Cash for conservation: Lessons from around the world

Anyone can talk about how to save the rainforest. Any class can analyze from afar the pros and cons of conservation strategies carried out halfway around the globe.

But I only know of one class where students can discuss conservation programs with the very people who are putting them into practice, across six countries and four continents, right here at Duke.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to take part in a workshop on “Alternative Discourses of Payments for Ecosystem Services” put on by the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The workshop was a sort of capstone for my semester-long Nicholas School course of the same name. But it was so much more than a school project: it was also a first-of-its-kind meeting of practitioners and scholars from around the world, all figuring out how to make Payments for Ecosystem Services, or PES, succeed in complex political contexts.

Perhaps I should back up just a bit – what exactly is PES, anyway?

In its simplest form, PES operates on the notion that people are more likely to conserve nature, or more specifically the “ecosystem services” that society derives from nature, if they are paid for it (For more on ecosystem services, see my earlier blog post). Theoretically, if a farmer can receive more money to preserve and manage the rainforest behind his farm than he can earn by cutting it down and planting soybeans, won’t the trees stay standing?

Well, as we learned at the workshop from practitioners of PES programs in Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, South Africa and Vietnam, the reality is a lot more complicated.

The Brazil team shows off our whiteboard full of ideas.

I spent most of the three-day workshop holed up in a room with a small group discussing Bolsa Floresta (roughly, Portuguese for “forest allowance”), a PES program that operates in remote protected forests of the Amazonas State in Brazil. I was the only one in the room that couldn’t speak Portuguese, but luckily (unlike in other groups) everyone was also fluent in English, so communication was fine.

Included in our group was Dr. Virgilio Viana, Director General of the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, who has run the Bolsa Floresta program since 2008.

Ph.D. student Juliano Correa and I present our findings at the end of the workshop.
Photo c/o Prof. Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza

From Virgilio, I learned that just paying people to protect the forest – “cash for conservation” – isn’t necessarily the best way to change behavior. Money is helpful for families in need of extra food, fuel and clothing, but a small monthly allowance won’t be game-changing for most families living and farming deep in the Brazilian Amazon.

What these families value more is education for their children, technical training and equipment for sustainable income projects, and strong community associations.

With these community needs in mind, Bolsa Floresta has pioneered a hybrid model that fuses sustainable development and forest conservation. Early signs show that this model, which goes above and beyond the conventional theory of PES, has had success in cutting local deforestation levels.

At the end of the long second day of our workshop, Virgilio also taught me another key lesson from Brazil: how to make a caipirinha.

Dr. Virgilio Viana demonstrates proper technique for blending Brazil’s national cocktail. Photo c/o Paulina Arroyo

All it takes to make this national cocktail is some muddled lime and sugar, ice and the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça. As I shook up the whole concoction in a blender, I thought about how valuable cultural exchange can be.

Through the workshop, the conservation programs in Brazil and elsewhere that I’d spent a semester reading about in academic journals had suddenly come to life in my head; their successes, shortcomings and politics more fully understood than they could ever have been in the classroom.

My discussions with practitioners had helped me see more clearly the need for conservation and social empowerment to work in concert, lifting people and nature up together.

Now that is something to raise a toast to. Saúde!

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