economic traits, including age, years of education, diversity of productive activities (beside cattle ranching), place of residence, and number of cattle. We explored the relationship people had with the biological station and the academics. In this way, we evaluated the role of possible biases derived from the historical connection between local townspeople and UNAM academics, especially biologists.

Data processing

We performed two steps prior to data analysis: (1) we coded ecosystem services, as perceived by cattle ranchers on viewing the photographs, and (2) we obtained an indicator of importance for each service according to its ranking, subsequently categorized by level of importance.

Coding of ecosystem services

We retrieved the views of the cattle ranchers in order to define services according to their perceived benefits, as similar studies with other types of stakeholders have done (Berbés-Blázquez 2012, Asah et al. 2014, Klain et al. 2014, Mahajan and Daw 2016). We considered a service to consist of each benefit that proved to be significant for the cattle ranchers and that was directly provided by the ecosystem (details in Appendix 3.1) (Fisher et al. 2009, Danley and Widmark 2016). Each service was classified under a main type, applying the nomenclature proposed by MEA (2005): provisioning, cultural, regulating, and supporting.

Obtaining an indicator of importance for each ecosystem service

We digitized each flip chart that was compiled with a cattle rancher during the ranking. For each service represented on the card, we distinguished two complementary data sources for assessing its value, or relative importance. The first data source was positioned along the horizontal gradient (p); the position of each card was recorded (from its center) relative to the horizontal gradient, from 0 (left, unimportant) to 1 (right, most important) on a quantitative relative scale. The second data source was the ordinal importance attributed by the interviewee (o); 1 was the most important; n was the least important. Using these data, we constructed an Importance Value Index related to each service by each cattle rancher (Individual Importance Value, Appendix 3.2).

In addition, we obtained two indicators for the importance of each service as perceived by the cattle ranchers: (1) General Importance Value was calculated from the sum of all the Individual Importance Values attributed to that service by the individual cattle ranchers who mentioned it; (2) General Frequency referred to the number of mentions given to each service. The General Importance Value for each service was assigned to a level of importance, beginning with the quartile position measurements: high (100–75%), medium (75–25%), and low (25–0%). In this way, we analyzed the distribution of data to identify the services most and least frequently mentioned and to characterize the average services perceptions.

Data analysis

Mix methods ranged from multivariate statistical analysis to interpretative-qualitative analysis. Although the sample size (27) was small for a statistical analysis, we used nonparametric tests in an exploratory way, not to prove a hypothesis. The analysis allowed us to understand who among cattle ranchers said what and to identify the variables that could explain the differences in ecosystem services priorities among individuals.

Ecosystem services ranking

In order to analyze the priorities for services perceived by cattle ranchers, we worked with the indicators General Importance Value and General Frequency. A “bubble” chart of the relationship between the identity of the service, its frequency, and the General Importance Value permitted us to compare service rankings by assessing the indicators with data dispersion displayed on two axes to which an additional data point was added, represented by the size of its “bubble.”


Our analysis of the socio-demographic variables of each individual was based on a multiple correspondence analysis (MCA), which allows the use of nominal and categorical variables (Lê et al. 2008) (see Appendix 4). This was complemented by a group hierarchical analysis, which produced two subgroups of cattle ranchers based on the variables with the greatest weight, as these explained the multivariate (Appendix 4).

Association between priorities and livelihood

In order to identify associations between priorities and socio-demographic characteristics, we used services with a General Importance Value that corresponded to the level of high importance. First, we used a nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) to explore whether the Individual Importance Value of the services grouped themselves in agreement with the livelihood of the individual cattle rancher. This approach allowed us to identify the socio-demographic variables of the cattle ranchers that were associated with the ordering of priorities (Oksanen et al. 2008). Second, we used a Chi-square test to identify whether the subgroups of cattle ranchers, differentiated by their livelihoods (as identified from the MCA), differed in the way they ranked regulating/supporting/cultural versus provisioning services.

All analyses were performed with R.3.2.2 (R Development Core Team 2015), using the vegan and FactoMineR packages.

