Payments for ecosystem services (PES), also known as payments for environmental services (or benefits), are incentives offered to farmers or landowners in compensation for proper land-management that provides ecological services. Among these benefits we can mention conserving animal and plant species, protecting hydric resources, conserving natural scenery, and storing carbon.
Costa Rica is a pioneer in PES schemes. Since 1997 approximately one million hectares of forest have been part of these ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) schemes at one time or another. Forest cover has returned to more than 50% of the country’s total land area (51,000 square kilometres) – a huge increase from an all-time low of 21% in 1987. This small Central American country was not only able to stop one of the highest deforestation rates world-wide, but also to reverse it and in this way preserve its fantastic biodiversity. According to a recent study by the Forest and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in 2016 forest cover amounted to 54% of the total territory.
This tremendous success was possible with the help of an innovative scheme elaborated, financed, and implemented by the Costa Rican government with the support of the Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Cordillera Volcánica Central (Fundecor). The foundation still offers today a series of services related to forest conservation, such as capacity building for forest ecosystem management, advice on sustainable forest management (both of natural forest and forest plantations), and advice on mitigation and adaptation to climate change in the forest sector.
Brazil, Ecuador, and Guatemala have also created PES schemes, financed by the government. In Brazil, 2,700 indigenous families have benefited from the Bolsa Floresta project, which pays in exchange for the preservation of primary forest. In Ecuador, the Socio-Bosque project has been able to conserve more than half a million hectares of forest, with more than 60,000 beneficiaries. Guatemala has reforested more than 95,000 hectares of land, in addition to the conservation of 155,000 hectares of natural forest.
More recently, PES schemes have been implemented for the conservation of agricultural and livestock landscapes. A pilot program, again in Costa Rica, has achieved a significant reduction in degraded pasture land (more than 40% recovery), an increase of more than 75% in the number pastures with tree coverage, an increase in 3.5 times the length of living fences, 22% more carbon storage, habitat creation, improved water security, and a reduction in water surface runoff. In addition to this, a program financed by the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) and carried out in Colombia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica achieved a 60% reduction in degraded pastureland in all three countries, with a significant increase in forest coverage mixed with pastureland. The project has also contributed to a 71% increase in carbon storage, a higher milk production, and a 115% income increase of the farm owners. A well-planned and executed PES scheme provides a holistic solution to many interrelated problems. First of all, it preserves existing forests and rebuilds formerly deforested areas. This has several positive co-benefits: the forests store carbon and thus mitigate climate change, water resources are secured, beautiful countryside scenery is restored, air quality is improved, and plant and animal species are better protected. Second, it provides additional resources to land-owners in rural areas, potentially relieving social and economic problems in those regions. Thirdly, PES can also be used as a strategy for adaptation to the impacts of climate change.
Ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA) is the usage of biodiversity and ecosystemic services as part of an adaptation strategy. Some additional benefits to those mentioned above are that EBA improves risk reduction by restoring coastal habitats, establishes agricultural systems, and helps in the prevention of fires. A good EBA project should follow several basic principles: a) involve local communities, taking into consideration their way of life and specific needs; b) focus on the reduction of pressures that have degraded the ecosystem; c) develop alliances and strategies with different partners, public and private; d) take advantage of existing good practices in the management of natural resources; e) follow an adaptive approach; f) integrate the project into greater adaptation strategies; and g) communicate and educate.
One example of a EBA project is the Parque Andino de la Papa (Andean Potato Park) in Cusco, Perú. The people in the region have been able to increase the number of potato varieties (from 200 to 650). This reduces the risk of crop destruction, by using different varieties of potatoes in different microclimates. As a co-benefit, the project improves and secures genetic biodiversity. Women and local communities have also been empowered in the process.
Another interesting example is the CASCADA project, which takes place in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Some of its objectives are to contribute to the adaptation of small coffee producers, increase the capacities in the communities, and involve civil society in decision-makin g. CASCADA also reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide set off during the coffee production process. This is done by planting trees for shade and as green barriers, as well as reducing chemical fertilisers and organic waste. The project also aims to empower the local communities and other relevant actors, forming a virtuous cycle.
The successful experiences with ecosystem-based mitigation and adaptation schemes in Latin America show that these are helpful tools in the fight against climate change. If well implemented, ecosystem-based programs can have many other additional environmental, social and economic co-benefits. They offer holistic solutions to interconnected problems and have the potential to become virtuous cycles, enabling countries and regions to achieve much with a good cost-benefit ratio. Also, by sharing their knowledge gained from these pioneer schemes, Latin American countries could also become a leading force in the fight against climate change. By providing advisory services to other countries, Latin American countries could also receive additional sources of income and in this manner, further enrich a win-win process.
Featured image credit: Rain Forest Clouds by tropa66. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.