Rewarding communities for environmental services

Post written by Godfrey Mwaloma, Pro-Poor Rewards for Environmental Services in Africa, ICRAF

Luang Prabang wetlands, north central Laos, photo by Jean-Marie Huilot (cc)

Payments or rewards for environmental services is a concept bringing together the rural poor, governments, the private sector and international organizations. How does it work?

Think of forests and wetlands as providers of services. They provide clean water that is used downstream by cities and industries. Forests and wetlands help purify the air that we breathe. Apart from this, forests and wetlands are the only living environment for numerous plant and animal species. Because of the biodiversity, forests and wetlands attract millions of tourists each year.

Wherever natural ecosystems are present, there will be communities that have lived there for years. With populations growing rapidly, coupled with the need for more agricultural land, communities are moving into areas that were previously uninhabited. This means that many of the ecosystem services that are crucial for life come from farms and grazing land rather than untouched ecosystems. In order to ensure the continued delivery of ecosystem services, the people living in these areas must be provided with incentives or compensation so that they continue conserving their environment.

Rewards may not necessarily be in the form of cash, though in Costa Rica, cash incentives have successfully been utilized. In Indonesia, Philippines and Nepal, rewards for environmental services take the form of provision of land titles, provision of electricity supply by hydro-electric power companies, and provision of clean water by city municipal authorities. In other words, the beneficiaries of ecosystem services pay for conservation by improving the lives of communities around critical ecosystems.

Another example can be found in New York, where the city water authority realized that it is cheaper to pay for conservation of the watershed than to keep buying bigger and more expensive filtration systems. As a result, the city has saved billions of dollars over the years.
The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is conducting research into rewards for environmental services through two major projects in Africa and Asia.

The RUPES project in Asia (Rewarding the Upland Poor for Environmental Services) is working with communities, researchers and policy makers in China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines and Vietnam. RUPES has several sites in the region where it is testing various approaches to rewarding communities for environmental services. RUPES began in 2002 and, five years later, spawned a similar in Africa. This is the project on Pro-poor Rewards for Environmental Services in Africa (PRESA).

A case study of RUPES’ work in Asia is featured in an article recently published in the New Agriculturist magazine here. The article describes how RUPES helped coffee farmers at the island of Sumatra get conditional land tenure. In exchange, the farmers are expected to practice soil and water conservation measures that ensure that sediments do not clog a local hydroelectric dam.
“We are very happy with this scheme because it gave us a legal certainty in managing our land as well as providing us with additional income from the fruit trees,” says Eddy Purwanto, a community group member.

Rewards for environmental services is not a very new concept, and does not necessarily signify a radical shift in conservation approaches. However, a combination of market-based incentives with environmental conservation could be the missing ingredient towards sustainable conservation.

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Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is the Head of Communications at the World Agroforestry Centre.

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