Reasons associated with the importance attributed to prioritized services

For our qualitative analysis, we used an interpretative-constructivist approach to ensure that the subjective point of view of each individual was respected by paying heed to their narratives and feelings (Mills et al. 2006, Montes de Oca-Barrera 2016). The information that emerged from each individual’s narrative was arranged into categories of analysis (Mills et al. 2006, Gibbs 2012). For a meticulous interpretation of results, we focused on the three most important services for most (17 of the 27) of the interviewees. Later, the generality of these results was confirmed when the prioritized services for the other 10 interviewees were considered. Likewise, we explored qualitatively whether the factors that influenced priorities differed among cattle ranchers with different livelihoods.


Services perceived and prioritized by the cattle ranchers

Cattle ranchers living in this tropical dry forest landscape perceived 54 ecosystem services in total (Table 1). On average, each cattle rancher recognized 14 services (this number ranged between 8 and 21). Among the most common perceptions, a number of provisioning services linked to ranching activity stood out, such as “pasture” and “water” for livestock, and products obtained from maize cultivation that can be used either as forage for livestock or as food for domestic use. A second group of perceived services was strongly linked to maintaining the forest; for example, “rain” and the “forest’s interaction with the rain,” also “life” as a benefit that extends to personal existence and was evoked by the forest. Furthermore, “habitat” and “air quality” and “scenic beauty” were commonly perceived.

Five cattle ranchers (CR) recognized that the provisioning services are a consequence of some supporting and regulating services: “grazing from the forest” was related to the tree canopy or presence of forest vegetation (CR6); services derived from crops (e.g., “food derived from maize,” “cultivated fodder”) were a consequence of “soil fertility” (CR5, CR19). Other cattle ranchers also recognized interrelationships, especially when talking about primary productivity and the seasonality of the tropical dry forest (CR18), or about more complex ecosystem processes, such as decomposition and the soil fertility linked to seasonality (CR13) (see Appendix 5.2).

The most important ecosystem services (identified from General Importance Value) (Fig. 2) included mainly provisioning services (50%); the rest combined some cultural, regulating, and supporting services. Services with the greatest importance values were “pasture for livestock,” followed by “water for livestock,” and third, “rain.” Rain, associated with precipitation and the presence of clouds, was perceived differently from water that cattle drink or from the recharging of groundwater.

Some frequently mentioned ecosystem services were not necessarily considered the most important, or vice versa (Appendix 5). Scenic beauty, a service coded as “aesthetic appreciation of nature and landscape,” was perceived by 21 of the 27 cattle ranchers; nevertheless, only one person placed this service among their priorities, citing the possibility of undertaking ecotourism projects. Although other cattle ranchers mentioned their interest in implementing projects on their properties, scenic beauty was not considered a priority service. Referring to this service, one of the interviewees stated, “A farmer can’t eat ‘pretty’; he does not earn from tourism” (CR7, 73 years old). “Pasture for livestock” was mentioned by 26 (of the 27) cattle ranchers, whereas only 5 ranked it first. “Rain” was mentioned by 16 cattle ranchers, and 13 put it in first place. Although grazing is important for ranching activity, it obviously depends on rain. The cattle ranchers recognize that rain is a basic service supporting other services (such as the water stored in the paddocks or accessed from the natural outcrops on their land), as well as other regulating services (for example, the recharging of groundwater).

Priorities and livelihood

Prioritized services were grouped into two large categories: provisioning, and an amalgamation of cultural, regulating, or supporting (Fig. 3b) (NMDS stress: 0.22). The provisioning services (red triangles) were close together on the right side of the plot. In contrast, cultural, regulating, and supporting services (gray, blue, and green triangles) appeared to be more dispersed, and were positioned toward the left of the plot.

The two groups of services were associated with different types of forest cover. Generally, interviewees associated provisioning services with the productive environment of ranching. In contrast, they associated most cultural, regulating, and supporting services with the tropical forest.

Differences in priorities for ecosystem services were associated with livelihood. Education (r2 = 0.26, P = 0.03) and diversity of productive activities (r2 = 0.24, P = 0.04) were significantly related to differences between the cattle ranchers in terms of priorities for services (Fig. 3a). Subgroup 1 (Fig. 3c, black crosses) was characterized by the highest education level and diversity of productive activities, and members in this group tended to prioritize cultural, regulating, and supporting types of services (70% of mentions as opposed to 40% of mentions from subgroup 2 [Chi-square = 8.18, df = 1, P = 0.004]). Subgroup 2 (Fig. 3c, red crosses) was characterized by a lower education level and less diversity of productive activity, and revealed no distinguishing priorities between categories of ecosystem services.

