I completed my PhD at the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia in 2011, and it was funded by the UK Economics and Social Research Council (1+3 Award). My thesis abstract is copied below. This work has developed into a number of publications on the main page.
Much momentum currently surrounds the concept of ecosystem services and associated policy mechanisms such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Whilst the rising importance of these has attracted much comment by observers of conservation, there is little empirical research on how ecosystem services concepts are being adopted. Meanwhile, the recent emergence of empirical literature on PES implementation opens up space to inform the development of this policy mechanism. This thesis adopts a critical social science perspective to pursue two empirical aims: firstly, to investigate the discourses surrounding ecosystem services concepts and the policy implications of the adoption of these by tropical forest conservation interest groups; and secondly, to investigate the practical implementation of key innovations of PES.
To investigate policy and practice in this way, the thesis adopts a multi-scale research design, encompassing a policy level study and a case study of a PES project. At the policy level the sample includes a comprehensive range of non-governmental organizations, representing conservation or tropical forest people’s interests. Q Methodology, a statistically supported tool for discourse analysis was used to identify the discourses, and more conventional qualitative research used to explore them in detail. A case study research design allowed the depth required to respond to calls for qualitative research on the practice of PES. The case study focuses on an afforestation PES scheme in western Uganda, in which people are paid through voluntary carbon markets to plant trees on private lands nearby forest reserves. This case is particularly interesting because it closely matches theoretical tenets of PES, with relatively strong conditionality and the use of monetary incentives.
The discursive analysis is used to identify three particular interpretations of ecosystem services concepts and associated policy mechanisms. These distinct discourses are manifest in vibrant debates around utilitarian and intrinsic natural value, and the use of economic valuation and market instruments. As well as these discursive changes in the arguments they make for nature, organisations also undertake more practical changes in their partnerships and funding, and some display shifts in objectives towards ecosystem services. Furthermore, the practice of many organisations is changing through the adoption of PES. This is driven by an instrumental motivation, the expectation that PES will deliver sustainable finance. However, this expectation is often accompanied by concerns about PES; conditionality is often regarded to be unfeasible in practice and many practitioners are reluctant to use direct payments. The case study is used to interrogate the practice of these innovative aspects of PES. The use of conditional mechanisms has a number of implications. In particular, a focus on monitoring tends to inhibit the development of a shared understanding of the project rationale. Conditionality also tends to prioritise those able to secure ecosystem services, for instance through land ownership, and hence may not support distributional equity objectives. Livelihood adaptability is also a concern under long conditional agreements associated with carbon. Furthermore, there are indications that the use of individual contracts does not foster cooperative action. The thesis also investigates the use of direct payments, in particular to understand where payments feature in relation to participants’ other motivations for involvement, and how payments interact with environmental values. Empirical results are used to engage with a question in the literature about the temporal sustainability of a payments approach, and whether payments foster a ‘no pay, no care’ environmental ethic. The thesis concludes by discussing the uptake of ecosystem services and PES mechanisms in conservation. It questions whether a transition ‘from metaphor to science’ can be observed in the use of ecosystem services, and furthermore, how these trends might be understood in relation to broader developments including neoliberalism. Overall, the thesis questions the tendency to present ecosystem services as simply a rhetorical tool, as these concepts and associated policy mechanisms have fundamental implications for the priorities and practice of conservation, in particular the way in which local people are engaged.