Conditionality as dispossession? The socio-cultural injustice of “payments for ecosystem services” (PES)
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"Payments for ecosystem services" (PES) have been praised as voluntary agreements aimed at compensating individuals for the "ecosystem services" (henceforth ES) they provide to others. PES aims to align private and public benefits for conservation and has been particularly popular as a mechanism to improve water quality by encouraging land-use practices that reduce soil sedimentation or contamination in agricultural frontiers. PES in watershed settings most commonly works by encouraging land-users to adopt specific land-use practices that will protect soils (e.g., retiring sloping land from production or reforestation to prevent the siltation of reservoirs), or groundwater quality (e.g., limiting the use of nitrates to preserve the potability of spring water). Payments are often determined by matching or surpassing the economic opportunity cost of switching land-use practices. Payments are typically distributed individually to participating households, or in some cases to communities of land-users as in the case of Mexico's payment for hydrological services program. The evaluation of PES projects rests on the notion of "conditionality", meaning that payments to land-users are contingent on evidence that either the ES (e.g., improved water quality) has been achieved or more frequently that the agreed-upon land-use practices that serve as the basis of the agreement have been implemented. Regardless of whether PES projects achieve their intended objectives or not, the framing of these agreements and the human-nature relationships they represent has many hidden and indeed insidious ramifications. It is these concerns that this intervention addresses.
In her 2014 essay, "What is Land?" anthropologist Tanya Murray Li wrote about how "land" is assembled as a "resource" by a sophisticated network of scientists, investors, technicians, government officials and non-governmental actors. Through the efforts of these experts, "land" and "water" become tangible resources to be governed through the attribution of property rights. Yet land, and indeed water, are not solid objects that can be, in Li's words, rolled up like a mat. They offer what she calls "affordances" or intimate social relationships between people and their territory. These affordances reflect the notion of abundance and are imbued in cultures that have generated meaningful interactions with the living and non-living environment at specific times and places and through histories of collective memory passed down from time immemorial. An attachment or sense of belonging to the land and the waters creates social identities, which in turn shape the infinite affordances that the earth provides. Much like the fluid materiality of water itself, the affordances that characterize human-nature relations are always emergent, always transforming, yet ever-present.
When the benefits of the land or water for people are framed as "provisioning", "regulating", or "cultural" ecosystem services (ES), a certain degree of that intimacy and of the material and social fluidity of human-nature relationships become artificially fixed in time and space. While this may be done for political and economic expediency, the emergent relationships of such "affordances" are disciplined into sterile categories made legible to map and to assign monetary values for more "multifunctional" watersheds. Ecological outputs are then assessed through technical modelling and manipulation of these abstracted ES categories and proclaimed as a "science" in its own right, endorsed and further legitimised through science-policy fora like the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In the process, epistemological and ontological diversity is reduced to easy-to-categorize social constructs like ES. This objectification is largely imposed by a nexus of Northern scholars, multilateral aid agencies, and Northern-funded consultants. This means that injustice and inequity in "ecosystem service" policies will be foundational to their functioning, rather than something that can be addressed through more inclusive design and implementation.
PES take this epistemic violence still further. After having already presumed that ES are objective scientific realities that can be unequivocally identified, measured, mapped, and given a monetary value, PES schemes attempt to initiate negotiation between land and water-users by introducing incentives ideally aligned to the economic opportunity cost of their "delivery." What began as a recognition of intimate forms of connection and relationships to the land and water ends with their objectification as ES and subsequently the exchange of those values through economic incentives.
This does not mean payments cannot be beneficial. They can be if they engender new kinds of social relations that coalesce over the stewardship of the land and the water. The factors that lead to these potentially positive outcomes will reflect the ways by which incentives attend to both individual and collective needs of land- and water-users. However, presuming that payments can be made to efficiently "deliver" affordances fails to appreciate the dynamic unfolding of human-nature relationships that are continuously brought into being. Such relationships cannot be "delivered" because they are immediately altered as soon as they become objectified and inscribed into a conditional PES transaction. A good analogy here is friendship. A friendship often emerges spontaneously out of care and affection. But what if a friendship was only made to "exist" upon the conditional delivery of a checklist of what counts as friendship? Surely that friendship would change its character in the latter compared to the former.
