Negotiating Tradeoffs: Making Informed Choices about Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Geography


The ecosystem services framework offers considerable potential for developing approaches that simultaneously provide ecological stability and livelihood security, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world, as it promises to integrate concerns about the resilience of ecosystems with their broader developmental implications. However, there is increasing evidence that the reality of ecosystem management involves making difficult choices between different types of ecosystem services (such as between climate regulation, biodiversity conservation, provision of water or forest products, and so on), and between the competing claims of different groups in society (such as between local resource users and those within the global community concerned about climate change or loss of key charismatic species). While some areas of habitat or landscape hold multiple values (e.g. hill forests, providing biodiversity, carbon, water, forest products and tourism revenues), these diverse services are not necessarily mutually independent. Patterns of demand, prices, institutional structuring of markets and changing scientific knowledge are likely to make some services more valuable than others, leading to tradeoffs between different services (e.g. the choice between species diversity and carbon in a mountain forest). These tradeoffs manifest themselves both over time (between current and future uses) and at different spatial scales (local, regional, national and global). Most trade-off analyses neglect the reality of actual decision-making in the context of ecosystem management strategies. At the field level, decisions typically involve repeated processes of consultation, negotiation and compromise. How do conflicting stakeholders make choices in specific empirical situations? What are the relative roles of different actors, and how do they exercise power in this process? Whose values and interests are reflected in final outcomes, and to what extent can outcomes be seen to enhance social well-being? What are the institutions and structures of governance that enhance effective decision-making? These are difficult questions, but are critically important if improved ecosystem management is to be used as a tool for sustainable poverty reduction. Only by empirically documenting the decision process itself, in all its messy political reality, will we be able to generate a genuine understanding of the feasible ways in which ecosystem services can be protected or enhanced, while simultaneously benefiting the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in society. This project will develop a framework to understand how actors actually negotiate over tradeoffs in the context of ecosystem management. This framework will be based around a detailed empirical engagement with two specific case studies, located in forest-hydrological-urban landscapes in India (in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats). It will use a process of expert-led modelling of ecological and socio-economic dynamics alongside an engagement with more 'lay' or everyday perspectives from local stakeholders. It will use structured software for systems dynamic modelling to develop expert and participatory models of the local socio-ecological system, and will use these to engage local stakeholders in a structured dialogue about tradeoffs and choices, through a series of site-based workshops. The findings from these modelling exercises, and from the stakeholder workshops, will be used to analyse the ways in which decisions are actually made in these local contexts, with a specific focus on how political constraints influence the nature of the process. These observations will be used to construct a grounded framework that documents the political economy of negotiations over resource use, which will ultimately help policy makers develop better strategies for pro-poor ecosystem management.


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Description The objective of this project was to develop an evidence-based understanding of decision making regarding tradeoffs and synergies that characterise ecosystem services. In doing so, it addressed one of the overarching issues that is central to the ESPA programme, which relates to the role of political economy and governance in driving decision making about the use and management of ecosystem services at different levels. The project involved detailed empirical engagement with two specific case studies, located in forest-hydrological-urban landscapes in India, one in the Western Ghats and the other in the Western Himalayas. The project was undertaken as a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and Winrock International India, and built on the Indian partners' existing engagement with the two field sites.

The case study site in the Western Ghats was located in the Malaprabha river basin in the Belgaum district of Karnataka in South India. In 2009, a two-year study undertaken by ATREE investigated the feasibility of payments for ecosystem service (PES) in the Malaprabha basin. While the study concluded that conditions were not appropriate for the implementation of PES, it conducted baseline mapping of the catchment, and also captured some of the socio-economic and ecological relationships in the local landscape. In contrast, in the Western Himalayan site, which is located in the Palampur district of Himachal Pradesh, a PES agreement was negotiated in 2010, and has been implemented since 2011. The agreement is between the Municipal Council of Palampur and Bohal-Odi Village Forest Development Society (VFDS), for the protection of the catchment area of Bohal spring, which provides part of the drinking water supply to Palampur town. The agreement endorsed a 20-year plan to protect the catchment of the spring by the villagers, and involves a conditional commitment by the Municipal Council to pay an annual lump sum amount to the VFDS in return for this protection activity.

