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Payments for environmental services supported social capital while increasing land management

Payments for environmental services (PES) programs incentivize landowners to protect or improve natural resources. Many conservationists fear that introducing compensation for actions previously offered voluntarily will reduce social capital (the institutions, relationships, attitudes, and values that govern human interactions), yet little rigorous research has investigated this concern. In this paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), the authors examined the land cover management and communal social capital impacts of Mexico’s federal conservation payments program, which is a key example for other countries committed to reducing deforestation, protecting watersheds, and conserving biodiversity. The authors used a regression discontinuity (RD) methodology to identify causal program effects, comparing outcomes for PES participants and similar rejected applicants close to scoring cutoffs. They found that payments increased land cover management activities, such as patrolling for illegal activity, building fire breaks, controlling pests, or promoting soil conservation, by ∼50%. Importantly, increases in paid activities as a result of PES did not crowd out unpaid contributions to land management or other prosocial work. Community social capital increased by ∼8– 9%, and household-level measures of trust were not affected by the program. These findings demonstrate that major environmental conditional cash transfer programs can support both land management and the attitudes and institutions underpinning prosocial behavior. Rigorous empirical research on this question can proceed only country by country because of methodological limitations, but will be an important line of inquiry as PES continues to expand worldwide.