The baobab tree

A baobab tree in a mining site in Chibondo, Zimbabwe. Photo: Hasse Berglund, 2016.


What is an ecosystem and why do we need them?

Humanity is dependent on ecosystems – nature is essential for life on earth and
makes human life possible. Healthy ecosystems provide several ecosystem services such as clean air and water, food, materials and more. Ecosystems provide value to humans, our culture, and our mental and physical health. A functioning ecosystem can also better withstand and recover from a variety of challenges, like storms and floodings. It is safe to say that nature enriches and sustains our lives! The problem is that a lot of decisions are made without taking biodiversity or ecosystems into account, even though our economies and societies are fundamentally integrated with the ecosystems of the planet.

An ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting with each other
and their non-living environment. An ecosystem includes all living things (e.g., plants, animals, microorganisms) and non-living things (e.g., rocks, soil, the sun). Ecosystems are defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, UN, 1992) as:

"A dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit."

Ecosystems contribute to humanity in many ways, and this can be referred to as ecosystem services (ESS). Ecosystems are multi-functional and provide a series of services for human well-being either directly, e.g., as food and fibre, or more indirectly by e.g., providing clean air or pollination.

Ecosystem services can be divided into four categories:

  • cultural services e.g., recreation, natural heritage, areas of importance for indigenous people, experience nature
  • provisioning services e.g., food, water, fibre and timber, fuel
  • regulating services e.g., sediment retention, protection against weather
    extremes (floods, fires, erosion), pollution control, purification of air, soil and water, pollination, water regulation by wetlands
  • supporting services e.g., habitats/ natural spaces for animals and plants to live, interaction between species, primary production (photosynthesis in plants), formation of soil, the nutrient cycle.

Read more about ecosystem services in Africa:

The IPBES regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa | Zenodo

What is biodiversity?

Biological diversity means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”

Definition by CBD Secretariat 2006

Life found on earth today consists of many millions of biological species and is the result of four billion years of evolution. Biodiversity is threatened and is declining rapidly, and some of the direct drivers behind this are the direct use and exploitation of natural resources, land-use change, climate change and invasive species. The mining industry contributes to several of these drivers and therefore planning and knowledge about the landscape and its natural habitats is key before the possibility of exploitation can be further discussed. Biodiversity is often divided in three levels:

  1. Ecosystem diversity includes all living organisms in a certain area, the whole ecological community. Some examples are savannas, forests, lakes, oceans, marshes, deserts and all the other environments where a range of varied species live and evolve. Ecosystem diversity also includes processes like food chains, how varied species affect one another, photosynthesis, how plant material is decomposed, symbiosis between species etc.
  2. Diversity of organisms is referring to the vast variation and number of different organisms, including all taxonomic levels (domain, kingdom, phyla, class, order, family, genus, species). If there are a lot of varied organisms, e.g. species or at other taxonomic levels, the ecosystem may have a better chance to adapt to changes. An example is if a rodent decline one year, predators like owls or foxes can hunt another prey if there are alternative preys. Some plants are adapted to plenty of shade and thrive in a dense forest, and others need open space or certain types of soils. Many organisms are dependent on different natural habitats during their life cycle, hence the importance of variation of natural habitats and why monocultures may be problematic.
  3. Genetic diversity is the variety of genes within an organism or a population. Differences in genetic material for different individuals or in a population contributes to a more varied selection of attributes. Genetics and interaction/pressure from the surrounding environment are significant contributors to the vast variation of species we have on planet earth today.

Biodiversity and ecosystem services in the mining industry

The foundation in sustaining healthy ecosystems, that can provide the vital ecosystem services for many generations ahead, is both:

  • sustainable consumption and
  • sustainable production of products that derive from natural resources.

This demands structural changes in all levels of the production chain as well as in the economic system. The industry needs to further understand their responsibilities regarding avoidance and minimization of negative environmental impact.

Step one for the mining industry is to take nature in consideration early in every planning process.

These are examples of some key considerations if you want to identify the effect of an activity on biodiversity and ecosystem services:

  • What kind of mine is it? What are the risks related to this type of mine? E.g. acidification, habitat destruction, metal pollution.
  • What decisions are made that affect biodiversity and ecosystem services, e.g., how can you choose location to minimize negative impacts on biodiversity, important cultural sites, or other ecosystem services?
  • What ecosystem services are relevant to address?
  • How can we develop communication, co-operation, monitoring and follow-up?
    Is there major insecurities? Do we need further studies or training?
  • What regulations are there to consider?

The answers to these questions can provide a valuable foundation for further work with planning exploitation within the mining industry, with the aim to minimize damage on ecosystem services. Ecosystem assessment is an example of an instrument that can be used for structured and targeted analysis of environmental change and its impact on human well-being. Conducting SEA’s (Strategic Environmental Assessments) and EIA’s (Environmental Impact Assessments) properly will lender credibility to the processes of establishing mines and dealing with their impacts on other values (see links on the bottom of the page).

Minimize damage by gathering more knowledge before exploitation

All mines affect natural habitats in some way, and there is always a risk that ecosystem services also will be seriously affected, possibly to the extent of irreversible damage. The reason is the intricate interactions between species and their biotic and abiotic environment. If one part of the system is affected, structurally or functionally, it may cause a chain reaction. This is why it is important for the mining industry to gather knowledge about species and their habitat in the area of interest, and how these interactions are affected by human activities.

Gather as much knowledge as possible about the landscape you are considering for exploitation. An exploitation may affect the green infrastructure in diverse ways. 

A forest area might be a hot spot for biodiversity or an important steppingstone between two larger areas of importance for endangered species. Another area might be less of importance for biodiversity, where exploitation may cause limited effects on the ecosystem. For more information about green infrastructure, see linked movie on the bottom of the page).

Examples of how to minimize impact on an area:

  • If the area contains high values for ecosystem services, consider another area.
  • If the area partly contains high values for ecosystem services, consider only exploiting a smaller part of the area.
  • The impact on the water resources, both groundwater and fresh surface water, are quintessential to evaluate, and to minimize the negative effects of. And the spreading of toxic substances and other indirect effects on all waters, as well as on the land, must be avoided.
  • If the area already is heavily affected by human activities or does not contain high values for ecosystem services, plan the restoration so that indigenous species have a chance to re-establish in the area. Caution - choose vegetation that won’t spread toxic substances in the food web and choose vegetation suitable for phytostabilisation. Read more below!

Restoration of mining sites and minimizing spreading of toxic substances

Another environmental risk that can affect large landscapes and ecosystem services is the spreading of toxic substances and waste material. If not treated right, these toxic substances can travel long distances and for example have a huge negative impact on water resources. A possible outcome is that a whole river basin can be contaminated and ecosystem services like water supply and food providing through fishing can then be seriously damaged. Zambia is an example, where indigenous trees and vegetation are used to reclaim wasteland after mining. Read more about phytostabilisation and other ways to manage toxic substances and waste with nature-based solutions in the article linked at the bottom of this page.

Good examples of pre-mining planning for ecosystem service, or biodiversity gains, are hard to find. The concept is just emerging in the mining industry. In later stages, restoration of mining sites has been successful.

If you are interested in further information about ecosystem assessments, you can read more in the links below.

Progresses in restoration of post-mining landscape in Africa

The IPBES regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa | Zenodo

Strategic environmental assessment (

Environmental impact assessment (

Green Infrastructure - Sustainable Landscapes | Swedish EPA - YouTube

Ecosystems and their services (

Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services | IPBES secretariat

Models of drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem change | IPBES secretariat

Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) (

Convention Text (