Findings from the Malaprabha river basin site, revealed that 90% of households in the upper catchment have small and marginal land holdings, whereas in the midstream and downstream catchment, 70% of the cultivable land is owned by medium-large farmers (who make up 30% of population). A majority of our respondents to the household surveys identified water- and agriculture-based provisioning services as the most important flows from the natural landscape. However, there have been significant changes in last twenty years in both the services, which are affecting the benefits people derive from them. For example, for upstream farmers, growing demand for food-for-subsistence at the household level, is forcing an intensification of agricultural practices, which translates into higher water demand and pressure on land. This is exaggerated by growing family sizes, small land holdings, changing livelihood options and occupational alternatives. For the middle and downstream communities, growing market demand for commercial crops (primarily sugarcane, vegetables, oilseeds and fruits) is forcing conventionally rainfed farms, and farmers with limited irrigation, to expand and intensify irrigated areas. The demand for water is further exaggerated by sugarcane industries that are providing loans and labour support for sugarcane production and the promotion of groundwater irrigation through subsidised electricity.

A joint stakeholder meeting of fifty farmers, from six villages in the Malaprabha basin, was held in December 2011 at Belgaum, to explore their perceptions of ecosystem services, and associated tradeoffs. The participants identified the decline in household level food production due to competing demands for water as a key issue. Water shortages have also impacted on livestock and fodder production. An improvement in forest condition due to protection has led to more attacks on crops by wild animals, resulting in increased human-wildlife conflict. Furthermore, the area has witnessed a sharp increase in mining activities, which has impacted both the quality and quantity of water in the catchment. In contrast, a workshop attended by nineteen scientific experts which was held in Bangalore in January 2012, identified shorter and more severe monsoons, increased urbanisation and increased material consumption as the three main drivers likely to result in tradeoffs between different ecosystem services and associated stakeholders in the Western Ghats region.

These findings raise important issues relating to how perceptions about ecosystem services, threats to their status, and winners and losers vary between experts and local stakeholders. These reflect different empirical knowledge, different worldviews and are at least partly shaped by differing temporal and spatial frames of reference. By juxtaposing these findings, the project has shed greater light on the broader context within which decisions are made with respect to ecosystem services, and highlighted the risk that policy and decision makers may not always be cognisant of the ways in which poor and marginalised groups perceive and value ecosystem services.

In the study site in Palampur district in Himachal Pradesh, findings showed that the implementation of a PES agreement has resulted in a new political dynamic at village level, with winners and losers in terms of access to resources, social status and political influence. For instance, a complete ban on the lopping of chir pine trees in the protection zone of Bohal spring was opposed by a large number of villagers, who went ahead and undertook controlled lopping in the forest area without permission from the village forest development committee. There have been conflicts with the grazier community as well, who argue that their traditional migration paths have been restricted due to the protection imposed under the PES agreement. Fieldwork in Palampur explored the broader community level dynamics following the PES agreement, especially how different groups perceived the agreement, and its impacts on their own well-being.

