Payment for Eden?

‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ or PES is the latest mantra in wildlife conservation. It is not a new concept but was brought to central stage in 2005 by the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It takes the conservation movement another step on a journey towards its economic Nirvāṇa – conserved global biodiversity in the marketplace. Like its 1980 predecessor, IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy, it seeks to justify biodiversity over agriculture and other developments on the basis of monetary value.  It has borrowed the adage ‘if it pays it stays’ previously aimed at game animals and applied it to ecosystems. PES promises tangible benefits to people and wildlife but it has become mired in misunderstandings.

1. Definition bulge

In the first place PES has been saddled with an overly generous definition. It conflates real ecosystem services, like water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination, with the better-established ‘use of natural resources’ (timber, NTFPs, pasture, fish and so on) and other less tangible values of ecosystems such as biodiversity (species richness, rarity, endemism, etc.). Definitions are important and PES has swollen so much that it has become a double acronym: its other persona ‘payment for environmental services’ now growing in popularity. The concept is in danger of dissipating into a catchall ‘payment for any and every economic value of the environment’ or simply ‘environmental payments’. So a good start would be to revisit the definition and pin it down to something useful.

2. Panacea or pipedream?

Secondly, PES is used far too easily in the conservation literature as some kind of panacea for ensuring sustainable development and biodiversity protection. In the real world, it is difficult to implement because it requires change to firmly-established fiscal policies, systems of governance or trading agreements. Take REDD for example. It is held up in conservation writing wherever one looks, or so it seems, as a joint solution to deforestation and climate change. Yet even on its own terms, REDD (and REDD+) are not working. The market for forest carbon is tiny and the price has collapsed. We await agreements.

What price for tropical rainforest?

Take water provisioning by forests as another example. From my own experience in Africa and the Balkans, progress is not promising. For instance in one East African country where I was engaged recently as an environmental consultant, my counterpart (a national expert in forest ecology) asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them (see my earlier post – Post Rio Blues).  I don’t want to appear flippant or defeatist.  I simply wish to point out that a huge amount of work is required on fiscal policy, governance of ‘social-ecological systems’ and trading agreements in order to get PESs up and running. We need to face up to these real challenges.

3. Appropriation of the commons

Thirdly, the international development community is beginning to work with conservationists to open up nature-based markets. Suppose they are successful in putting PES into widespread use. What will be the consequences? One outcome we should be aware of is an expansion in the environmental influence of wealthy investors, multinationals and governments as they begin to purchase and profit from ecosystem services – the same goods that were once held as common property by local people and on which they depend for their livelihoods. By promoting open markets and international trade, PES threatens the traditional rights of local users of common property resources.

It might be argued that having ‘trees’ with PES is better than losing ‘trees’ altogether. But surely what we want is trees that local people engage with and wish to maintain. At the very least, the conservation movement should give equal weight to understanding and supporting self-governance of common resources, including the collective-choice and self-determination principles advocated by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. (Here is an excellent radio interview with Elinor Ostrom, Njabulo Ndebele and Manju Kapur.)

4. Beware the economic boomerang

Rice terraces on forested slopes of the Himalayas prevent soil erosion
Photo by Eric Monfort

Fourthly, we should have reservations about a conservation rationale that is exclusively based on economic value. Why? For one thing, because economic value is like a yoyo: prices go up and down. An ecosystem that has high value for tourism this year may have higher value for wheat fields next year. If price is the only reason to keep a place wild, then wildlife will soon disappear. Furthermore, most ecosystem services can be duplicated in agricultural landscapes. Even those in a complex natural habitat like a tropical forest can be duplicated by ingenious farmers. As a previous post mentions (Tropical Rain Forests),  terraced rice paddies with a few shade trees and perhaps a reed bed at the bottom could provide most of the water retention and purification services of a catchment forest.

Beekeeping in the Yildiz Mountains of Turkey

The extra payments for this ecosystem service might, perversely, just tip the balance, making the conversion of forest to fields profitable. Similarly, replacing deciduous woodland with fields of angiosperm crops such as pulses, crucifers or fruit trees, together with suitable management of field verges and hedgerows should provide the nectar necessary for bees to deliver honey as well as pollination services.

