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Payments for environmental services and socio-political embededdness. Case study in the Los negros region (Bolivia)

Through which processes can Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) contribute to poverty reduction in marginalized communities? This new concept of PES, born in the 1990’s, aims to pay for positive externalities, understood as the environmental benefits of specific human activities, at the contrary to the “polluter pays” principle that aims to internalize environmental costs of human activities. Nevertheless, PES turn out to be much more than a mere economic tool for natural resource management. Indeed, Corbera et al. (2007a) qualify them of “emerging institutions”, because of the amount of rules that they represent. Mostly oriented towards market principle, they present a huge diversity of social arrangements, as illustrated by many authors (Vatn 2010, McAfee & Shapiro 2010, Corbera et al. 2007a, Farley & Costanza 2010, etc..). According to McAfee, this is because PES depend on socio-political and cultural structures of natural resource management and on given human-nature relationships in a specific context, what McAfee and Shapiro name « socionatures » (MacAffe & Shapiro 2010: 595), as well as existing power relationships. This means these arrangements are not socially neutral given that they depend on existing structures and inequalities that are however not made explicit. But these institutions can also induce structural and power relation change, by increasing inequalities or reducing them. Equity, power and justice stakes are therefore getting emphasis in the recent PES literature, in particular in the context of developing countries. Indeed, PES are more and more applied there, and will continue to take place with the new UN REDD+ initiative, that aims to pay for activities reducing or avoiding deforestations. Because these initiatives are often taking place in marginalized areas, they are often given a role to play in the topic of poverty reduction in rural areas, by different development actors (international organizations, UN bodies, intergovernmental banks, NGOs, etc.… According to McAfee & Shapiro (2010), the question of PES potential to reduce poverty is particularly important, insofar as it legitimize international organizations PES initiatives. Different scholars will look at this relation between PSE, poverty and development, like Corbera 2007, Grieg-Gran et al. 2005, Leimona et al. 2009, Pagiola et al. 2005, Randrianarison 2010, Börner et al. 2010, Boyd 2010, etc… However, all of them do not conceive this relation in the same way, which is also the case of the civil society and can lead to contradiction or even tensions: « the translation of PES scheme from paper to practice reveals tensions between the conservation first, market efficiency, and ‘pro-poor’ priorities » (McAfee & Shapiro 2010: 580). McAfee & Shapiro observed such tensions in their case study on the Mexican government PES program, supported by the World Bank and so at first designed according to free market principle, where efficiency criteria confronted “anti-poverty” objectives (McAfee & Shapiro 2010: 579). According to them, the PES-poverty link in the literature can be differentiated along three conceptions: i) the conservationist-efficiency: supported by the World Bank and authors like Pagiola, argues that poverty reduction and conservation objectives (achieved through market efficiency) are contradictory. Poverty reduction can at best be a positive side-effect; ii) the anti-poverty / anti PES: PES tend to increase poverty by further dispossessing the poorest people, by encouraging them to cede part of their control on natural resources (McAfee & Shapiro 2010 : 584); iii) the pro-market / pro-poor : promoted among other by the International Development Research Centre, l’UNEP, l’IUCN, Forest Trends, etc. : given that service providers are very often rural poors, it makes sense to focus on them, to positively discriminate them, in order to increase PES efficiency. Rohit Jindal (2011) gives three criteria of “pro-poor” PES: “1) they do not exclude the poor, 2) they are not systematically biaised against the poor, 3) they are systematically biaised towards the poor by selecting them first” (Jindal et al. 2011 : 6) This pro-poor vision is the most popular one: «Recently, there has been some promotion of the potential for ‘pro-poor PES’ to address both poverty and conservation » (Petheram & Campbell 2009: 1140). It will however be conceptualized differently in the recent literature, notably through questions of access of the poorest to the schemes, participation in decision processes (price mechanisms, etc.…), equity in results and benefits distribution and finally the question of the processes through which PES could contribute to poverty reduction among participants and non participants. As regards to this last point, researches have mostly focused on income increase and/or loss of income among participants and non-participants. Income increase is indeed synonymous of poverty reduction according to monetary vision of poverty that has long prevailed: “Projects often are designed with the underlying assumption that it would be advantageous for poor people to participate in a PES project, because it provides them with income” (Jindal et al. 2011 : 6). Impacts on other capitals, like natural capital (land) have also been studied, notably by Tacconi et al. (2010) that published a series of case studies of PES impacts on the different Livelihood assets (natural, financial, but also human, social