These two contrasting field sites offer an empirically grounded understanding of ecosystem service tradeoffs, how different actors actually perceive these tradeoffs, and the potential conflicts that arise after interventions (such as a PES agreement) to protect and enhance ecosystem services are put in place.
Exploitation Route These findings are extremely relevant to current and on-going debates on the importance of ecosystem-based and landscape level approaches to the management of key natural resources. These are particularly valuable in the Indian and South Asian context, where tradeoffs between competing uses and competing users characterise some of the main management dilemmas for ecosystem users. Finding ways to respond to these pressures, while taking account of the perspectives and needs of diverse stakeholders, is a key policy imperative.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description This project explored new and innovative concepts needed to ensure the successful delivery of ESPA's objectives, by working across traditional disciplines. Two specific insights that emerged from this work were: 1) Political economy perspectives in the design of PES schemes: In the Palampur, site the project focused on how PES schemes for water-related ecosystem services can be better designed and supported using a political economy perspective. Currently, the design of such schemes often overlooks how different stakeholders make choices and the negotiation processes involved in shaping and influencing local outcomes. The implementation of PES is often significantly influenced by the perspectives of local stakeholders and perceived impacts on local equity. The main finding from the Palampur work is that the design and implementation of PES schemes will benefit greatly from adopting an explicit political economy perspective, recognising the interests and perspectives of all affected stakeholders. The Palampur findings have informed subsequent work supported by the ESPA programme, which is currently on-going, and reported on separately (NE/L001365/1), The Political Economy of Water Security, Ecosystem Services and Livelihoods in the Western Himalayas ( 2) Need for convergence of knowledge paradigms related to ecosystem services: There is increasing evidence that the understanding of the ecosystem services concept and its application is significantly influenced by stakeholder's perceptions, knowledge, interests, values and benefits derived by them. The findings from Malaprabha site in Western Ghats demonstrate that the application of ecosystem services framework would benefit from more explicit and careful attention to the question of knowledge and perceptions of the concept by different stakeholders and how it influences the choices they make to prioritise benefits derived from nature. The findings highlight that one important limiting factor in application of ecosystem services concept can be the lack of recognition of different knowledge paradigms i.e. stakeholders are different scale understand the concept differently, which are influenced by their knowledge, resource dependence, use and management practices.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description ESPA Researchers invited to make presentations to national/ regional/ international panels or committees on policy relevance of work
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact 1) Shrinivas Badiger made a presentation at the Brainstorming Workshop on Land Use Policy for the Western Ghats organised by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel in Bangalore, India in March 2011. 2) Chetan Agarwal made a presentation titled 'Carrot and Stick for drinking water protection and recharge in Faridabad, at district workshop on Sustainable water supply in Faridabad, Haryana in June 2011. 3) Chetan Agarwal made a presentation titled 'Incentivising communities for securing environmental services: The role of PES, zoning and tenure in implementing the Green India Mission', at Foresters workshop at IGNFA, Dehradun, India in June 2011. 4) Chetan Agarwal made a presentation titled 'Context and scope for REDD+ in India, at Policy Dialogue on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation' in Delhi, India in July 2011. 5) Bhaskar Vira and Chetan Agarwal participated in a workshop on research priorities for the Western Himalayas in Dehradun, India in August 2011. 6) Chetan Agarwal made a presentation to the Forest Department in Himachal Pradesh on the ESPA project and the scope of Payments for Ecosystem Services in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh in December 2011. 7) Bhaskar Vira and Chetan Agarwal participated in the ESPA-organised panel on Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation: a global dialogue, at the Planet Under Pressure Conference in London, UK in March 2012. 8) Bhaskar Vira participated in a panel organised by the ESPA secretariat as part of the Rio+20 conference in June 2012. 9) Shrinivas Badiger and Chetan Agarwal made presentations about the project at the Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the CBD, Side Event ?The New Bioeconomy? in Hyderabad, India in October 2012. 10) Bhaskar Vira participated in the REDD+-day at the Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the CBD, in Hyderabad, India in October 2012.
Description HP Forest Department catchment protection policies
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Description HP Irrigation and Public Health Department catchment protection and source sustainability
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Description Influence on public interest litigation, Nainital
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact Research on ecosystem services and urbanisation in the Himalayas has raised awareness about the impacts of human activities on water security in the region. In the lakeside town of Nainital, the research team supported local citizens in a public interest litigation to protect their water source from illegal construction and encroachment. On 27.08.19, the Uttarakhand High Court issued final orders in the case, requiring the cessation of all unauthorised construction, and the removal of encroachments from the identified recharge zone.
Description Network of experts and policy actors sensitised to political economy issues in relation to ecosystem services for poverty alleviation
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The project mainly aimed to raise awareness among government agencies, local NGOs, researchers about the political economy of negotiation, decision making and choices about tradeoffs and synergies in the use of ecosystem services. This was achieved through a series of workshops and meetings that were held during the data collection of the project. One of the key outcomes of this project has been a creation of network of resource people, who recognise the importance of a political economy approach to the application of ecosystem services concept for poverty alleviation. This is likely to contribute to local and national level project developments focussing on ecosystem services.
