Balancing social and environmental sustainability: A qualitative case study about the social impacts of the Payments for Ecosystem Services program on rural farmers in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has long been considered a leader in environmentally sustainable policy actions as the country aims to have 70% forest cover and much of their success has been attributed to the Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program. The program pays landowners to conserve their forests for the benefits nature provides, such as biodiversity, storing carbon, scenic beauty and fresh water regulation. Nearly one million hectares of forest have been a part of the PES program at some point in Costa Rica. Extensive research and results have been presented on the ecological impact of PES but the socio-economic impacts for the participants have been explored less. To understand the social sustainability of the program, a small qualitative case study was conducted interviewing five small-scale landholders in the Guacimal district of Costa Rica with PES experience. Their perspectives were compared to two reports presented on the United Nations Development Program website for Payments for Environmental Services. Theoretical concepts from critical sustainability studies were used to better understand the gathered material and explain my observations, and to connect it to the larger debate regarding sustainability. The results show that the landholders have a different relationship to their environment and perceive the social impacts of the program differently than the reports. I believe that the future of the PES program would benefit from incorporating the bottom up perspective of critical sustainability studies.