Researchers say you get what you pay for when it comes to payments for ecosystem services

Two townships where residents were paid more for their efforts saw more habitat recovery than the areas outside the reserve where the residents were paid less, says a new study.

Researchers at Michigan State University wanted to determine whether or not programs that compensate local communities monetarily for their active participation in conservation efforts really works.

Their study, the results of which have been published in the journal Conservation Biology, focuses on China’s National Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), which aims to restore forests and habitat for the endangered giant panda — but the MSU researchers say their findings could be applicable across the globe.

“Around the world, hundreds of payments for ecosystem services programs have been implemented, but little is known about their impacts on wildlife habitat,” Jianguo “Jack” Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, said in a statement.

“We’re able to show that an ambitious payments for ecosystem services program is benefiting wildlife habitat while addressing the needs of the people in a coupled human and natural system.”

The NFCP was implemented in 2001 in the Wolong Nature Reserve, which provides key habitat for the giant panda. A study published last year in Conservation Biology found that giant pandas are an “umbrella species,” meaning that protecting their habitat benefits many of China’s other endemic species at the same time.

According to Mao-Ning Tuanmu, a former PhD student at MSU who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University and a co-author of the study, forest cover in the NFCP has been increasing in recent years, but it hadn’t yet been proven conclusively that wildlife habitat — especially giant panda habitat — was recovering after a “30-year downward trend of habitat destruction.”

But Tuanmu said that the results of the study show that forests harboring abundant bamboo, the mainstay of the panda’s diet, did improve between 2001 and 2007 (the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, or Wenchuan earthquake, severely damaged some habitat in and around Wolong).

Tuanmu and team also examined the impact of efforts by local residents who were enlisted to monitor the reserve’s forest and help prevent unauthorized harvesting of trees.

A second set of locals who live on the outskirts of Wolong were employed by the program as well, but were paid less and had farther to travel to reach their assigned sections of the reserve.

The researchers’ found that the two townships where residents were paid more for their efforts saw more habitat recovery than the areas outside the reserve where the residents were paid less.

Tuanmu said that these results show the power of engaging forest communities in payments for ecosystem services schemes.

“In this study, the greater payments mattered,” Tuanmu said in a statement. “That suggests that the payment for ecosystem services approach only works when it provides enough economic incentive to local people to encourage them to actively participate in conservation.”

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