Nevertheless, a group of provisioning services strongly associated with ranching activities was prioritized by all the interviewees, irrespective of their livelihoods (Chi-square = 1.99, df = 1, P = 0.158). Pasture and water for cattle were prioritized by individuals at various levels of education and with different productive strategies.

Reasons associated with the importance attributed to prioritized services

Importance attributed to the three most important services tended to cluster around three main categories: (1) work, (2) well-being, and (3) interdependence (Fig. 4). “Work” referred as much to the activities each individual performed to secure his economic support as to the different management practices that ranching activity entailed (quotations A-I, Table 2 and Appendix 6.1). The importance of “pasture for livestock” was justified because it secured the livelihood of the cattle rancher (for example, quotation A, Table 2), while “rain” was justified as a part of management practices. These practices involved replenishing water bodies from which water is extracted for consumers (for example, quotation G, Table 2) or for watering plantations. Water is also used to maintain seasonal crops that are exploited for grazing (for example, quotation I, Table 2). The work included explicit reference to material well-being. The material well-being was particularly apparent when a cattle rancher linked rain to the provision of water for livestock sustenance and to gaining access to alternative goods that offered him a better quality of life (quotations E and L, Table 2).

“Well-being” included the well-being of livestock (considered as the degree to which animals were content), the material well-being of people (referred to as possessing or gaining access to material goods in order to live well), subjective well-being (expressed as emotions or sensations, such as liking something, feeling happy, being content), and social well-being (referred to as well-being extended to society, transcending individual well-being). “Pasture” and “rain” were important for the well-being of the livestock (quotations J and K, Table 2 and Appendix 6.1), considering that a healthy, well-fed animal is content. In the dry season, lack of grazing creates problems, and cattle ranchers need pasture or other reserves to feed the cattle. One cattle rancher stated that his happiness depended on seeing his animals happy, thereby indicating a deep emotional relationship with his livestock (quotation M, Table 2).

“Interdependence” comprises three elements: a productive triad, ecosystem relationships, and existence. The productive triad is pasture–water–cattle (quotations P–S, Table 2 and Appendix 6.1) because these are considered inseparable. Each of these elements is equally important and explicitly depends on the presence of the other two (quotations P and Q, Table 2). The availability of “water for livestock” in the paddock depends on the rain, as does pasture maintenance (quotations R and S, Table 2 and Appendix 6.1). The importance of “rain” was corroborated both in the factors influencing ecosystem relationships and as contributing to the existence of life itself (quotations T–X, Table 2 and Appendix 6.1). Ecosystem relationships reflect the view of the role of rain in habitat maintenance for wildlife and in maintaining productivity, or greenery, in the ecosystem (for example, quotation T, Table 2). Finally, rain permits life to exist (for example, quotation V, Table 2).

The same three types of categories (work, well-being, and interdependence) were also associated with priorities for “water for human use,” “food derived from maize,” and “recharging groundwater”; “aesthetic appreciation” was linked to other services such as habitat and recreation. Another reason refers to social well-being, linked with “rain and groundwater recharging,” “forest–rain interactions,” and other supporting services linked to hydrological processes and biodiversity conservation (see quotation O in Table 2 and O* in TableA6.1). One cattle rancher stated that “the importance of (services offered by forestry conservation) lies in the fact that it provides benefits for humanity…those (individuals) with or without cattle, and whether or not they are farmers, because we all need it to survive as humans; thus we need frequent rain so that we will have resources for subsequent generations. I may die at any time, but my children also need it. If we continue to cut down trees, we will end this beauty” (quotation O in Table 2).

The reasons given for the importance assigned to any prioritized service differed among cattle ranchers. Rain, for example, was prioritized by most of the cattle ranchers in subgroup 1 (members had a higher education level and more productive activities), but the reasons were diverse (Appendix 6.2) and included economic support through increased agricultural production, support for life itself, and the fulfillment the ejidatario feels when the cows are happy.


Diversity of ecosystem services perceived and the local context

The identification of a wide range of perceived services was consistent with that found in similar studies where services were defined by their stakeholders (Berbés-Blázquez 2012, Cáceres et al. 2015, Garrido et al. 2017). The direct beneficiaries of the ecosystems perceived a diversity of services beyond the international classifications proposed for services (e.g., MEA 2005, TEEB 2010, CICES [Haines-Young and Potschin 2013]). These perceptions did not always match those defined by experts. For example, some local stakeholders in Oregon (USA) perceived the local forests as a refuge for homeless people and a means of regulating urban expansion, whereas scientists tended to emphasize the role of forests as providers of wood, fuel, or carbon storage (Asah et al. 2014).

