UWB Crest

p4ges - Can Paying 4 Global Ecosystem Services reduce poverty?

Lay summary

village with deforestation around

Zafy lives in a village on edge of the forest in Madagascar. He wants the best for his family and so uses the resources and options he has open to him and clears a patch of forest to grow hill rice. His hard labour pays off and he is able to sell a small surplus. Rakoto farms rice on the valley floor. In good years, when there is plenty of water, he produces more than his family can eat. However as the forest on the slopes continues to be cut, water in the dry season is reduced, and there are fewer and fewer good years.

That tropical deforestation threatens species’ survival is well known to the general public. There is also increasing awareness that it contributes to climate change (through the release of carbon stored in trees and soils). Zafy’s story demonstrates that although cutting down forest is often presented as wanton destruction, it may well be a perfectly sensible choice for the people directly involved. It also shows that some negative impacts of deforestation may be felt locally as well as globally. 

In recent years a new approach to conserving tropical forests has evolved. The central idea is that those who benefit from the existence of forest should pay those who would otherwise cut it down. This concept is known as payment for ecosystem services and has come to dominate discussions about rainforest conservation. People who support this approach argue that it will benefit poor people like Zafy, who will be compensated for not clearing forest, through cash payments or development activities in their area. In addition, the land-use changes which will be encouraged under the payment schemes (protecting forest or planting new forest) may benefit other poor people in the area; for example Rakoto may benefit from increased forest cover through improved flow of water to his rice fields.

Unfortunately nothing is ever as simple as it seems. While these payments for ecosystem services schemes are attracting millions of dollars, and there is a commitment by many involved to ensure they are beneficial for poor people, questions remain both about the impact current schemes are having on the poor and about how these schemes could be designed to realise any potential for alleviating poverty while avoiding harm.

These vitally important questions need a research approach which brings together specialists with a range of expertise. Our team involves sociologists, economists, ecologists, hydrologists, remote sensing experts and modellers who will explore the complex ways in which international ecosystem service payments affect the lives of poor people. Specific questions we will address include quantifying the benefits which lowland rice farmers may expect from increasing forest cover, exploring the costs (and who bears them) of reduced access for wild-product harvesting, and investigating how politics and social structures influence how any benefits from payments are distributed. We focus on a single area (the eastern rainforests), in a single country (Madagascar). Such a narrow focus is necessary to get the complete picture which takes account of all the interactions between ecological and social systems.

Although we focus field work within Madagascar, and our results will directly influence payment schemes in the country, our project’s findings will also have a much wider impact. We are working closely with those involved in developing the policies which underpin payment schemes, and in implementing them on the ground both in Madagascar and worldwide. Our project will result in scientific papers which push the boundaries of interdisciplinary research, and interesting coverage in the media and on our project website. However through this wider engagement our project will also result in concrete changes to the design of payment schemes which should improve the lives of people like Rakoto, Zafy and their families, wherever they live in the world.