“Carboninho” and the value of the forest: Opportunity costs, ecosystem services, and forest protection in the Brazilian Amazon

Authors: Maron Greenleaf*, Columbia University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Latin America
Keywords: Brazil, Amazon, payment for ecosystem services, REDD, opportunity costs
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Galerie 4, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Dominant logic in payment for ecosystem services (PES) theory holds that environmental protection results from compensating landholders for the “opportunity costs” of foregoing other land uses. Yet the focus on opportunity costs can be problematic in practice. This paper examines how developers of one prominent program—the Brazilian state of Acre’s System of Incentives for Environmental Services (SISA)—confronted one of these problems: the mismatch between high opportunity costs and limited funding. Despite international commitments, outsiders have only paid for a “carboninho”—a little bit of the carbon—stored in Acre’s Amazonian forest, as one interlocutor in the state government put it. In part because of the lack of funding, SISA’s developers designed the program to avoid the issue of opportunity costs, and with it, other foundational PES concepts—landownership, payments, and compensation. The change is impactful: rather than compensating landowners for opportunity costs, SISA enables progressive state redistribution to the rural poor. This transformation of PES reflects Acre’s high cultural valuation of the forest. Rubber tapping from living trees provided the basis of the state’s 19th-20th century colonization and economy, its late-20th century “socio-environmental” movement against deforestation, and its current environmentally-oriented state government. But SISA’s approach is also emblematic of larger trends in PES away from opportunity costs, as monetization fails to redress the fundamental undervaluation of the environment. This critical investigation of opportunity costs shows how the apparently neoliberal approach of ecosystem services can be, and perhaps has to be, transformed to bring value to the standing forest.

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