The nature of perceived services indicates that the environment is strongly tied to the cattle ranchers’ livelihood. Predictably, producers perceive services related mainly to provision, and tend to prioritize them because their work and income directly depend on them (Iniesta-Arandia et al. 2014). Priorities for provisioning services tied to the productive system, such as pasture for livestock, are similar to those reported for a dry region in central Argentina (Cáceres et al. 2015) and for European regions (Albizua 2016, Garrido et al. 2017). In addition to the provisioning services benefiting the key stakeholders’ own productive activity (e.g., pasture), interviewees perceived regulating services as essential for this task (e.g., shade from trees in the plots). Our data also make visible the knowledge cattle ranchers have about relationships among ecosystem services. However, it is not possible to elucidate whether the cattle ranchers recognized the links between provisioning and regulation or supporting services. The exception is the case of rain, which is basic to the support of the pasture. Previous studies have shown that local people can have high degrees of awareness about the importance of regulating services underpinning provisioning services (see e.g., Iniesta-Arandia et al. 2014, Lau et al. 2018).

Biophysical characteristics of the system also clearly affect the perception of the range of services and priorities for specific services. Rain is considered by local stakeholders to represent a clear benefit that is part of a natural system in a region strongly defined by a seasonal lack of water and with clearly marked yearly dry and rainy seasons, where in some years the rainfall is twice that of others and where it also varies spatially, with sites in the lower areas having access to much more groundwater than those on high hillsides (Maass et al. 2005). In this and previous works, inhabitants of the area consistently documented a link between the dry tropical forest and the rain (Solórzano-Murillo 2008, Mendoza-Varela 2010, Monroy-Sais 2013). Rain has a visible effect on vegetation and the whole region. Rain leads to leaf and flower production, which in turn provides food for fauna during reproductive periods (Ayala-Berdon et al. 2009, García et al. 2010). The change in the system associated with the onset of rain is thus very clear in the region and has deep significance in local knowledge (Martínez-Hernández 2003, Mendoza-Varela 2010).

The most salient biophysical particularities of the conserved ecosystem forest and its interactions with climate are clearly incorporated into the cattle ranchers’ perceptions. The appreciation of life is frequently associated with the annual return of the rain and is linked to the natural life preserved by the tropical dry forest in the reserve. This appreciation of life was associated with pleasure for most interviewees in this study, as in previous studies with different stakeholders of the region (Martínez-Hernández 2003, Mendoza-Varela 2010). Rain thus represents a service that has importance for different cultures, as described in studies undertaken in the Chamela-Cuixmala region. Conversely, few interviewees perceived aesthetic appreciation as a possibility for the development of ecotourism in the context of future plans for the region.

The assessment of different types of knowledge, including the knowledge of smallholders, complements the views derived from service categories structured by scientists (MEA 2005, TEEB 2010, CICES [Haines-Young and Potschin 2013], IPBES-Nature’s Contributions to People [Pascual et al. 2017, Díaz et al. 2018]). The perspectives of smallholders inform the way they view, acquire, and use ecosystem services and manage their local ecosystem (Asah et al. 2014, Garrido et al. 2017).

Importance of ecosystem services for individuals: livelihood and generational change

This study draws upon previous studies of local stakeholders’ perceptions at the study site (Godínez-Contreras 2003, Martínez-Hernández 2003, Cordero-Cueva 2005, Gómez-Bonilla 2006, Solórzano-Murillo 2008, Castillo et al. 2009, Sánchez-Matías 2010). We found that priorities for ecosystem services depend on cattle ranchers’ livelihoods, and that reasons assigned to the prioritized services differ among individuals. The more recent generation of local cattle ranchers perceived an opportunity to develop alternative management and to promote the forest’s beauty to attract more tourists. For example, they favored improving cattle raising by enriching pastures with fodder trees and developing rural tourism associated with agricultural activities.

