State Forestry Incentives and Community Stewardship: A Political Ecology of Payments and Compensation for Ecosystem Services in Guatemala’s Highlands

Nicolena vonHedemann & Tracey Osborne


Many payments for ecosystem services (PES) programs in Latin America aim to provide motivation for environmental protection through valuing services and providing funds for local development. This article focuses on rapidly expanding state-run Guatemalan forestry incentive programs to show the complexity of this form of PES that compensates participants for good forest management practices. Using a political ecology approach, we investigate the impacts of these incentives on rural Guatemalan participants with regards to local benefits and resource access in two highland townships. Rural participants, through good forest management, have seized the opportunity to receive payments for their preexisting conservation efforts and mobilized community organizations to enroll. Program participants continue to benefit from their land after program enrollment, but participation also opens traditionally indigenous-managed forests to technocratic state control. The program can bring state development funds to impoverished rural households, but only for a limited time and mainly to male heads of households. We argue that for these participants, the non-market forestry incentives demonstrate greater flexibility to meet small landholder needs, a result not often found within market-based PES programs focused on the production of specific ecosystem services. This research offers important insights for the United Nations initiative for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) by highlighting the social and ecological benefits of community and indigenous-based forest stewardship and the importance of widespread distribution of REDD+ funds to landholders already engaged in sustainable forestry activities.


Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are rapidly growing forms of environmental governance that aim to increase environmental protection by financial valuation of ecosystems and the services they provide through payments to those who own or manage land. PES are often considered part of a neoliberal trend over the past 30 years, in which global conservation has shifted from state management to economic markets as the dominant strategy of environmental governance (Corbera, Kosoy, and Martínez Tuna 2007; Pattanayak, Wunder, and Ferraro 2010; Dempsey and Robertson 2012). Proponents of PES argue that putting an economic value on ecosystems and their services incentivizes conservation through internalizing the costs of environmental degradation (Costanza et al. 1997; Daily et al. 2000). While based on market logic, most PES programs throughout the world represent a form of hybrid neoliberal environmental governance, interacting with “preexisting cultural formations, bureaucracies, labor markets, biophysical natures, and more” (McCarthy 2005: 1009; Larner 2003; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Dempsey and Robertson 2012). The commodification of nature has always relied on the role of a state operating at multiple scales to regulate the market (Polanyi 2001). Guatemala’s forestry incentive programs are administered through the National Forestry Institute, a decentralized institution funded by the state with a governing board of public-private stakeholders. Thus, Guatemala’s PES programs are similar to many across the world where states encourage the management of ecosystems and their services through payments, rather than market-based PES exchanges (Fletcher and Breitling 2012; McElwee 2012; Matulis 2013; Shapiro-Garza 2013a; Shapiro-Garza 2013b; Lansing 2014).

As many types of PES programs proliferate across the globe, their impacts on both livelihoods and ecosystems remain ambiguous. This study focuses on the example of two Guatemalan forestry incentive programs, which provide an opportunity to ...

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