Deforestation in developing countries and its impact on climate change drew international attention well before the United Nations organized the convention that produced the Kyoto Protocol in 1994. A decade later, Mexico launched a national program that pays landowners to preserve forest lands and the "environmental services" they provide, such as carbon sequestration, watershed protection and biodiversity conservation. Now, Jennifer Alix-Garcia
and her research team will try to determine whether the program works.
Unlike many countries where forests are privately and publicly owned, 80 percent of Mexico's forests remain under collective ownership by indigenous communities or by peasant associations known as ejidos. To date, $360 million has gone to individual and communal property owners who have enrolled 2.3 million hectares of forest land since the program began in 2003. Funding comes from the Mexican government and a grant from the World Bank.
Knowing what makes such an incentive program work can inform policy makers all over the world.
"The Mexican government is targeting this program to poorer communities in an effort to use the funds to also reduce poverty," explained Alix-Garcia, so their study will measure socioeconomic effects along with environmental benefits. "In 2005, they incorporated a measure of ‘deforestation risk' to use the money more efficiently," she added. Landowners and communities get about $40 per hectare per year to replace lost production, "so it's not enough money to displace other income generating activities, but it may be enough to allow recipients to buy a cow or grow more profitable crops, like chile or pineapple."
A challenge for designing any incentive program of this type (called conditional cash transfers) for environmental protection is to ensure that it doesn't just shift forest cutting activities to land outside the enrolled hectares. So the researchers will measure changes in forest cover in "buffer zones" on the edges of protected parcels. Preliminary study of the 2004 participants revealed some displacement of deforestation to nearby unenrolled land, reducing the net benefit of the program, but the new study hopes to shed light on the mechanisms driving this potential displacement.
"Any strategy meeting the UN's REDD standards would have to produce nationwide net benefits, so our research will help determine whether that's feasible under the current design of this program," said Alix-Garcia. She and her collaborators, Katharine Sims at Amherst College, Elizabeth Shapiro at Berkeley, and Volker Radeloff at UW-Madison's forestry department, are working closely with the Mexican National Forestry Commission's environmental services division, which is implementing the program and providing data. Graduate students are also participating.
The study will use high resolution satellite imagery to compare forest cover over time, as well as household surveys and more qualitative information gained from case studies of selected communities over the course of the 3-year research grant. They will take account of such variables as access to roads (and therefore food that would need to be purchased to replace what is not grown), initial level of poverty, and whether the land is privately or communally owned.
Funding for the study comes from the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, or 3ie, an organization with broad international participation devoted to improving the effectiveness of development aid.
"Ultimately, we hope to enable the global community to more effectively design other large-scale incentive-based conservation efforts, including global agreements for REDD," Alix-Garcia concluded, "and if these programs also help pull people out of poverty, that is a wonderful extra benefit."