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Payments for ecosystem services can boost social capital in addition to forest management: Study

  • New research finds that a national payments for ecosystem services (PES) program in Mexico not only benefits the environment but supports social relationships in local communities, as well.
  • Two US-based economists, Oregon State University’s Jennifer Alix-Garcia and Amherst College’s Katharine Sims, led a team that looked at how participation in PES programs impacted social relationships in Mexico’s agrarian communities — local governance structures that make joint decisions about land management and are formally recognized by the Mexican government. Approximately half of forested land in Mexico is governed under these communal structures.
  • As detailed in PNAS, the researchers found that participation in Mexico’s PES program improved “community social capital” — defined as “the institutions, relationships, attitudes, and values that govern human interactions” — by 8 to 9 percent.

New research finds that a national payments for ecosystem services (PES) program in Mexico not only benefits the environment but supports social relationships in local communities, as well.

Mexico’s federal PES program is administered by the country’s National Forestry Commission, known as CONAFOR, which signs five-year contracts with selected landowners who agree to maintain existing forest and other naturally occurring vegetation on their land. Participants receive annual payments of between $8 and $32 per acre they have enrolled in the program. Their conservation efforts are monitored by field visits and satellite imagery.

Two US-based economists, Oregon State University’s Jennifer Alix-Garcia and Amherst College’s Katharine Sims, led a team that looked at how participation in PES programs impacted social relationships in Mexico’s agrarian communities — local governance structures that make joint decisions about land management and are formally recognized by the Mexican government. Approximately half of forested land in Mexico is governed under these communal structures.

At its core, PES is a relatively simple concept: Paying landowners directly to conserve their land, thus ensuring the provision of certain “ecosystem services,” like harboring biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and providing clean water. PES initiatives have been launched in countries around the world, often under the auspices of the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program. But PES has its detractors, too, many of whom fear that paying people for conservation efforts will compromise whatever moral or ethical impulse they might have had to protect the environment as a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

“Conservation of natural resources often relies on voluntary contributions of time and effort, and payments for environmental services policies boost these efforts by providing funding for maintenance of forests and other natural vegetation,” Sims said in a statement. “While these financial incentives help forest management activities compete with other land uses, many conservationists worry that external payments will undermine moral or intrinsic motivation to protect nature.”

For the study, the results of which were detailed last month in the journal PNAS, Alix-Garcia, Sims, and team surveyed more than 800 leaders of agrarian communities in Mexico and 8,000 individual households to determine the effects of the federal PES program on community social relationships. In order to ensure that they had isolated the impacts of PES, the team compared people who had been accepted into the program to applicants who had just barely missed qualifying for enrollment.

“Rejected applicants just below the cutoffs are a good control group — they are similar on observable characteristics such as baseline poverty or forest cover, and are likely to be very similar with respect to unobservable confounding factors such as desire to conserve, land quality, or skill set,” Sims told Mongabay.

Community members in Hidalgo State clear a firebreak. Photo courtesy of CONAFOR.

Sims and co-authors found that enrollment in the PES program increased land management activities like patrolling for illegal loggers and poachers, building fire breaks, conserving soil, and controlling pests by approximately 50 percent in participating communities. “We were very encouraged to see that the program induced substantial increases in activities promoting ecosystem services — in line with the primary program goal,” Sims said.

Alix-Garcia noted that “It is especially noteworthy that the program did not crowd out unpaid contributions to land management or other voluntary community work.”

This is not the first time research has shown that PES can deliver on environmental conservation goals. In fact, a 2015 study by Alix-Garcia and Sims was one of the first inquiries to determine that PES could slow deforestation, particularly when the programs were deployed in communities facing strong pressure to convert their lands for agriculture or ranching.

As detailed in PNAS, the researchers found that participation in Mexico’s PES program improved “community social capital” — defined as “the institutions, relationships, attitudes, and values that govern human interactions” — by 8 to 9 percent. That is, members of communities enrolled in the program had higher levels of participation in decision-making assemblies and had greater ability to resolve conflicts, while trust between members and community-building efforts were also boosted.

Just as importantly, Sims said, “despite strong concerns by the conservation community that external incentives might undermine social relationships, we did not find any evidence that PES crowded-out contributions to other voluntary community work or governance, or changed individual attitudes.” She added: “Our findings are noteworthy because they show that external incentives for conservation can support, not undermine, social institutions and relationships.”

The authors say their study is the first to analyze the impacts on social capital of a national-scale PES program. When Mongabay explored the evidence for the effectiveness of PES programs earlier this year as part of our Conservation Effectiveness series, we found that the existing literature looking at the social impacts of PES tended to focus on equality and marginalization, and few of the studies we examined were rigorous enough in their methodology to be able to demonstrate conclusively that the observed social changes were due specifically to the adoption of PES. This study would seem to help fill that knowledge gap.

Alix-Garcia noted that the team’s findings might be relevant in contexts outside of Mexico, as well: “Conservation incentives are expected to be a big part of international REDD+ agreements, which will encourage increased land management efforts in low-income countries. Because social institutions are a key driver of economic development, it is important to understand how incentivized conservation might affect them.”

Mexican Spider Monkey feeding in the forest canopy. The researchers’ work was conducted in megadiverse Mexico, which they called “the perfect living laboratory” as it contains more than 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity and between 50 and 60 percent of the world’s known plant species. Photo by Rhett Butler.

CITATION

• Alix-Garcia, J. M., Sims, K. R., & Yañez-Pagans, P. (2015). Only one tree from each seed? Environmental effectiveness and poverty alleviation in Mexico’s Payments for Ecosystem Services Program. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 7(4), 1-40. doi:10.1257/pol.20130139

• Alix-Garcia, J. M., Sims, K. R., Orozco-Olvera, V. H., Costica, L. E., Medina, J. D. F., & Monroy, S. R. (2018). Payments for environmental services supported social capital while increasing land management. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201720873. doi:10.1073/pnas.1720873115

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001

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