- A World Bank-funded conservation project in Indonesia led to higher rates of deforestation after the project ended, a new study shows, serving as a cautionary tale about the risks of failing to sustain such initiatives over a long enough time period.
- The payment for ecosystem services project was supposed to reward villages for halting deforestation and taking up sustainable livelihoods from 1996-2001.
- In the years after the project ended, however, participating villages that had received the payments lost up to 26% more forest cover from 2000-2016 than non-participating villages, the study shows.
The Kerinci Seblat landscape, a highly biodiverse rainforest in western Sumatra, is one of the Indonesian island’s crown jewels. Anchored by the 14,000-square-kilometer (5,405-square-mile) Kerinci Seblat National Park, its mountainous terrain is home to Sumatran tigers and elephants, more than 300 bird species, and the notoriously smelly corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). Mount Kerinci, an active volcano, towers over the landscape below, which is dotted with about 460 villages, each culturally and linguistically distinct.
Protecting this vast landscape is imperative for Indonesia’s unique biodiversity, and there have been both conservation successes and failures in the 40 years since the park was established. Now, research into one such failure, published in Environmental Research Letters, has linked it to increased deforestation in villages that originally participated in the program. These findings underscore the urgency for conservationists of learning from past mistakes: their ramifications can last far beyond the lifetime of the project, inflicting long-term harm that may outweigh any conservation benefits they produce in the short term.
The new study was performed by James Erbaugh, an environmental social scientist at The Nature Conservancy and Dartmouth University in the U.S. He examined the long-term ramifications of the Kerinci Seblat Integrated Conservation and Development Project, an $18.8 million World Bank project initiated in 1996. Part of the project centered on a conservation strategy called payments for ecosystem services (PES). The basic premise of PES is that communities receive funds in exchange for protecting a stretch of land. Ideally, PES programs maintain critical ecosystems and provide community members with secure livelihoods, the quintessential conservation “win-win.”
The PES-based portion of the Kerinci Seblat Integrated Conservation and Development Project established voluntary conservation agreements (VCAs) with 72 villages across the Kerinci Seblat landscape. The villages agreed to halt deforestation on their land and take up sustainable livelihoods in exchange for payments totaling about $25,000 each over the project’s approximately six-year lifetime, to be paid in two stages.
But the Kerinci Seblat VCA program wasn’t executed to plan. Analyses of the program by outside experts indicate the Kerinci Seblat VCAs had, at best, mixed outcomes, with the World Bank itself deeming the program unsatisfactory. Project implementation was marred by bureaucratic challenges and payment delays. Just 64% of villages made it to the second stage of payments, and a 2008 analysis demonstrated that the agreements failed to spur forest conservation beyond baseline levels during the project period.
Erbaugh’s new study examines what happened to forests in the Kerinci Seblat landscape after the payments stopped. He found that deforestation actually increased in VCA villages; villages that had signed the agreements and received payments lost 24-26.4% more forest cover outside the national park boundaries from 2000-2016 than did similar non-VCA villages.
The result surprised him. “It is rather counterintuitive in a lot of ways,” Erbaugh said. To check his work, he analyzed the data using four different approaches. “No matter how hard I tried [to disprove the findings], this result kept coming out.”
Erbaugh dived deeper into the causes of this increased deforestation using information from a livelihoods survey of households in 51 of these villages that he led in 2016. He found that households in VCA villages were more likely to farm coffee and cinnamon (common highland agricultural products in Sumatra) than households in similar non-VCA villages. He also found that forest cover loss increased in tandem with the amount of payments VCA villages received. In other words, villages that received the highest conservation payments also had the greatest forest cover loss between 2000 and 2016.
For Erbaugh, these findings together point to behavioral or social differences between VCA and non-VCA villages. Pinpointing exactly what these differences are is his next challenge.
One potential explanation is that monetizing forest conservation changed people’s perceptions of the value of their land. It may also be that the VCA villages were better able to attract investment by other industries once the conservation payments ended than the non-VCA villages due to their experiences in the project.
