The focus of my research is ecosystem services and the rise of “neoliberal conservation” in Costa Rica. Neoliberal conservation is a form of conservation that relies heavily on market-based economic strategies. The rationale behind such an approach is that ecosystems are currently undervalued and, therefore, exploited beyond what is desirable. Critics, however, fear that the commodification of conservation does more to extend the reach of capitalism than it does to promote ecologically sound practices. Redford and Adams, for example, explain that “there is a danger that an economically driven focus” may lead to management that is “detrimental to long-term survival of the nonhuman parts of the ecosystems” (2009, 786). The fear is that such programs will encourage the “wrong type” of conservation (i.e. that which makes good economic sense but not necessarily good ecological sense).
In Costa Rica, neoliberal approaches to conservation took root early, and programs built on the idea are some of the most advanced in the world. Their “payments for environmental services” scheme, for example, is viewed as a huge success and is often held up as a model to be emulated. Costa Rican acceptance of this program, however, is somewhat surprising in historical context. As recently as 2007, for example, thousands of Costa Ricans mobilized to derail the ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (a move symbolic of the widespread distrust of neoliberal economic reform). This begs an important question: why has there been such broad acceptance of neoliberal conservation, in spite of such widespread opposition to other neoliberal practices?
The objective of my research is to understand the array of factors (political, cultural, technical, and economic) that have led to Costa Rican acceptance of a particular neoliberal conservation strategy: the country's famous “payments for environmental services” scheme. The situation is analogous to the broader spread of neoliberal conservation worldwide.