Forests for firewood, streams for irrigation, wetlands for flood defence: we all need natural systems to support and protect us, but it is many of the world’s poorest people who are most dependent on these ecosystem services. How can these systems be protected in ways that leave everyone better off? This question is driving a series of research projects under a programme called Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), which runs until 2017 and is supported by DFID’s Research and Evidence Division, ESRC and NERC.
The idea of marrying green and pro-poor initiatives is gaining credence in policy circles, and will form the backbone for the discussions at the RIO+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next year. Such integration requires a good understanding of the interplay between the many environmental, economic and social factors involved and ESPA is starting to fill the knowledge gaps that exist at these disciplinary divides. The programme began with a series of broad situation analyses that identified the knowledge needs and has recently commissioned 18 short-term research projects in Africa, Amazonia, South Asia and East Asia. ESPA is now in the process of commissioning large multi-regional consortium projects that aim to build capabilities amongst researchers and users of ESPA research to better integrate ecosystem services into development processes.
ESPA’s research is spread globally across the developing world. In Kenya, for example, ESPA scientists are helping the world’s first carbon credit project for mangrove forests by developing a robust assessment of the true economic and social value of these coastal resources; ESPA is also funding projects in other countries which include developing an ecosystem service index to help better anticipate tipping points, developing conceptual frameworks that inform how to better manage socio-ecological trade offs and deliver ‘just ecosystem management’.
ESPA’s focus is on providing robust evidence, based on the application of rigorous scientific methods. In Bolivia, for example, an ESPA-funded project is applying a randomized control trial (RCT) approach to measure the effectiveness of a scheme to compensate local people for conserving forests. NGO NaturaBolivia developed the scheme to protect watersheds in the Santa Cruz valleys, and was poised to implement it across a new 1.8 million acre protected area. However, they wanted definitive evidence that the project not only brought large areas of forest under payment contracts, but actually improved forest cover, watersheds and people’s lives.
Collaborating with Harvard economists, NaturaBolivia developed a controlled project evaluation, which compares impacts for two randomised groups of villages - one group receiving conservation payments, the other receiving education about the downstream benefits of healthy forests. This is one of the first studies to measure the impacts of ‘payments for ecosystem services’ in controlled experiments.
Worldwide, payment for environmental services initiatives could grow to billions of dollars each year and provide significant benefits for poor rural communities - but researchers and practitioners must learn how to set up these schemes so that they do benefit the poor. The results of this cost-effectiveness study, due out in 2012, including some of ESPA’s other outputs, will continue to be widely disseminated to relevant development actors over the course of the programme.