So, the question then arises: if ES are brought into being by a cadre of external experts attempting to translate deeply situated and often intangible affordances of the land and water into more easily manipulatable "resources" for say, "watershed management," then what happens to the affordances that get lost in this translation? What happens to customary land and water tenure regimes that involve diverse ways of knowing about the land and water, and which cannot be understood as economically excludable or rival "resources" the way constructions like carbon credits or water quality trading permits can? Thus, the imperative to demand conditionality in PES will inevitably alter the affordances that shape and are themselves shaped by socio-cultural practices. This alteration may risk dispossessing people of these affordances, or it can help generate new ones; but their character will inevitably change regardless.
This nuance is barely recognized by PES theorists, who remain committed to prioritizing strict ecological conditionality to the "delivery of ES" above all else, with little regard for social equity or justice. The perversity of conditionality lies in the sequence of: a) first identifying what nature's benefits are for specific people (though more often already predetermined as ES by external "experts") and then b) effectively dismissing those same people entirely by demanding that those nature's benefits are prioritized above all else in assuring so-called ecological effectiveness of PES. This is particularly problematic when categories of ES are not even up for discussion in large-scale Northern-funded sustainable financing mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund. International financing mechanisms like REDD+ that attempt to "bundle" ES, for carbon sequestration, water quality, and biodiversity, already wheel and deal in abstracted ES, limiting discussion only to how conditionality can be carried out most efficiently.
ES can indeed serve as a pedagogical tool to illustrate how affordances of the land and water are more than what meets the eye. But for some people, particularly indigenous communities that have maintained relatively harmonious relationships with their lands and waters, such recognition and codification does not need to be made explicit – and especially not by Northern "experts." In addition to perpetuating unsavoury colonial legacies in the prioritization of Western knowledge over others, doing so may have the counterintuitive impact of reifying socio-ecological relations that just exist, that just are. Such relations do not need to be explained and simplified into Western narratives, much less packaged into conditional payments aligned to economic opportunity costs.
If scholars and practitioners of (P)ES are willing to cede place here, they might come to perceive how incentive-based negotiations are an everyday occurrence for land and water-users constantly navigating between a desire for greater cultural autonomy over their lands and waters and the imperatives of state and market overtures that force them to treat affordances to the land and the water as "resources." Greater attention to the former can help identify how incentives can foster greater social cohesion and ownership in the generation of new land and water-affordances. However, as long as the (P)ES community continues to pursue the latter, injustice and inequity in these programmes and policies will be par for the course.
Vijay Krishnan Kolinjivadi
Vijay is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy (IOB) of the University of Antwerp (Belgium). An ecologist by training, and holding a PhD in the socio-political dimensions of Integrated Water Resource Management, his research focuses on the intersections of Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in understanding socio-ecological complexity. He has been researching PES initiatives both theoretically and empirically for more than a decade.
Li, T.M. 2014. What is Land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39(4): 589-602.
Photo credit: Martin Laurenceau (Peru)
PES can also inAfrica aims to align private and public benefits for conservation as a mechanism to improve water quality by encouraging land-use practices that reduce deforestation or driving climate change.
You know in our country we have community forest which aims to lead the management of the forest by the community and drive forest conservation.
You will have good management of water, land or other natural ressources by starting from forest conservation in tropical environment.
Vijay introduces a useful and somewhat controversial concept, but one that, in my opinion, needs to be highlighted to tear down the ivory towers of science in the management of natural resources - 'epistemic violence'. It reminds me of the concept 'structural violence' often used in Political Science and International Relations (see Galtung J. 1969. Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 6(3): 167-171). Structural violence is a form of violence wherein a social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. By looking at what Vijay said about epistemic violence in the context of land and water resources linked to individuals and communities that rely on these for their wellbeing, it is not difficult to draw the links between both types of violence. I agree with Vijay that it is not only about the tangible materiality of the resources that people rely on for their wellbeing, but also the intangible socio-psychological aspects that are important. Human (physical and mental) health and ecosystem health are inextricably linked. An extreme analogy that would help to explain this would be a toxic working environment where employees are stripped of their identity and motivated by the commodification of employment satisfaction. In a situation like this the bottom line or profit margin rules. We also see this commodification of everything, nature included, in the structures of rule, or policies, policy makers implement with the aim of benefitting people that has an intimate relationship with nature.