The social-demographic conditions in rural Mexico have changed at a very fast rate over the past four decades. Changes in priorities associated with livelihood, reflected in education levels and the diversity of activities, reveal a generational transition. While the age variable of the individuals does not explain priorities, it does reflect differences in social, economic, and technological conditions, as well as differences in individual experiences regarding these. The subgroup of cattle ranchers older than 65 generally represents inhabitants who arrived in the region between 1940 and 1970, and who, as in other parts of Mexico, had no access to formal education and thus relied on governmental incentives that promoted ranching (Lazos-Chavero 1996, Durand and Lazos 2004). They transformed the tropical dry forest in order to have a livelihood, and this is a source of pride for some older cattle ranchers (Torales-Ayala 2015). The subgroup of cattle ranchers under 65 years of age includes some who arrived in the ejidos between 1960 and 1980, and some who were born in the region. Some cattle ranchers who took possession of their ejidos at the end of the period of agrarian reform face other political and environmental conditions (Warman 2003). Most of these individuals are educated, and, in the case of the younger ones, it was their access to education that gave them access to new sources of employment and aspiration to a different lifestyle (Salas-Quintanal and González-de la Fuente 2014). It has indeed been suggested that a higher level of education and higher income contribute to increasing the value stakeholders attribute to cultural, regulating, and supporting services, while reducing their demand for provisioning services (Yahdjian et al. 2015).

While some of the interviewees have had long-term interactions with academics at the Biological Reserve, we did not find that this relationship significantly affected the reported priorities for ecosystem services. Although all interviewees live within 30 km of the Biological Reserve, and most have indirectly interacted with academics for up to 40 years, the impact of academic research on the local knowledge has been scarcely documented (Castillo et al. 2005, Arreola-Villa 2017). The interactions of people who have different types of knowledge (e.g., local ecological knowledge, scientific knowledge) over the long term could be made only partially visible through our assessment.

The generational change observed here is consistent with that observed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (FAO 2014), and has profound consequences for productive activities. Likewise, systems management has important social implications and affects the ecosystem (Albizua 2016). The new generation of young adults who have decided to remain in their birthplace not only have different priorities and aspirations than their elders but will also have a different relationship with the social-ecological system. When land remains unsold and is maintained as part of a family’s legacy, this legacy is considered as capital because the forest is valued for scenic beauty and viewed as an opportunity to initiate ecosystem projects (Albizua 2016). In addition, ownership creates eligibility for payments from environmental services (Naime-Sánchez 2016). This generational change throughout Latin America underscores the importance of involving the youngest generations and taking into account their attitudes to the management of socio-ecosystems (Heras et al. 2016). Despite having interviewed only 27 people, we were able to explore the implications of generational change. The hypotheses generated by this work can be further tested in the future with a larger sample size and using research tools that focus on that goal.

Importance of ecosystem services for individuals: link with ecosystems

The importance attributed to ecosystem services varies as much between individuals as between services. Even though many cattle ranchers prioritized the same service, such as pasture or rain, the reasons for this prioritization differed among individuals. These results suggest a diversity of relationships with the ecosystems. In addition to the productive or work relationships, the family, the community, and other aspects of well-being modulate the interactions between individuals and ecosystems. These results are consistent with those found by Hicks et al. (2015) and confirm the need to go beyond simplistic dichotomies between intrinsic and instrumental values (Tallis and Lubchenco 2014, Chan et al. 2016, Arias-Arevalo et al. 2017). Our results suggest that reasons of importance can be associated with intrinsic values, such as nature appreciation. They can also be associated with instrumental values, such as the work (that is, the activities) each individual performs to secure his economic support. But we also found that the prevalence of relational values, for example, the well-being of cattle, is derived from the relationship that the cattle rancher establishes with his animal, his assuming the responsibility for keeping it healthy and content. These meanings and emotions coexist with economic values related to livelihoods and production. The importance of water transcends the productive activity of individuals, since it is related to the support of life itself and goes beyond the present, affecting the well-being of future generations. These reasons express relationships of reciprocity and extend beyond the local and present context.

