New research investigates spread of payments for ecosystem services around the globe

After a series of floods and droughts in the late 1990s convinced the government of China that deforestation was a major threat to water quality and flood control, the country responded quickly, spending more than $100 billion in the first decade of the new millenium on landholder actions like planting trees and banning logging.

Through its Sloping Land Conservation Program, for instance, China paid 32 million farmers and 120 million households to convert steep croplands to forest and grassland. The Natural Forest Conservation Program, meanwhile, focuses on reforestation efforts and logging bans. These two initiatives are now the largest payments for ecosystem services (PES) programs in the world.

PES is a conservation strategy that involves a fairly basic concept: paying local residents and communities to manage their land in a way that ensures certain “services” provided by nature, such as carbon storage in trees, healthy watersheds, or preservation of biodiversity.

Just two decades ago, PES was a rather obscure conservation strategy, but it has taken off in recent years. Whereas there were only three journal references to PES in 1995, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, there were 1,900 journal references in 2016.

There are currently more than 550 PES programs active around the world in developed and developing countries alike, and more than $36 billion in annual transactions have been made through these programs, the study found.

“There has been enormous interest around the globe in payments for ecosystem services, fueled by promising case studies and exciting transactions, but until now we’ve never had a firm grasp on just how large they have really become,” the study’s lead author, James Salzman, the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement.

“Payments for ecosystem services is a market-based approach that places a value on the many benefits that nature provides to people — clean water, flood control and wildlife habitat. Done right, trees can be worth more standing than cut down.”

Salzman and team, which included researchers at Ecosystem Marketplace, an initiative of the NGO Forest Trends, write in the study that the rapid deployment of PES in China was not aimed solely at delivering benefits for the environment: “These programs, like many other government-financed PES programs, also have an explicit additional purpose of rural development. Assessments have found that all ecosystem services from 2000-2010 increased (except for biodiversity habitat) with mostly positive socioeconomic benefits.”

The researchers found that PES programs designed to protect watersheds have seen the largest volume of global transactions and have spread the farthest worldwide, with $24.7 billion in transactions across 62 countries in 2015. (There were just $6.7 billion in transactions through watershed-focused PES programs as recently as 2009.) Through these schemes, communities, companies, governments, and other users pay upstream landowners to employ sustainable land management practices that reduce flooding risks and improve water quality.

As Salzman and team note, there are numerous examples of successful conservation through PES. But the research is actually quite mixed in its conclusions as to whether PES programs effectively deliver environmental and socio-economic outcomes.

There has been enormous interest around the globe in payments for ecosystem services, fueled by promising case studies and exciting transactions, but until now we’ve never had a firm grasp on just how large they have really become.

James Salzman, lead author of study, University of California

As Mongabay found when we examined the research evaluating PES programs for our “Conservation Effectiveness” series, what evidence there is for how well PES schemes deliver those outcomes is quite weak. But the research we examined did seem to suggest that PES programs can deliver reductions in deforestation, forest fragmentation, and degradation, while boosting reforestation efforts and increasing forest carbon stocks — though these effects were generally found to be quite modest. A number of studies have found positive outcomes for the provision of hydrological services, as well. The research examining the impacts of PES on biodiversity were much less conclusive, however. And while it’s frequently the case that participants find the economic benefits of PES programs do not cover their opportunity costs (the benefits given up by participants when they choose not to plant crops on their land but to enroll in a PES program instead, for instance), many still report the program as having been worthwhile in their eyes.

Far less research has focused on the question of whether or not any benefits of PES are sustained after payments cease, according to another study recently published in Nature Sustainability. Lead author Krister Andersson, a researcher with the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder in the U.S., says that some research has even shown that cash payments can backfire by negating non-monetary motivations people might have already had for wanting to conserve, leaving them less likely to protect their land after payments are withdrawn.

However, Andersson and team say their research shows that paying rural villagers to cut down fewer trees can not only boost conservation efforts while the payments are being made but even after they’re discontinued. The researchers traveled to 54 villages near tropical forests in Bolivia, Indonesia, Peru, Tanzania, and Uganda and got a total of 1,200 tropical forest users to play a table-top simulation game that asked the participants to make decisions about how many trees they would harvest from a shared forest.

The participants in the game had the opportunity to make a full day’s wages, and Andersson and team found that those who received cash payments cut down 19 percent fewer trees. The benefits were even greater when participants received cash and were encouraged to discuss their decisions as a group — that led to 48 percent fewer trees being cut down. Even after the payments stopped, the groups that had received cash payments and employed collective decision-making processes continued to conserve, maintaining a 23 percent reduction in the number of trees felled.

“Our experimental results suggest that payments, especially when they are conditional on group cooperation, can help people realize the value of cooperation and that lasting cooperation can lead to better forest conditions,” Andersson said in a statement.

Andersson added that his team’s findings could help inform efforts to reduce global deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions through PES programs: “If policymakers really want to be effective in the use of these Payments for Ecosystem Services, I would advise them to structure payments so that they reward cooperative behavior, pay attention to how much trust there is among the groups they are working with and do what they can to foster communication. These can be huge factors in making this work.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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