Valuing nature, paying for ecosystem services and realizing social justice

In the latest volume of the journal Ecological Economics, I contribute to ongoing debates about the role of economic valuation in market-based conservation. I respond to an earlier piece by Brett Sylvester Matulis, nuance some of his arguments and set what I believe should be the new agenda for critical scholarship of market-based conservation. I argue for more precision in the claims we make about the role of economic valuation and the impacts of payments for ecosystem services, distinguishing across market-based instruments and across types of outcomes, and for a more nuanced account of the ethical connotations of such instruments. I suggest that such analysis should entail understanding both unequal socio-economic relations and culturally bounded conceptions of justice. Overall, I advocate for the development of a more robust empirical basis to derive generalizations on the procedural, distributive and livelihood implications of market-based instruments for conservation.

Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services

Although conservation efforts have sometimes succeeded in meeting environmental goals at the expense of equity considerations, the changing context of conservation and a growing body of evidence increasingly suggest that equity considerations should be integrated into conservation planning and implementation. In an article recently published in the journal Bioscience, and led by my colleague Unai Pascual from the Basque Centre for Climate Change Research, we review why such a desirable approach is often at at odds with the prevailing focus on economic efficiency that characterizes many payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes. Therefore, and drawing from examples across the literature, we show in the article how the equity impacts of PES can create positive and negative feedbacks that influence ecological outcomes. We thus caution against equity-blind PES, which overlooks these relationships as a result of a primary and narrow focus on economic efficiency. We call for further analysis and better engagement between the social and ecological science communities to understand the relationships and trade-offs among efficiency, equity, and effectiveness. [See Publications page for article details]

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Global Environmental Change

I’m pleased to inform you that a special issue entitled ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Global Environmental Change: Research findings and policy directions‘ has been published in the open access journal Ecology & Society. Together with my colleagues Erik Gómez-Baggethun and Victoria Reyes-García, we put together a very good collection of articles reflecting on the dynamics of traditional ecological knowledge and processes in a changing environment. Articles include case studies from around the world and theoretical contributions; some contributing authors include Fikret Berkes, Stephan Bartel, Nancy Turner and many others.


Deaf and blind? Why I am troubled about the future of PES research

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) have emerged as a potential tool to achieve conservation in diverse socio-economic and cultural contexts. Empirical research with examples from the global North and South is booming. Many studies focus on how payments translate in additional service provision (i.e. effectiveness) and/or if they contribute to benefit targeted land users whilst not undermining theirs and others’ livelihoods (i.e. equity, benefit sharing). Some have also started to analyze if PES are crowding-out existing conservation motivations and resulting in “pay me or I burn” type of behavior.These efforts are laudable and interesting. However, a troubling thought has been growing in me since I started studying PES more than ten years ago: does it matter what “researchers” say or propose for PES improvement? Are there limits to what implementers can learn and to what research can actually offer?

I have seen how well intentioned implementers have been caught up in administrative, financing and service accounting issues, and how understaffing and a “rush toward service provision” results in insufficient understanding and unsustained engagement with targeted land users. In these cases, I found that, despite rhetoric, the main reason behind such outcomes was that so-called “service buyers” were more interested in the environmental performance of their payments than in their equity implications. Implementers would not bother much either, “we prefer not messing up with local politics”, they would often say… In government-led programs, I found implementers to quickly adopt ecosystem services and land users’ targeting recommended by scientists to improve additionality. However, programs rather focused on increasing PES coverage and less so on analyzing social and environmental consequences over time and space. An example of these issues is Mexico, where science-policy interaction in program design has been effective but has been haphazard when it comes to ecosystems and social panel data monitoring.

This uneasy feeling I had about “nobody listening” or that PES learning could be too slow to avoid unintended consequences on ecosystems and people’s livelihoods was reinforced, for example, by Suiseeya and Caplow’s recent article in Global Environmental Change (2013, in press). Their findings suggest that, despite good intentions, carbon offset project design often fails to meet standard-based social justice criteria. This resonates with findings from evaluations of ICDP programs, CDM projects, etc. Therefore, will the adoption of guidelines and standards be sufficient to guarantee positive social outcomes of PES projects? Researchers may be also blamed for not getting PES design and the local context right. Many of us fail to engage over time with a given project, to “get dirty” at village level (beyond a few weeks/months), due to time and administrative constraints.

PES research may thus simply not be useful if “doers” are not listening, if “service buyers” are not committed to pay the costs for evaluating PES in the long-term, and if donors do not support PES action research beyond 3 or 4-year periods. This makes me wonder if I should continue caring about PES evaluation studies… May a kind reader please act as a psychologist and respond with evidence for hope? Or may someone instead reaffirm what I said and suggest me an extended vacation? Guidance is appreciated.

(This reflection has previously appeared online in the Sinergia e-bulletin)


REDD+… what for and for whose interest?

I just came back from fieldwork in Argentina. Jointly with Phd candidate Almudena García-Sastre, we visited the soy expansion frontier in the north-western province of Salta. Soy plantations are encroaching into the great Chaco forest, the second largest and diverse ecosystem in America after the Amazon. Over the past decade, deforestation has been rampant in the north-western and -eastern parts of the country, since the steady rise of international soy prices has allowed producers to offset increasing transport costs and the magic of GM soy varieties has permitted to cultivate in drier and more variable weather conditions beyond the Pampa. The provinces of Salta and Misiones are territories where not only the semi arid (to the west) and humid (to the east) Chaco forest is disappearing but where indigenous hunting-gathering indigenous groups, as well as mestizo livestock farmers are being dispossessed from customary land rights and alienated from the land. As we discovered during our visit, some of them have been lucky and have gained property rights over a small portion of their ancestral lands…. and are now surrounded by soy plantations (see pictures below).