What is often ignored are the unintended consequences of, for instance, Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). During the course of implementing policy decisions, these unintended consequences emerge as 'bads' (risks) that often out-way the 'goods' (benefits). An argument that is often put forward is: 'How could we have known that there would be negative consequences?' My counter claim is that, as a first step, we need to investigate potential unintended consequences from the start. One way of doing this is to decode the paradigmatic and ideological DNA of policies and programmes, so to speak. For instance, PES rests on an empirical and positivist paradigm where science reduces natural resources to commodities through cost-benefit analyses. Here, the ideology of sustainable development plays an important role in guiding policy and political recommendations and consequent actions. The (unintended) consequence of this is that science 'kicks out' humans and what they hold as valuable (e.g. and as indicated by Vijay, the 'intimacy and... the material and social fluidity of human-nature relationships'). These are normative aspects that are just as important in people's lives as the materiality of natural resources they depend on for physical well-being. In other words, by decoding PES paradigmatically and ideologically gives us a first indication of a potential unintended consequence that could become the root cause of (environmental) injustice.
The next step would be to build trust with individuals and communities and, as equal partners, indicate potential unintended consequences and discuss it with them in an honest manner. Policy makers are often pressed for time, especially during times of crises that makes wide consultation difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example. Yet, science is often afforded more time, especially when considering the duration of research projects. Scientists are also obliged to conduct research in an ethical and honest manner and it is incumbent on the epistemic community to conduct thorough research for the betterment of the human condition. By involving individuals and communities as equal partners in PES research and development might highlight more positive and negative unintended consequences than initially thought.
I believe that such a strategy could lead to better outcomes for individuals and communities that rely on ecosystem services for the physical and mental well-being.
As an environmental economist, I am sympathetic to the value of putting cash prices on nature rather then assuming nature (or ecosystems) are worth "nothing" or "infinity." That said, there are many ways to abuse ES calculations, so they are no silver bullet.
Further, I'd add (and excuse me, Vijay, if you said this, I write/respond in haste) that indigenous people should NOT be required to pay or accept ES-derived values. Rather, I'd prefer they possess the right to access and use (usufruct rights) those ecosystems under traditional property rights. I've seen far too many examples of lowball offers based on spurious metrics. OTOH, I have also seen indigenous communities (e.g., western Canada) ignore all offers, prices, etc. based on their own beliefs. The good thing about rights is that they allow you to refuse/walk away from offers.
You are making some very good points about payments and rights to ES as well as the right to refuse/walk away. This raises another point; in cases where indigenous communities did accept offers, to what extent were they pressured/coerced? In my opinion, there is more than meets the eye regarding ES payments and through a comparative analysis of cases where communities refused and accepted some insightful understandings might be unearthed.
I completely agree. Some people take bad deals because they have no choice. There are many examples of indigenous people losing rights just created (as well as many in Eastern Europe, during the "Shock therapies" of the 1990s), so that's one reason to be careful. When I talk about water markets, for example, I put WAY more priority on leasing over selling rights due to problems with "cash rich" folks taking advantage of "cash poor" folks.
As someone trained as an anthropologist, I see Vijay's claim that PES is imposed by outsiders in such a way as to undermine local social relationships and cultural values as a plausible one. It is also plausible that PES benefits are captured by a powerful minority, exacerbating inequalities in wealth and political power. But plausibility is not evidence. Therefore, I would be interested in knowing what the evidence is for this claim, and whether it is something that occurs occasionally or is the norm?
Dear Vijay and Douglas,
Thanks for this extremely interesting piece (Vijay), for the ensuing debate, and for raising some important follow-up questions (Douglas).
There is some important work on how PES "benefits" are often captured by and very much designed in ways that mostly benefit the interests of more powerful actors (see for example some of the work by Jean Carlo Rodriguez-de-Francisco: here and here, or a broader overview of work that engages with these issues, and provides additional examples of local power struggles resulting in inequalities here).
But perhaps more importantly, I think that one of the major issues is how power dynamics at play in and through scientific and policy epistemic communities are actually shaping how PES has become (and continues to be) one of the dominant conservation instruments that is proposed at the international level, and how the very design of these projects almost automatically perpetuates and reinforces existing power imbalances. A good example, that I studied myself, is the so-called RISEMP silvopastoral project (one of the flagship projects of the World Bank and the GEF) which took place in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala (2003-2007). While the project has been sold by its proponents as a success story, our reassessment of the Nicaraguan component has shown that the project has very much benefited the most powerful actors in the area, being the most land and capital intensive land users. These are the ones who actually –by design- capture most of the payments and other benefits, and have managed to usurp more land from those less powerful actors in the area, who then are forced to engage in further deforestation further down the agricultural frontier. Ultimately, this case (and other cases elsewhere), shows that inequality is inherent to PES when it does not consider the broader social-ecological and economic dynamics in which land users are embedded.
