'Payment for Ecosystem Services’ or PES is not a new concept but was brought to centre stage in 2005 by the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It takes the conservation movement another step on a journey towards its economic Nirvana – conserved global biodiversity in the marketplace. Like its 1980 predecessor, IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy, it seeks to justify biodiversity over agriculture and other developments on the basis of monetary value. In this respect it has borrowed the adage ‘if it pays it stays’, previously aimed at African game animals, and applied it to natural ecosystems. PES promises tangible benefits to people and wildlife but is mired in misunderstandings.

Definition bulge
In the first place PES has been saddled with an overly generous definition. It conflates real ecosystem services, like water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination, with the better-established ‘sustainable use of natural resources’ (timber, NTFPs, pasture, fish and so on) and other less tangible values of ecosystems (species richness and endemism, cultural values, existence values, etc.). Definitions are important and PES has swollen so much that it has become a double acronym: its other persona ‘payment for environmental services’ now growing in popularity. The concept is in danger of dissipating into a catchall ‘payment for any and every economic value of the environment’ or simply ‘environmental payments’. So a good start would be to revisit the definition and pin it down to something useful.

PES and governance
Secondly, PES is used far too easily in the conservation literature as a panacea for unsustainable development and biodiversity loss. In the real world, it is difficult to implement because it requires change in firmly-established fiscal policies, systems of governance and trading agreements. Take REDD for example. It is held up in conservation writing wherever one looks, or so it seems, as a joint solution to deforestation and climate change. Yet REDD (and REDD+) are not working. The market for forest carbon is tiny and the price has collapsed. We await agreements. Take water provisioning by forests as another example. From my own experience in Africa and the Balkans, progress is not promising. For instance, my counterpart in one East African country (a national expert in forest ecology) asked a representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would ensure long-term water supply to commercial farms, towns and other downstream users. The representative laughed saying they were in the business of charging villagers for water use, not paying them. I don’t want to appear flippant or defeatist. I simply wish to point out that a huge amount of work is required on the governance of social-ecological systems in order to get PES up and running.

Economic boomerang
Thirdly, should we not have reservations about a conservation rationale that is exclusively based on cash? Economic value is like a yoyo: prices go up and down. An ecosystem with high value for tourism this year may have higher value for wheat fields next year. If price is the only justification for natural ecosystems, then many of them, I suggest, are in danger. There is another, potentially more serious, catch. Many ecosystem services can be duplicated in agricultural landscapes making the wild system replaceable on economic criteria. Terraced rice paddies with shade trees and perhaps a reed bed at the bottom could provide most of the water retention and purification services of a catchment forest. Similarly bees are easily kept in a farmed landscape to provide the services of woodland pollinators. The extra payment given to the farmer for water retention or pollination services might, perversely, just tip the balance making the conversion of forest to fields profitable. Indeed, once established, PES could attract multinationals leading to wholesale destruction of formerly wild lands.

Core values
Despite these problems, could PES be the only worthwhile game in town? Far from it. Take an example in the news recently concerning the future of Serengeti National Park. Proliferation of lodges and hotels inside the park has raised foreign exchange takings enormously over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the government recently proposed road construction across the north of the park to provide a transport link between Lake Victoria and the Coast. Wildlife managers pointed out that a main road would soon require fencing which would interfere with migration of wildebeest. A collapse in wildebeest would bring about a collapse in large predators. The substantial economic value of the Serengeti Ecosystem would decline sharply.

This is about as strong a case for wildlife conservation through PES as you can get. Serengeti provides a tourism service, road construction will destroy tourism, and therefore the road should not be supported. How often will it be possible to mount a case against development of wild lands that has equivalent economic strength? Even so, the economic argument fell on deaf ears. Government was contemplating a wider economic and political picture, and confident of the commercial benefits of connecting the burgeoning Lake Victoria region to the port of Tanga. What stopped the threat at the last minute was national and international outrage at the impending desecration of natural heritage. Government relented and agreed to construct a longer road that would pass to the south of the park. It was the sense of unique natural value in Serengeti, strongly communicated by concerned people in Tanzania and beyond, which swayed the politicians.

In contrast to PES, sustainable use does not preclude non-monetary values of ecosystems (those that add quality to human life without direct financial gain) but as a concept it is becoming increasingly conflated with the same economic narrative. One of the crucial decision-areas for us today, I believe, concerns our collective relationship with nature. Should not nature’s variety, wealth, wildness and wonder be protected because they are vital to our imagination and our humanity as much as our economy? That bears thinking about. I would ask all of us in the conservation movement to consider promoting a broader philosophy of humans and nature when seeking to guide development planning and protect biodiversity.

Martyn G. Murray is an author, consultant and Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh. Email: m.murray@ed.ac.uk Info: www.wildnature.org.

Photo: Below and top right - Malaysian rainforest. Credit: Martyn Murray.