Research Project fundamental research (FWO, 2020, G0D8620N)

When global threats meet localized practices: Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) vs. recognition and regeneration of ecosystem knowledge in Nicaragua and Guatemala. 


Promotors: Dr. Gert Van Hecken; Dr. Jennifer J. Casolo


  • Project summary

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) has become a dominant paradigm in environmental and climate policies. The approach encourages land users to generate benefits of nature (ecosystem services) on their land through conditional payments from interested consumers (e.g. energy-intensive companies paying for forest conservation). Global climate finance instruments such as voluntary/compulsory carbon markets, the UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+), and biodiversity offsetting mechanisms reflect PES’ popularity among donors. While appealing, PES also elicits criticism. Practices often impose global neoliberal governance on territories, dispossess land users, retrench existing inequalities, spawn resource struggles and prioritize carbon outputs over biodiversity. Tensions between PES’ win-win promises and ‘green grabbing’ concerns, combined with mounting evidence of ecosystem collapse, begs for critical attention to how global concerns entwine with localized knowledges. Comparing of PES sites in Nicaragua and Guatemala, we study how PES shapes and is shaped by contested understandings of place, power and difference (class, gender, racial/ethnic). This research breaks open bounded or abstracted understanding of both PES and local ecological knowledge, offers insights into how historical geographies condition and rework global policies, and makes visible the multi-scaled processes through which alternatives emerge and gain traction.


  • Research objectives

Given the contestations surrounding PES in theory, policy and practice, this research intends to advance the frontiers of current PES scholarship by examining the following main questions:

  1.  How are current PES frameworks practically implemented/translated in a variety of local contexts?; 
  2.  How do PES frameworks affect and how are they reshaped by socio-culturally diverse histories of place, knowledge and motivational systems?

This project seeks to clarify and develop the following elements: Firstly, a focus on the politics of knowledge in the interaction between the global dynamics, in which PES policy narratives develop, and their contextualised local application (RQ1). Various studies signal the discursive power concentrated around global governance institutions, which promote the proliferation of policies through the construction of ‘success stories’ by specific ‘epistemic communities’ (consultants, government officials, international NGOs, etc.) (Büscher 2014), and through the promotion of socio-environmental policy blueprints in developing countries (Van Hecken et al. 2015a; Kolinjivadi et al. 2017b). While these studies highlight the importance of global PES discourses, an under-researched question remains: how do these discourses and ideologies translate into, interact with and get reshaped by (sub)national and local discursive and material practices? Despite the straitjacketing of some actors into accepting projects as proposed by outside funding agencies, the former are not merely passive ‘recipients’ of top-down PES policy interventions (Castree 2006). Inspired by more actor-oriented institutional theories (Cleaver 2012), we recognize the ways in which people condition and contribute to their own project strategies. Further, as Denham (2017) illustrates, the socio-environmental contributions of PES increase in sites where histories and practices of indigenous sovereignty and self-determination are respected, linking questions of individual agency with local institutional agency. Moreover, within and between households and communities the meaning, motivation and practice of PES can vary in relation to gendered and indigenous relations and subjectivities regarding market incentives, environmental care and governance, with different and uneven effects (Schwartz 2017; Denham 2017). Hence, this project seeks to deepen our understanding of the ways in which PES instruments can simultaneously evoke ‘resistance’, ‘reworking’ and ‘resilient acceptance’ at different scales, and the various ways in which these policies are renegotiated and translated into national and sub-national policies and practices (Aguilar-Støen 2015; Shapiro-Garza et al. 2020). Findings will generate insights on how to design, implement, evaluate or possibly replace PES mechanisms in relation to the power geographies at play, enhancing their effectiveness and contribution to distributive and participative justice among divergent social groups.

Second, locally there is also a need to rethink how we conceive of (new) institutional arrangements translating into concrete motivations for sustained behavioural change at individual and collective levels (Hayes 2012; Rode et al. 2014) (RQ2). Attention to gendered and indigenous histories, memories and everyday practices, suggests that what has been labelled “behavioural change produced by PES” may be simply an opening for long held but silenced beliefs and practices to be recognized and built upon. The episteme underpinning much of PES advocacy is based on technocratic notions of human-environment relationships as manageable systems, assumed to be alterable in predictable ways by capitalizing on a universal economic rationality (Van Hecken & Bastiaensen 2010a). Empirical evidence suggests, however, that the ways in which payments reshape local material and cultural practices can vary substantially, depending on the characteristics of the payment agreement, local notions of justice, and the psychological and cultural embeddedness of the desired behaviour (Hayes 2012; Rode et al. 2014; Muradian et al. 2013). As such, payments will inevitably interact with intrinsic motivations and historically institutionalized logics and practices, undermining (‘crowding-out’) or reinforcing (‘crowding-in’) more environmentally beneficial attitudes and behaviour (Rode et al. 2014). So far, research has only offered limited insights into the nature of these interactions and has yet to address how and under what conditions, PES can converge with and strengthen those intrinsic motivations and historically institutionalized logics and practice, while being reshaped by those very imbrications. This proposal builds on previous research to fill in this gap by analysing how specific policy instruments induce changes in agents’ perceptual-motivational framework and how they navigate existing social norms and intrinsic motivation, and the long-term sustainability of acquired pro-environmental actions.