I find the post quite interesting, however there is this implicit idea that the implementation of PES schemes is imposed and conditioned from above by scientists and policy makers. There is this assumption that PES c0onditionalities, contracts and schemes are fixed and that these shape PES programs. As if individuals and communities entering into these schemes become subdued to them giving up their liberty and their self-determination in using and managing their lands and related resources.
What this view fails to recognize is the agency and creativity of policy implementers, individuals and communities that enter into PES agreements. Anthropological research into processes of policy implementation shows time and again that policies are negotiated at different scales and PES policies are no exception to this. At local level, communities and individuals constantly negotiatie the terms of the programs they engage in. Policy implementers also have to negotiate these terms (be it informally) to be able to 'recruit' willing participants for their programs. Once the programs are running the negotiations continue especially as it is often in the interest of the policy implementers to keep and sustain program 'beneficiaries'. In these processes, 'scientific' strict ecological conditionality is often negotiatied, transformed and reinterpreted at local level in the policy cycle.
On the other side, individuals and communities are very resourceful in adapting and blending these programs into their own cultural belief systems and management practices creating new hybrid forms of land use and management. The use of strategies of mimicry through which they sustain their own values, while keeping a façade towards policy implementers is also at the order of the day. Finally beneficiaries tailor PES programs in strategic ways that enable them to 'use' these programs for their own benefit both discursively as well as materially.
Finally I would also be cautious in romanticizing cultural beliefs and land use management practices. Both are fluid and transform with time as communities and individuals transform through technological innovations, external influences (urban-rural migration is important here) and internal dynamics. So... we need to much better undestand what happens at the local level in different contexts where PES is being implemented and not only look at the PES programs on paper but importantly how these hit the ground and how individuals and communities are negotiating these programs on a day-to-day basis both materially as well as discursively.
Jamie, thank you for this very interesting comment. It would be helpful if you could provide a few examples, if possible with references. I think you make a good point that we should not under-estimate local agency, but I would expect power differentials to limit local folks' options.
Thanks for your intervention Jaime. I wholeheartedly agree. The agency of actors who live and breathe these (P)ES schemes, projects, and policies is absolutely crucial to understand how institutions of their design and implementation get (re)shaped and made fit for purpose in ways that have meaning and context to everyday life situations. At the same time, it is imbued in their acquired ecological knowledge as land-users, farmers, foresters etc. who have experience on how their land-use impacts impact soils and water quality for example.
We have made this argument here in order to intervene within rather acerbic debates within the PES literature that have pitted discipline to an ideal-type "PES" theory (which should not shirk its defined terms and conditions) to its opposing extreme, which calls for doing away with (P)ES as "neoliberal deceit." Instead, we make similar claims to what you have made based on experience on how actors co-construct and shape PES to work best for them and their own ecological knowledge that influences incentive-based negotiations. This also provides greater ownership of the process and outcomes. To this end, PES can be "reclaimed" so to speak by those who are involved in them, rather than by expert and external technocrats pushing projects to complete funding cycles.
The concern I raise in the original intervention is both ontological (the framing of human-nature relations as ES and then by turns payment compensation to trade in those ES) as well as epistemological (imposing a particular knowledge form in securing "ecological outcomes" by demanding conditionality in a way that does not recognize other forms of knowledge as to how meaningful socio-ecological relations come about). The question then arises- can prioritizing local autonomy in the means of establishing the terms and conditions of these projects be a form of undoing the particular (rigid) imaginaries that (P)ES (as a theoretical or conceptual ideal-type) impose on human-nature relations? Can the greater autonomy of those "service providers" in particular (over the type and form of negotiation) then allow for the flourishing of new social relations (i.e. the incentives) that result in greater stewardship of water bodies/watersheds ? Here incentives then take on a different form, and most certainly do not need to be monetary (or framed as WTP)
Fully agree with the above, though we need not forget that most PES schemes are inserted in already commodified or partly commodified livelihoods and natural resources use schemes. As such I don't see a problem in having economic incentives to enhance better land and water stewardship. Yes, we have to give though to how these take shape and how benefits are shared taking into account issues of equity and justice. However this does not mean that payments can't become an important way to enhance natural resource stewardship while at the same time enhancing the development of livelihoods.