Despite these problems, could PES be the only worthwhile game in town when it comes to dealing with developers? I think this is where we begin to approach the true nature of the biodiversity dilemma, which has more to do with ethical values than pounds and cents. Take an example in the news concerning the future of Serengeti National Park. Many have argued that the future of the park is safeguarded by foreign exchange takings that have great significance for the Tanzanian economy.  Proliferation of lodges and hotels inside the park has certainly raised the takings enormously over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the government recently proposed road construction across the north of the park to provide a transport link between Lake Victoria and the Coast. Wildlife managers pointed out that a main road would soon require fencing and that fencing would prevent the migration of wildebeest. The inevitable consequence would be a collapse in numbers of wildebeest with a related collapse in large predators. The substantial economic value of the Serengeti National Park (and neighbouring Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya) would decline sharply.

This is about as strong a case for wildlife conservation through PES as you can get. Serengeti provides a tourism service, road construction will destroy tourism, and therefore the road should not be supported by government. How often will it be possible to mount a PES case against road building of equivalent strength? Few wildlife areas make as much money from tourism as Serengeti; most make little or none. Even so, the economic arguments for stopping the road fell on deaf ears. Government was contemplating a larger economic and political picture: the advantages of connecting the burgeoning Lake Victoria region to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean, and the prospect of massive agricultural developments and increased trade. What stopped the threat at the last minute was national and international outrage at the impending desecration of natural heritage. Government relented and agreed to construct a longer road that would pass to the south of the park. It was the sense of unique natural value in Serengeti, strongly communicated by concerned people in Tanzania and beyond which apparently swayed the politicians. No doubt wildlife economics played a supporting role in changing the heart of government, but not the primary role.

Faith in core values

PES offers some real benefits in the difficult task of conserving biodiversity. It can direct the attention of development planners to hidden uses of nature which might otherwise be overlooked. It can provide farmers with new incentives for practising wildlife-friendly agriculture. For instance, it may persuade some to leave an unploughed verge alongside streams or to plant a windbreak of native trees. If we include natural resources within ecosystem services (I’d rather not), then the profits obtained from their sustainable exploitation could ensure their long-term future. It is extrapolation of this kind of thinking which has positioned economics at the centre of conservation policy today. But this is where I part company with PES. I am worried by the narrowness of the economic narrative which now pervades the entire conservation movement. I think it will take us on a wild economic goose chase  as the market economy adjusts to future shortages.

Each society strives to protect what is vital: it cares for its children, the sick and elderly; it protects personal security, public health, electrical power, safe drinking water, and so on. Few nations entrust these vital concerns entirely to the marketplace; usually protection is a matter of policy.  Likewise a strong case can be made for protecting vital ecosystem services through policy, such as water supply. But what about nature in general? We cannot pretend it is all vital to our immediate wellbeing. Each society determines the level of protection it wishes to offer its biodiversity depending on its core values. It determines what wildlife it should try to keep and what wilderness areas. One of the most crucial decision-areas for us today, I believe, concerns our collective relationship with nature. Its variety, wonder, wildness and richness should be protected, not because of economics, but because they are vital to our imagination and our humanity. In the short-term we may do without them, but in a longer timespan our spiritual life will suffer. That bears thinking about. In the rush to develop wealth for a nation, the deeper truths are in danger of being forgotten. I would like  the conservation movement to promote a broader philosophy of humans and nature to guide our development planning and protect our biodiversity. It might start by putting its own house in order by restoring its faith in the core values of nature. That is where Eden begins and that is where its future lies.

About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website,
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1 Response to Payment for Eden?

  1. JFDerry says:

    Good article, as ever, Mart. PES does seem a very narrow perception of natural dynamics, like only considering wave power to combat global warming. Surprisingly blinkered, given that the idea has been about for over a decade: I remember discussing it in SA. I had hoped to get more up-to-date last year with a student project, but they dropped out, sadly.

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