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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)