Photo credit: Bosco Lliso

By Bosco Lliso, Paola Arias-Arévalo, Stefany Maca-Millán, Stefanie Engel and Unai Pascual

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Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) is a policy tool that has become an increasingly popular way to drive conservation efforts around the world. This is because PES rely on rewards to promote pro-environmental behavior rather than punishments to discourage environmentally harmful actions. However, some people worry that paying people may erode their intrinsic motivations to conserve nature – out of a love of nature, for spiritual reasons, or simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do.

So far, the evidence is mixed regarding which types of PES designs are more or less likely to lead to this unintended outcome. In fact, in some cases researchers have discovered that some PES designs may actually reinforce people’s pro-environmental motivations.

We wanted to study this question, so we carried out an economic experiment in rural Colombia in three culturally distinct communities: one Afro-Colombian, one Indigenous, and one Campesino. We designed a game that simulated a simple conservation decision: how much forest should be cut down in order to plant crops? The game was played in three phases: i) without PES, ii) with the introduction of PES program, iii) and with the eventual end of the PES program. This allowed us to explore how the three communities responded to the introduction and subsequent removal of financial incentives to protect forests.

We found that how the PES program was framed when first introduced affected people’s pro-environmental motivations. Specifically, a PES program that highlights the relational values of nature (e.g. spiritual values, identity, sense of place) increased the pro-environmental motivations of the participants from the Indigenous community. On the other hand, a PES that highlights the instrumental values of nature (e.g. ecosystem service provision, revenue from tourism) increased the pro-environmental motivations of the Campesino participants.

These findings suggest that there is no single ideal approach to framing the values of nature in PES schemes. Instead, it is important that PES designs reflect the specific ways that local communities understand nature and its values.