Description ESPA 2013 grants
Amount £505,930 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/L001365/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 01/2017
Description Partnerships on the political economy of ecosystem services 
Organisation Tanzania Natural Resource Forum (TNRF)
Country Tanzania, United Republic of 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The project has been actively involved in creating new partnerships and promoting working across discipline. 1) On 8th March 2011, a one-day workshop was organised to learn and share experience with three Programme Framework Grants (PFGs) working on similar issues. The invited grants were i) ?Integrated Forest Ecosystem Service Assessment with Pro-Poor Forest Governance in India (PI: Dr Oliver Springate-Baginski, NE/1004661/1); ii) ?Just ecosystem management: Linking ecosystem services with poverty alleviation? (PI: Dr Thomas Sikor, NE/1003282/1) and iii)?Safeguarding local equity as global values of ecosystem services rise? (PI: Dr Kate Schreckenberg, NE/100324X/1). 2) The project team also collaborated with Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) funded project on developing tool kit for ?Measuring and monitoring ecosystem services at the site scale?. Dr Vira was one of experts who provided inputs on how to integrate socio-economic considerations into rapid appraisal for understanding better local service benefits from the site. 3) Dr Vira and Mr Agarwal met a number of stakeholders who were interested in further collaboration and uptake of research in July-August, 2011. Specifically, discussions were held with the Green India States Trust (GIST), which is supporting the TEEB India study. 4) Dr Vira spoke at and participated in an ESPA-Secretariat organised workshop on poverty issues, highlighting the importance of political economy approaches to an understanding of trade-offs in the context of ecosystem services and poverty. The workshop was held in Oxford, May 2012. 5) Dr Vira spoke at a Symposium on Social Justice and Ecosystem Services in London, November 2012. The meeting was organised as part of another ESPA project, 'Just Ecosystem Management? (NE/I003282/1).
Start Year 2011
Description Schools materials from Pani, Pahar research 
Organisation Hearth Advisors
Country Ireland 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution 'Pani Pahar - the Water Curriculum' was jointly developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the Hearth Education Advisors. It is designed for students between the ages of 9 and 15, and is now freely available to students, teachers and schools. The aim of the curriculum is to engage students in experiential learning and to instil in them a sense of responsibility towards water conservation.
Collaborator Contribution The curriculum has grown out of 'Pani, Pahar - Waters of the Himalayas', a collaborative research project between the University of Cambridge, The Centre for Ecology Development and Research in India (CEDAR) and Southasia Institute for Advanced Studies in Nepal (SIAS). The curriculum aims to help students understand water resources and sustainability and how these are impacted by climate change. The detailed lesson plans encourage reflection and research on the human causes of water scarcity, and some of the effects of environmental change on humans and our shared resources. It also helps students understand the meaning of activism, recognise some of the challenges associated with activism, and begin to associate activism with the needs and issues of their school. The curriculum has three sets, one for each level, each involving a 10-hours contact time with the students. The curriculum is targeted at students of junior, middle and senior level.
Impact This activity focuses on converting the materials available at the project's legacy website,, uses the images from the exhibition and research materials into a school level education curriculum for school in India, is underway. An ESRC IAA follow on fund has allowed Cambridge University to work with the India-based educational consultancy, The Hearth Education Advisors (, to develop these resources, and to promote them within the Indian school's network. At present 6 schools have indicated that they would like to use the curriculum which is aimed at junior, middle and senior students. The resources are free to use and download, available at this link:
Start Year 2018
Description British Ecological Society Annual Conference 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited contribution to a panel on Ecosystem Services for Human Well-being: Achievements and Future Research Directions. Bhaskar Vira presented findings from this ESPA project: " The political ecology of ecosystem services for poverty alleviation"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description ESRC Festival of Social Science: Photography Exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An informative photography exhibition by environmental photographer, Toby Smith, exploring the dynamic landscapes and escalating water crises of the Indian and Nepali Himalayas. The exhibition was part of the 2019 ESRC Festival of Social Science, and was on display at Lansdown Hall Gallery in Stroud between October 29 and November 4, 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Membership of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Water 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Following a decision by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) agreed to initiate and coordinate a global scientific assessment on "forests and water" in the frame of the CPF's Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) initiative, starting from January 2017. The ultimate goal of the new assessment is to produce an up-to-date scientific synthesis report and associated policy brief on the topic by mid-2018. The assessment aims to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by connecting SDG 6 on water and SDG 15 on forests, thus illustrating the cross-sectoral contributions of forests to the various SDGs. The study will provide input to the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) and its session in 2018 and is of particular relevance for the 13th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF 13) in 2018. Professor Bhaskar Vira is a member of the Panel, and is a Coordinating Lead Author for the assessment, drawing on work supported by this ESPA project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018