and physical). However, focusing on assets/capitals to measure poverty and the impact of PES on it, prevents to take power relationships explicitly into account as well as individual opportunities that are differentiated according to personal and structural factors. Following another conception of poverty and development, the current research evaluates the process of poverty reduction according to another approach: Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach. This analytical framework places the concept of freedom of being and doing what a person values as being constitutive of well being at the center of the analysis, instead of assets and capitals (kg of food produced) or the results (being well-fed). « Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations (or less formally put, the freedom to achieve various lifestyles) » (Sen 1999 : 75). This allows including socio-political constraints as well as power relationships between individuals into the analysis. Indeed, this new conceptualization includes the question of autonomy of action and agency with the concept of « process freedoms ». Finally, its allows avoiding to impose a unique and paternalistic vision of well-being, taking into account the different value systems. The capability approach therefore appears as well suited to account for individual and structural transformation processes leading to poverty reduction, of this process of « transformative agency » according to Bourdieu, as mentioned by Abel and Frohlich (2012) : « Amartya Sen’s capability approach as a potentially useful perspective when exploring issues of structurally transformative agency » (Abel & Frohlich 2012 : 240). PES participate of this process by acting on structural conditions and power relations. Thus the main hypothesis of this research is that there is no direct and causal link between PES and poverty reduction but PES can, depending on the context, contribute to the increase or decrease of opportunities and autonomy of action of the actors (opportunity and process freedoms) that are constitutive of well-being according to them. This hypothesis will be confronted to the reality through a practical case study: the Los Negros Project in Bolivia, initiated by the Natura Bolivia NGO, in the Amazonian valley of Los Negros, Santa Cruz department, that started in 2003. On the basis of contractual relationships between service providers and beneficiaries, upstream peasants are getting paid for two type of activities related to forest protection (water management and biodiversity protection) by downstream water users and an American organization of conservation. This payment is non monetary and consists on a beehive given for every 10 ha of forest protected, as well as apicultural training. Bolivia offers a particular context for the study of PES. Indeed, it is where the first large scale PES of South America took place, namely the CDM Noel Kempff project of carbon sequestration. However, the new Bolivian socialist President Evo Morales has publicly contested the creation of international PES in Bolivia and the enforcement by northern countries of a neoclassical model of PES in southern countries. In this context, what about local Bolivian PES based on market principle but with non monetary compensation, like the Natura Bolivia project and what about their impact on individual and communities capabilities in remote areas ? The current research aims to answer this question during a fieldwork session, through qualitative methods ranging from focus group workshops to interviews with key informants. The first step to be started in September 2012 will be to assess the system of actors related to the PES project and their relationships as well as to evaluate institutional dimensions of the PES project, and then to evaluate potential transformation of process (related to empowerment) and opportunity freedoms (relate to the existence of alternatives) at the individual and collective level, following a methodology proposed by Alkire (2007b). The aim of this research is to provide a new framework for the analysis of PES potential and risk in terms of poverty reduction that is closer to the reality and propose optimization pists in the context of increasing implementation of PES in developing countries. Moreover the Capability Approach often said as problematic when it comes to its operationalization, (Robeyns 2006, Comim 2001), this research will also provide a new implementation case study using it as an evaluative tool in a practical case.

Research fields Urban studies
Development, societies, environments
Regional geography
Water resources
Agricultural policies
Political Ecology
Economic Development
Analyse et prospective territoriale
Decentralization / Governance
Sustainable Livelihoods
Keywords Water management
Institutional management
Environmental governance
Environmental politics
Political ecology
Sustainable development
Spatial development
Regional geography
Capability Approach
Rural poverty
Funding UNIL
Duration November 2011 - October 2016
Researchers Bétrisey Florence (PhD student)
Mager Christophe (Thesis Director)


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Bétrisey, F. et Mager, C. (2014). Small farmers of the Florida Province (Bolivia): Reciprocity in Practice. Mountain Research and Development, 34(4): 369-374. Doi:10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-14-00013.1 Info [URL]
Bétrisey, F. et Mager, C. (accepté). Les paiements pour services environnementaux de la Fondation Natura Bolivia au prisme de Karl Polanyi. Revue Française de Socio-Economie. Info

Upstream Los Negros, Bolivia