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Ecosystem Service Payments & Poverty Alleviation: A Cautionary Tale

February 27, 2018 |

This article was originally published on Yale Environment Review

“How can we create incentives for preserving forests that are stronger than the economic incentives to cut them down? Forest conservation projects around the world have often separated local people from their forest-based livelihoods, creating resentment and undermining the long-term conservation aims. One emerging strategy for generating income for local populations is a program known as payment for ecosystem services (PES), which aims to monetize (and therefore adequately value) the ecological services that forests provide, such as sequestering carbon, providing habitat, and protecting watersheds. If landowners can make money by keeping their forest standing, the thinking goes, they might be more likely to conserve it than log it.

Controversies around PES programs center around two issues. The first concerns questions over whether certified lands are actually providing the ecosystem services being paid for. (For example, how much carbon are the trees actually sequestering? Is the forest actually providing high-quality habitat?). These questions are a matter of ecological metrics, and can be answered through researching the forest ecosystem. The second question is whether the appropriate people are receiving the payment. In other words, are the people who actually own the land and caring for it receiving the PES payments, or are the wealthy and well-connected exploiting the system? This second question is one of social equity, and can be answered through social science research into the politics, economics, and history of the area in which the PES program is being implemented.

A recent article published in Human Ecology, “Understanding Smallholder Participation in Payments for Ecosystem Services: the case of Costa Rica,” dives into the second question, especially the potential of PES to help the poorest landowners. The author, David Lansing, is an expert in market-based conservation programs — including PES and carbon offsets — and specializes in the study of the interaction of conservation policy with rural livelihoods. For the article, Lansing analyzed the demographic profiles of the smallholder farmers enrolled in PES in the Sarapiquí, Siquerres, and Guácimo districts of Costa Rica to determine whether PES was successfully reaching poor and marginalized smallholder farmers. The Costa Rican government is making an effort to enroll smallholders, but as Lansing explains, “a farmer with small landholdings, however, does not necessarily equate to a marginalized or poor one, so it is important to understand the relative wealth, livelihood, and land use factors that are associated with smallholders who currently do enroll in PES.”…”

Read on at: Yale Environment Review.

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