Why we (might) disagree over ecosystem services for poverty alleviation

In a new article published (open access) in Oryx (Howe et al. 2018), we expose why we might disagree over how best to pursue the provision of ecosystem services and the eradication of poverty.  We suggest that as the concept of ecosystem services is applied more widely in conservation, its users will encounter the issue of poverty alleviation and, subsequently, be tempted to conceal the trade-offs that the conservation of ecosystem services and poverty alleviation might entail. Modelling our argument on an earlier essay about conservation and poverty (Adams et al., 2004, in Science), we explore the different views that underlie apparent agreement.

We identify five normative positions that reflect different mixes of concern for ecosystem condition, poverty and economic growth:

(1) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that facilitate biodiversity conservation;

(2) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that maintain their functional integrity;

(3) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that protect & secure the existing lives & livelihoods of the poor;

(4) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that bring new benefits to the poor; and

(5) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that maximize economic growth.

In the article, we depict the narratives, policy recipes, and the main advocates behind each position, and we suggest that acknowledging these helps to uncover the subjacent goals of policy interventions and the trade-offs they involve in practice. We think that ‘the policy rhetoric on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation, with its search for common causes, can serve to erase or obscure fundamental differences in goals or objectives. Failure to acknowledge differences between these positions obscures choices and risks undermining sustainable and just outcomes’. Therefore, we argue that recognizing the existence of such positions can ultimately support the emergence of more legitimate and robust policies.

A forest transition in central Mexico?

In this new article, published in Restoration Ecology and led by Jordi Honey-Rosés (University of British Columbia), we examine land-use change in central Mexico and we relate such change to agricultural and socio-economic patterns. Recent land cover analysis reveals significant forest recovery around the world, suggesting that some countries may be in a forest transition. However, remotely sensed imagery does not reveal the driving causes of forest recovery, which may be due to active reforestation efforts or natural successional processes (passive reforestation).

Through fieldwork research conducted by ICTA-UAB former MSc student, Marlene Maurer, we aimed to distinguish these two processes in the priority temperate forests surrounding the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (342,773 ha) in the state of Michoacán. We combined an analysis of remotely sensed imagery with field interviews to examine the mechanisms and drivers of observed forest recovery.

Our analysis of the satellite imagery reveals a net increase of 3,798 ha of forest between 1986 and 2012, yet the rate of recovery is slowing. Interview data suggests that the vast majority of the recovered forests are the result of natural regrowth (passive reforestation), with most of this regrowth observed on previously degraded forest lands. Therefore, we estimate that between 58 and 429 ha have been recovered from active reforestation efforts in the 1986–2012 period. We find that reduced logging and grazing pressures are important drivers of forest recovery, while agricultural abandonment may be less influential than often believed.

These results speak to conservation policy and reforestation programs in different ways. First, they suggest that the cost-effectiveness may be a major constraint to scaling up active reforestation, particularly if the latter represents a small contribution to observed forest regrowth. Second, the findings indicate that previously degraded forest lands should be considered environmental assets in forest restoration programs, given its significant contribution to forest recovery. Last, and most importantly, we think that whenever site, landscape, and social environments allow for passive restoration, forest restoration programs should consider supporting, facilitating, or accelerating natural regrowth instead of active reforestation. Reforestation investments might be wisely spent supporting and maintaining the natural resilience of forests rather than on costly reforestation programs.

Photo copyright: Marlene Maurer.

REDD+ in the spotlight

The CoCooR research project has produced a 17-min video where we disseminate some of the project’s findings and where some other scholars, practitioners and funders share their views about REDD+. Specifically, the video defines REDD+, highlights its main funding sources to date, and a number of experts reflect on the challenges of REDD+ policy design in the global South, and of early action implementation initiatives, as well as the framework’s main achivements to date and its likely future.

We think that the video can be very useful to teach about REDD+, or to foster a discussion about this policy framework with university students and other audiences outside high education and academia. Therefore, if you are interested in REDD+, forest conservation, or in environmental governance and policy more generally, please watch the video and help us disseminate it. Feel free to post comments about it in this blog, or to use the social media to spread the word. The video can be watched in You Tube.

Image copyright: SIAS, Nepal

REDD+ Crossroads Post Paris: Politics, Lessons and Interplays

Red goes well with Xmas, or so they say. So I’m pleased to share with you today, the outcome of a new special issue, guest edited with my former colleague at the University of East Anglia, Heike Schroeder. Over the past two years, we have put together a large collection of articles exploring the politics, the early lessons and the institutional interplays of REDD+ preparedness in developing countries. The collection is freely available through open access, and you can download all the contributions here.

The contributions to the special issue suggest, first, that REDD+ design in the studied countries has generally lacked social legitimacy and sidelined key actors who can considerably influence land-use sector dynamics. Second, they show that REDD+ early actions have tended to oversimplify local realities and have been misaligned and local needs. Third, REDD+ efforts have remained constrained to the forestry or climate mitigation policy sectors and have thus suffered from a lack of policy harmonization.

As REDD+ moves from its preparedness to its implementation phase, Heike and myself argue that more research efforts should be aimed at analysing the power relations that underpin and determine the design and implementation of REDD+ policies and actions, the potential for and limits to the vertical and horizontal coordination of land-use policies and management, and the processes of resistance to or accommodation of REDD+ practices on the ground. In doing so, we advocate for multi- and transdisciplinary research that does not take for granted the benefits of REDD+ and which critically scrutinizes the multiple goals of this ambitious international policy framework, and where it sits within the broader Paris Agreement implementation agenda.

Picture: Women in Chiapas, Mexico, carrying fuelwood. Their community participates in a carbon forestry project. © Esteve Corbera

Sowing the seeds of sustainable rural development?

This new article, in the journal Land Use Policy, is a closure of a five year research action project developed in Tanzania, under the leadership of the local NGO Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) and hosted by the University of East Anglia. MCDI has been promoting Participatory forest management (PFM) for a number of years now in south-eastern Tanzania, aiming to improve local forest governance, enhance resource conservation and to increase rural people’s access to and benefits from forest resources. Recently, MCDI also received climate finance support to enhance the impact of such PFM activities on climate change mitigation.

This action research was thus aimed at analysing governance and livelihood changes in MCDI efforts that have been topped-up through a REDD+ pilot. Based on qualitative governance analysis and quantitative livelihood panel data (2011–2014) that compares villages and households within and outside the project, we find that improvements to forest governance are substantial in project villages compared to control villages, while changes in income have been important but statistically insignificant, and driven by a regional sesame cash crop boom unrelated to enhanced forestry revenues. Focusing on whether PFM had enhanced other wealth indicators including household conditions and durable assets, our analysis shows again no significant differences between participant and control villages, although the participant villages do have, on average, a greater level of durable assets.

Overall, our findings are positive regarding forest governance improvements but inconclusive regarding livelihood effects, which at least in the short term seem to benefit more from agricultural intensification than forestry activities, whose benefits might become more apparent over a longer time period. In conclusion we emphasize the need for moving towards longer term monitoring efforts, improving understandings of local dynamics of change, particularly at a regional rather than community level, and defining the most appropriate outcome variables and cost-effective systems of data collection or optimization of existing datasets if we are to better capture the complex impacts of PFM initiatives worldwide.

This research was funded by NORAD and it also resulted in two other articles published in 2015 and early 2017. If you want to access the full version of these three articles, please contact me at esteve.corbera@uab.cat