Erbaugh is quick to note that PES projects have their place in conservation programs, and they certainly can work in Indonesia. But poorly structured payment schemes that end too early give PES a bad reputation, on top of their counterproductive conservation legacies. This was true of the Kerinci Seblat VCAs; the project timeline was too short and there was no plan to ensure conservation activities extended beyond its lifetime. And while the program was running, payments were often disbursed late due to bureaucratic holdups and the sheer complexity of integrating administrative efforts by the World Bank with the myriad Indonesian government agencies involved, delaying the execution of conservation activities by the villages.
Like Erbaugh, Sinan Serhadli, a consultant for conservation and development NGOs across Southeast Asia, also said PES can make a difference for conservation if applied strategically and as part of a comprehensive long-term plan. “I have seen a quite successful case in West Kalimantan (the Nanga Lauk Village Forest), but this project revolved around building a strong institutional capacity of the community for sustainable livelihoods and conservation management, with PES being used as a way to finance community-based conservation and sustainable livelihoods over a 25-year period,” he wrote in an email.
These principles — building strong institutions and community capacity for conservation management — take time, money and unwavering commitments from everyone involved. The World Bank’s own analysis of the Kerinci Seblat Integrated Conservation and Development Project shows these commitments were missing. While such assurances are difficult to establish in today’s economic and political climate, this new study provides a cautionary tale for how projects without them play out.
The good news is that conservation and sustainable development groups have learned a lot about how to successfully execute PES and other community-led strategies since the World Bank’s project ended in 2001. “Potential PES projects [have] really started to look at whether the right structures on the ground are in place to make the project successful,” Serhadli said. In theory, carbon markets can now provide long-term payments to communities for carbon sequestration, although the Indonesian government currently has a moratorium on validating carbon projects in Sumatra and Borneo while it sets up regulations and oversight. The government of neighboring Papua New Guinea has taken similar steps in hopes of eradicating so-called “carbon cowboys” who mislead rural communities for their own financial gain.
Of the Kerinci Seblat Integrated Conservation and Development Project, the World Bank ultimately concluded that it may have been more beneficial if they had carried out simpler conservation and development interventions in all 460 villages in the landscape as opposed to focusing on 72 villages for VCAs, which introduced complicated bureaucratic challenges. Erbaugh also sees this question of access — who gets to participate in conservation — as central to future success. “It’s super important to work with communities,” he said. “Indigenous people and local communities have been shown time and time again to have some of the greatest conservation gains. When rights are officially allocated to communities over long time horizons … it tends to work pretty well.”
So, how long-term is long enough? Serhadli said conservation is only effective if projects have 10-to-15-year timelines. There also needs to be clear transition plans for when they end, to ensure communities can maintain their conservation and development achievements. Programs that lack these parameters, he said, risk failure.
Beyond better conservation planning, scientists also must learn more about the influences of different conservation interventions, including PES, on communities’ motivations and behavior toward protecting nature. “There are a lot of knock-on behavioral effects that I don’t think the research, at least in the environmental realm, has really grappled with,” Erbaugh said. “Just because a project goes away, doesn’t mean its impacts do.”
Erbaugh, J. T. (2022). Impermanence and failure: The legacy of conservation-based payments in Sumatra, Indonesia. Environmental Research Letters, 17(5), 054015. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac6437
Wood, P., Sheil, D., Syaf, R., & Warta, Z. (2014). The implementation and sustainability of village conservation agreements around Kerinci Seblat National Park, Indonesia. Society & Natural Resources, 27(6), 602-620. doi:10.1080/08941920.2014.901464
Linkie, M., Smith, R. J., Zhu, Y., Martyr, D. J., Suedmeyer, B., Pramono, J., & Leader-Williams, N. (2008). Evaluating biodiversity conservation around a large Sumatran protected area. Conservation Biology, 22(3), 683-690. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00906.x