Revealing how success gets constructed in Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES)

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs are mushrooming all over the world and are widely heralded as the new conservation fad.

ePEStemology explores the value frameworks that define the design, methods, implementation, and outcome of research on PES programs around the world. On this website we present some of the main trends in 15 years of research on PES, and invite users to explore the ePEStemology database themselves. In doing so we aim to foster open and critical discussion on past and present PES research within specific regions and to initiate (uncomfortable) conversations among practitioners and scholars with people experiencing PES on a daily basis.

What is Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) and why should you care?

  • PES is a concept and economic approach that aims to reward the production of ecosystem services in environmental conservation. Ecosystem services are the various benefits that humans receive from natural ecosystems, such as clean air and water, pollination of crops, climate regulation, and biodiversity conservation.
  • PES programs are designed to create a financial incentive for individuals, communities, or organizations to protect, maintain, or restore these services (e.g. companies can pay landowners to plant trees or adopt sustainable forestry practices that capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere)
  • With the increasing attention to Nature-based Solutions", investments in PES schemes have exploded during the past two decades. According to a 2018 study (PDF), PES represents 550 active programmes around the world accounting for US$42 billion in annual flows
  • In a world where few can deny that 'money talks', the lure of financial incentives for 'greening' has become socially normalized and understood as a pragmatic and efficient way to address ecological challenges. However, the emphasis on optimizing financial flows has taken precedence over the urgent transformative social, political, and economic change that is required to respond to rapidly degrading ecological conditions around the world.

By what and by whose standards is PES defined as successful?

  • The growing interest in PES has been accompanied by a booming expert-related industry (academics, consultants, NGOs). Most studies on PES tend to focus on design principles for implementing and improving PES using standards presumed to be objective or value neutral.
  • But there is no such thing as value-neutral knowledge - especially for social and cultural relationships to nature. What goes largely missing is transparency about the underlying value frameworks by which and by whom PES gets defined as successful.
  • Value frameworks are the shared sets of assumptions shaping what counts as legitimate knowledge, how such knowledge gets produced, and how and for what purpose such knowledge is deployed.
  • The lack of attention to value frameworks risks sidelining worldviews that define social and human-nature relationships in fundamentally different ways. Monetizing nature’s services risks erasing irreplaceable kinship relationships and histories of people to their territories, and leads to new forms of land speculation and dispossession in the name of nature conservation.

Revealing dominant value frameworks through the ePEStemology database

  • To assess the dominant value frameworks used in PES studies, with an international collective of researchers, we assessed 15 years of scientific studies on PES, which we compiled into what we call the "ePEStemology" database.
  • This database comprises the largest set of scientific articles on PES published between 2005 and 2019, and currently contains 1,067 articles, which have been coded by an international team of researchers with ample experience on PES.
  • It analyzes evolving geographical and temporal trends in PES research objectives and thematic focus, methodologies, recommendations and points of concern of researchers designing and analyzing PES projects.

The main findings on this website draw from an academic paper published in 2023 in the journal Global Environmental Change: Fifteen years of research on payments for ecosystem services (PES): piercing the bubble of success as defined by a Northern-driven agenda.

For more details on the methodology and the involved researchers, please click here