The study of reasons for the importance attributed to the prioritized services grounds the search for alternative paths toward sustainability and emphasizes the perspectives of a critical and vulnerable group of stakeholders in the tropics whose views are often ignored when public policies are designed. In the Mexican context, smallholders are most frequently unheard, even when they get organized to generate more visibility (Nuijten 2003, Paz-Salinas 2005). In the study region, a group of inhabitants got organized to participate in environmental policies and local rural development, but their efforts were ignored by the local authorities (Cano-Castellanos and Lazos-Chavero 2017). While successful cases can be documented where smallholders have had some influence in the application of environmental policies (see McAfee and Shapiro 2010), they remain exceptional. Generally, in Mexico, the claims and projects of rural producers are restricted by corporate and hierarchical structures (Nuijten 2003, Henderson 2017). Smallholders are key to maintaining ecosystem services that support biodiversity and food production. Indepth assessments of the narratives that clarify the links between smallholders and the ecosystem (Klain et al. 2014) should be the basis for the design and implementation of inclusive, legitimate, and flexible policies toward the construction of sustainability.

Implications for sustainability: more flexible and inclusive policies

Smallholders are key to food production and biodiversity conservation across the global south, and thus are crucial partners in the coconstruction of sustainable pathways. It has been proposed that in order to improve management and make more sustainable public policies, the voices of all stakeholders must be included and negotiated (Reed 2008). An inclusivity perspective emphasizes empowerment, equity, trust, and learning (Reed 2008, Chandra et al. 2017). The challenge is how to include local perspectives to advance in processes where communities lead the way forward. In Mexico, some success cases at the local level can inspire us in the construction of participatory processes with the communities (Bofill-Poch 2002, Bray et al. 2003). But we recognize that these processes, which involve dialogues and negotiations, still have difficulties associated with the transformations of power relations. Structural changes are necessary to achieve the inclusion of plurality at different scales—local and regional (Paz-Salinas 2005, Lazos- Chavero 2013). Flexible, heterogeneous policies that make the producers feel represented would promote greater adoption of the responsibility that implies having access to a benefit delivered by the government.


We found an important heterogeneity of services perceived by individuals within a single stakeholder group: smallholder cattle ranchers. The range of perceived services was strongly tied to cattle ranchers’ livelihood and to the particularities of the ecosystem they inhabit. The views of smallholders complemented the view derived from categorizations of services structured by scientists. This study contributes to the growing literature on ecosystem service perceptions by emphasizing stakeholder group heterogeneity.

Priorities for different services were strongly biased by the productive activity of the stakeholder; for example, just as fishermen prioritize the provisioning services linked to fishing, their productive activity (Hicks et al. 2013), the cattle ranchers prioritized some provisioning services, such as pasture or those linked to livestock production. Although provisioning services prevailed among the priorities, we recognize the diversity of services perceived, and we specifically show that some cattle ranchers saw a connection between some ecosystem services. Also, priorities were modified by changes in livelihood associated with generation change linked to differences in opportunities and education. This generation change is particularly critical because most young smallholders emigrate, and the new generations of smallholders who are still managing the forest are key stakeholders in the management of socio-ecosystems.

Making visible the diversity of values associated with the importance of ecosystem services by smallholders whose lands host a significant portion of the world’s biodiversity and who have been excluded or marginalized from decision-making processes (Apgar 2017) is critical for designing more legitimate policies toward environmental sustainability. Policies in which individuals feel represented in their priorities and values would promote greater adoption of these policies and could increase sharing responsibilities beyond simply receiving aid from the government. The documentation and rescue of local knowledge will empower these unheard stakeholders and facilitate their participation in the design of public policies.


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Alejandra Tauro thanks the Postgraduate Programme in Biological Sciences (Programa de Posgrado en Ciencias Biológicas) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [UNAM]) for support for her doctoral studies; also the National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología [CONACYT]) for a scholarship received for the doctoral research program. This article is a requirement for the degree of Doctor of Science. This work was done thanks to the UNAM-DGAPA-PAPIIT Program through project IN211114, IN211417, SEP-CONACyT 2015-255544. We are grateful to all cattle rancher that participated in this research. Alejandra Atzin Hernandez, Daniel Ferreyra, Romeo Saldaña, and Felipe Arreola assisted during the fieldwork. Adriana Flores-Diaz helped with land cover analysis for La Huerta municipality. Francisco Mora-Ardila and Sofia Monroy-Sais provided important comments on this work. Ann Grant and Emily Wheeler improved the English revision. Three anonymous reviewers helped improve this manuscript.


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Address of Correspondent:
Alejandra Tauro
Antigua Carretera A Pátzcuaro 8701, Col. Ex Hacienda De Sán José De La Huerta
Morelia, MH
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Table1  | Table2  | Figure1  | Figure2  | Figure3  | Figure4  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5  | Appendix6