Understand first; implement second

Farming VN_Neil Palmer CIAT

Photo: Neil Palmer / CIAT.

Taking the time to understand how farmers’ perceive ecosystem functions and their importance may pay off in the long term for payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes, according to a new study by scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre.

Published in the scientific journal, Ecosystem Services, the study found that farmers in northeast Viet Nam saw value in ecological services provided by both forest and non-forest land despite Vietnam having a PES policy which only considers services from forests.

The farmers rated natural forests highest for the ecosystem services they provide followed by tree plantations and intercropped taungya systems1, with paddy rice rated the lowest. When it comes to the economic value of different land uses, farmers rated natural forests lowest and rice-fish cultivation the highest.

According to Elisabeth Simelton, lead author and climate change researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre, it is important to understand such perceptions to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of PES projects, especially in developing countries where PES is often combined with rural development or poverty alleviation.

“If we know what is important to farmers then we can avoid myths and misunderstandings in designing PES schemes,” says Simelton.

PES schemes in the developing world are often viewed as being able to achieve rural development or poverty alleviation goals as well as environmental protection. Under a PES scheme, providers of ecosystem services (for example, upland famers who practice agroforestry which controls erosion) receive monetary or in-kind payments from beneficiaries (such as water companies or local governments).

In Viet Nam, a national policy describes 5 services provided by forest land – clean water, watershed protection, water for spawning grounds, carbon and landscape beauty – and specifies payment rates for some of these. However the study suggests that limiting ecosystem services to just forests risks missing out on services that are critical to farmers’ livelihoods and which may motivate them to participate in PES schemes.

“Effective PES schemes rely on local knowledge, but there are very few tools available for gathering knowledge about ecosystem functions and values, despite community participation being so integral to natural resource management and PES in developing countries,” explains Simelton

Lack of community participation in PES schemes is often attributed to a lack of knowledge. For this reason, Simelton and colleague, Bac Viet Dam, developed a participatory matrix ranking tool that allows farmers to rate and justify the value of the ecosystems in their own landscape. It is this tool, which provides a relatively quick and easy method for documenting knowledge and misperceptions, that was tested during the study in 2 villages in Bac Kan province, northeastern Viet Nam.

The important thing about the tool is that it doesn’t limit services to those provided by forests and those paid for in Viet Nam’s policy but instead allows farmers to rank services from land uses that include upland cultivation, agroforestry, agriculture fields and home gardens

“The tool reflects the reality of how farmers in the uplands live; amid a landscape of forestry, agroforestry and agriculture which they consider holistically,” says Simelton. “Because of this, we can get a more complete picture of farmers’ understandings and how they evaluate their land uses.”

ranking matrix

The ranking matrix which farmers placed 0 to 6 maize seeds on to show how they value the ecosystem services provided by different land uses. Photo: Elisabeth Simelton / World Agroforestry Centre

During the study, a total of 7 land uses were identified and 14 ecosystem services were selected. Through focus group discussions, villagers ranked each ecosystem service by land-use type. The economic value of each land use was also rated which reflected the current monetary value of the land use to the households.

“We found that it is not only the ranking which is important, the discussions which take place during the process help to provide useful insights.”

Considerable time was spent discussing the link between agrochemical pollutants, upland soil erosion and water quality. “The farmers did not see any economic incentive for selective cutting or agroforestry systems which would mean that introducing PES schemes on slopes for clean water may make little sense.”

The farmers ranked provisioning services as the most important to them, such as those which provide them with food, wood, fuel and which generate income. The farmers could understand that losing ecosystem services would lead to long-term degradation and reduced income but they could not afford to engage in more environmentally-friendly practices.

“This demonstrates that PES payment levels need to be competitive and include trees and land uses that can provide a range of benefits, otherwise it is likely farmers will continue to plant low-value fast-growing single-use trees instead of those which can contribute to greater forest biodiversity.”

The results showed little difference in the ranking and explanations of ecosystem service between each village despite To Dooc village having participated in an ongoing forest-PES pilot scheme since 2009 whereas Na Ca villagers had never heard of PES.

“Overall, the study suggests that it is differing rather than limited knowledge about the environment which affects stakeholders’ attitudes to policies and projects on PES.”

The authors recommend that research and capacity building efforts to prepare for PES schemes embrace a wider range of local knowledge and understanding of ecosystem functions than those immediately considered for payment schemes.


1. Taungya agroforestry systems intercrop cassava with fast-growing timber trees.

Download the full article:

Simelton E and Dam VB. 2014. Farmers in NE Viet Nam rank values of ecosystems from seven land uses. Ecosystem Services.

Related articles:

Rice-fish cultivation produces environmental services

Thousands of years of rice and fish without artificial inputs


Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

You may also like...