  • Potential study sites.

Given the need for contextualisation and the complexity of the research questions, this project intends to analyse at least two sites of PES in different (national and sub-national) contexts. It will conduct field work in two countries in Central America with distinct but interconnected historical geographies, with which our institute (IOB) has long-term institutional relationships: Nicaragua and Guatemala. These countries struggle with similar ecological problems: both are economically-poor but biodiversity-rich countries, and both share development pathways leading to high deforestation rates (Van Hecken 2015a; Carrera 2017). As in much of the tropics, the typical land use dynamics reflect hard conservation and development trade-offs. Mounting land prices, expanding agricultural commodity markets, and the expansion of large scale agricultural activities at the expense of small producers increase pressure on remaining forests and nature reserves. As a policy response to these threats, a multitude of state and non-state actors have been experimenting with PES schemes, mostly aimed at generating lessons for replication at a higher scale. Both countries share the presence of several relatively well-advanced and diverse PES projects (related to carbon capture, biodiversity/forest conservation, water management, etc.) (Van Hecken et al. 2015a; Carrera 2017; vonHedemann & Osborne 2016). Further, they both have histories of internal armed conflict linked to geopolitical interests (Williams 1986) and both embraced PES in the wake of neoliberal reforms tied to peace-making processes (Casolo & Doshi 2014). Yet they differ distinctly in terms of past histories of racialized dispossession and processes of land and social reform. In the context of this study, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic is the different role of the state in PES mechanisms. While the self-declared socialist government in Nicaragua takes up a marginal and cautious role (Van Hecken et al. 2015a), PES implementation in Guatemala is articulated with different state initiatives. These elements make it insightful to compare PES projects in both countries, identify interconnections and divergences in histories, discourses and practices and compare the outcomes that these have triggered. 

As an analytical entry point, in each country we propose to select at least one PES-related site. In Nicaragua, a first potential site is the CommuniTree Carbon Project in San Juan de Limay and Somoto, in which the Canadian NGO Taking Root provides financial incentives to smallholders for reforesting their land. This project started in 2010, and is funded by selling the tree plantations’ carbon sequestration services in the voluntary carbon market. A second potential site is the Investments in Environmental Sustainability PES forest conservation project in the buffer zone of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, where since 2006, a Danish-Nicaraguan NGO partnership pays farmers for protecting the remaining forests on their farms. Funding is secured by the Danish NGO through the sale of forest protection certificates to the Danish public. A third potential site concerns the Guatemalan PINFOR (Forestry Incentive Program) and PINPEP (Forestry Incentive Program for Owners of Small Landholdings) state-run forestry incentives programs being implemented in small-scale indigenous forestry communities in Totonicapán (Western Highlands). The region is particularly interesting, as it is inhabited with mainly smaller indigenous landholders with a long history of communal forestry, and a ‘tumultuous historical and contemporary relationship with the Guatemalan State’ (vonHedemann & Osborne 2016:92). In a post-genocide context, and thus a deep distrust of the state, it is particularly interesting to study how the rural participants engage with these state programs, and how this has led to new ‘surfaces of engagement’ (Shapiro-Garza, 2013). A fourth potential site is the GuateCarbon REDD+ Project, the first in Guatemala and one of the first in the world, that brought together national and international conservation NGOs with the Guatemala National Commission for Protected Areas (CONAP) in the Maya Biosphere in Petén. In this project, the focus would be on the politics of meaning in an indigenous area when ‘the nonindigenous peoples with better historical access to education that become the cultural brokers for conservation [NGOs]’ (Ybarra 2018:106), as well as on ties between past racialized dispossession and REDD+ associated struggles over land.


  • Supervisors

The promotor of this research project is Dr. Gert Van Hecken. The project will receive local support from the local co-promotor, Dr. Jennifer J. Casolo, who is presently involved with the promotion and execution of  Maya Ch’orti’ pilot  programs in Guatemala; the Ch’orti’- Maya Pluriversity and the Institute for Ch’orti’ Maya Research and Technology through which she has a relationship with other indigenous universities in the country. The local copromotor and the main promotor are both active collaborators in the IOB-VLIR-University of Central America in Managua program to develop a Globalized Masters in Development Studies. It is through the dialogue on course development and research interests associated with that program, that the promoter and local copromotor have begun to encourage students to push the conceptual boundaries of research on environmental policies, such as PES. The local copromotor will work to ensure that the PhD researcher becomes incorporated in an ongoing epistemological community of researchers from different organizations, institutes and universities in Guatemala, and as an Associate Researcher at the most appropriate of those institutions.