Land rights recognized to an indigenous Wichi community in the province of Salta (area within the red line). To the north, east and west, land is parcelled and dedicated to soy cultivation (picture below)

© Esteve Corbera

The reason why I start this REDD+ commentary writing about the expansion of the soy frontier is because I think that truly additional and substantial carbon savings in Argentina’s land-use sector can only take place if such a process is effectively targeted and stopped. This is recognized in the country’s REDD+ Readiness Strategy, which highlights that significant deforestation has occurred all over the country over the past 20 years, but particularly in the north-western provinces due to soy expansion and cattle ranching to a lesser extent. The strategy was drafted in 2010 and, as of October 2012, the government was pursuing one grant agreement with the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility for a total of US$ 3.5 million to start readiness implementation.

The REDD+ strategy’s future success seems to depend on the implementation of the 2007 Law 26.331 of Minimum Standards for the Environmental Protection of the Native Forests, and its subsequent procedural rules -approved in 2009-. The Law is regarded as the principal instrument to halt deforestation and has forced provincial governments to elaborate, in cooperation with multiple stakeholders, land use and forest planning strategies. These strategies, in turn, contain maps for the identification of high value conservation areas that must not be deforested (in red); significant value conservation areas that are currently degraded but that may be restored or targeted for agro-forestry, eco-tourism and scientific research developments (in yellow); and low conservation value forests that are degraded and that can be potentially converted into other uses after the correspondent Environmental Impact Assessment, including agriculture and extensive livestock raising (in green). The Law comes with a Fund designed to compensate landowners for the opportunity costs of conservation and to support related conservation projects (for more information check here).

Although the Law, the Fund, and the correspondent provincial developments should be considered a positive step, the reality is that agribusiness companies have found ways to circumvent the Law before it started to be discussed in congress more than six years ago. Several of our interviewees indicated that provincial governments hurried up to grant permissions for large-scale deforestation in what had to later become red or yellow areas. Subsequently, deforestation proceeded apace in 2010 and 2011 because the judiciary system allowed those who had permits to chop down the trees. According to the same informants, deforestation in the north-western provinces is likely to continue regardless of the Law and land-use provincial planning, mostly due to the high rents that governments derive from soy cultivation through both formal (i.e. a 35% export tariff on soybeans) and informal mechanisms (i.e. corruption and agribusiness clienteles at provincial levels). Our interviewees also remarked that the colored areas in the maps do not necessarily follow ecological criteria but instead fit the interests of lobbying groups, i.e. agribusiness and conservationists. If one observes some of these maps, for example, it is possible to observe that landscape and ecological continuities are interrupted by administrative boundaries -see for example the discussion about the maps of the neighbouring provinces of Salta, Santiago del Estero and Chaco in this document by REDAF.

As previously highlighted, these facts and challenges do not only speak about an ecological tragedy but also about an erosion of other existing land management cultures, including those of indigenous hunter-gatherers that live in the Chaco forests and of mestizo small-scale farmers. Does Argentina’s REDD+ strategy offer a platform to recognize customary rights and other less-damaging ways of cultivating and managing the land? The straightforward answer is that the strategy formally acknowledges that indigenous groups and small-scale farmers deserve special attention because they lack formal land rights and have not been able to acquire those despite an existing favourable legal framework (i.e. Ley Veintenal), probably due to the high costs involved in the correspondent administrative process. The strategy further stresses the need to recognize and ensure the FPIC and participation of indigenous peoples in policy planning and in those specific projects to be developed within red and yellow areas and with the support of the Law’s accompanying Fund, or supported by other possible evolving instruments like PES. Our interviewees, however, cautioned against the strategy’s appealing narrative, insofar as the Argentinean government and a large share of civil society have historically disregarded indigenous’ rights and their claims, since small indigenous populations have never been a threat to provincial or federal governments. Things may be changing, though. In the province of Salta, for example, we were told that soy expansion is leading some indigenous communities and mestizo livestock farmers to get organised and protest against land evictions, as well as to shed more light over their current development problems at national and international levels. Only time will tell if social mobilization results in reduced deforestation rates and both legitimate and equitable REDD+ procedures and outcomes.

In a nutshell, the Argentinean case demonstrates that increasing international and national efforts to curve deforestation are unlikely to become effective on lands that are suitable for the “production” of higher-value commodities, even if such lands host invaluable socio-ecological systems. Furthermore, it shows that conservation laws and programs can run in parallel to both legal and illegal processes of deforestation, degradation and natural resource conversion, and that together can constrain the rights of access and usufruct of other social actors, thus fueling (a sometimes silent) conflict in tenure-disputed territories. The intersection of REDD+ laudable planning goals with the interest of governments to continue supporting the production of agricultural, export-driven commodities can result in a burden for the poorest inhabitants of affected environments, including indigenous groups and other subsistence and small-scale farmers. If we happen to observe this intersection and pattern of outcomes elsewhere around the world at present and in forthcoming years, then two inevitable questions come to my mind: first, do we really need so much investment in REDD+ preparedness and implementation if powerful actors and environmentally harmful activities cannot be stopped from doing socio-ecological harm? And, second, whose interest does REDD+ really serve? These questions are easy to formulate but require rigorous research that is mostly still to come.

This commentary has been also posted in the blog series of the University of Arizona’s Public Political Ecology Lab –