Your latest comment made me think of the "where are we going with this" question. Is PES then a suitable solution in an otherwise unchangeable system of globalized commodity markets and a political economy predicated on exploitation and resource extraction (i.e. the best we can do given the circumstances)? Or must we aim higher, as if our collective lives depended on it, for a different kind of system predicated on non-commodified relationships between farmers, their connections to the land/water/forests, and how food can be produced following principles of agro-ecology? If PES is limited to insert itself within a market system, it may risk being swallowed up by the Jevon's Paradox. Efficiency gains get instantly neutralized by increasing production and consumption (i.e. ecosystem service protection in one place gets instantly compensated by increasing pressure to bulldoze nature elsewhere across the landscape).
The fundamental question in this discussion is how to preserve ecosystem services by the use of Payments for Ecosystem Preservation (PES). The author’s original post focuses on terrestrial and water ecosystem services (land use practices and groundwater preservation) but the concept of PES can be extended to other domains, such as forestry, freshwater and oceanic ecosystems.
The main idea comes from economists, stating that we can affect a monetary value to ecosystem services. A-priori this is not evident, because ecosystem services may generate human benefits that are beyond the rules of a market. Clean water for example is not a commodity and as source of life has an infinite value for humans. Also the beauty of a landscape or a lake cannot be easily evaluated in monetary terms.
Of course we don’t evaluate the price of water but the price of water services that are necessary for having access to water i.e. is the cost of water infrastructure and other functions that are used for water allocation. In the case of ES we evaluate the economic opportunity costs of implementing ecosystem preservation practices. Even in this case, there is a major difficulty for applying this idea in the real field: at the preventive stage, when we assume that good preservation practices that are implemented through the use of PES are sufficient for resolving the diffuse problems, such as soil nitrification and groundwater pollution. In fact the real problem is not only technical and social issues, like stakeholders behavior, climate change and other uncertainties make the preventive stage much more complicated. The question of “conditionality” for allocating PES in certain regulatory systems like in Mexico can generate social injustice because of the inherent complexity of large scale ecosystem services.
In some regulatory systems, like in the EU/WFD 60/2000 (European Union Water Framework Directive) water pricing is used at the remediation stage, by stating that if in some river basins water is over used or polluted, payments are introduced to water users for rehabilitating the natural resource or environmental damages. Environmental and resource costs associated with negative impact on the aquatic environment are taken into account in accordance with the polluter-pays principle. Conditionality is imposed to Member States in order to ensure that economic instruments are properly implemented and this can also generate social injustice in Member States that are not able to follow this regulation.
As a public policy professional and having done my PhD on ES, I find merit in Vijay's arguments, however, I have a few concerns too. While the commodification of nature is a controversial topic rooted in environmental and ecological ethics, ethics aside, it can be a beneficial tool. I find it difficult to generalize PES schemes as there are so many factors (such as indigenous culture), that contribute to its benefit or detriment. Scale and population density are important factors. In North America at the watershed scale, PES can be particularly useful in changing behaviors and bringing about ES awareness. In my research and experience, I found that public funding for environmental protection/management is constantly changing and typically underfunded, PES is one tool to build consistency in funding for ES protection, conservation and management. PES can be managed by watershed managers along with WTP and other values which can be reinvested back into ES conservation. From a public policy perspective, monetary values seem to be a common language/common denominator to help raise awareness for and the profile of ES. Many policy-makers are only acutely aware of the functions, services and benefits of ES. My research has shown that PES can help to build that awareness and promote behavior change to users and beneficiaries both upstream and downstream, particularly in urban watersheds.
Thanks everyone for your insightful comments and reflections on this piece. Ultimately, my intervention here was meant to reflect on the specific and narrow imaginaries of human-nature relations that are being adopted through (P)ES projects and policies. Using the same imaginaries of human and nature dualisms to help address the problems created by those very dualisms - may be ultimately self-defeating. This is not to say that the agency of actors who are implicated in the very managerial and technical way of seeing the world (i.e. pretty much everyone now in this inescapably modern and market-driven world), cannot twist the rules to reflect the relationships people have to the land and the water in important and meaningful ways. The point of the intervention was to perhaps shake up the rather narrow way that ES frame and conceptualize what T.M. Li referred to as cultural "affordances" of the land/water. It helps us understand what new forms of inequality and injustice "we" may be generating by pushing (P)ES projects and policies without putting epistemological and ontological diversity as core tenets of understanding what ecological relations are all about (i.e. an ecology in which humans are very much a part of the living and non-living landscape).