Reconceptualizing Ecosystem Services as Sites of Contestation, Hybridization and Transformation II: Values and Discourses

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Economic Geography Specialty Group, Political Geography Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Galerie 4, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Organizers: Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza, Pamela McElwee, Gert Van Hecken
Chairs: Esteve Corbera


The concept of ecosystem services (ES) has rapidly become a dominant paradigm for understanding and prioritizing the natural world in the context of conservation and development (Fisher and Brown 2014). Yet, despite the rapid and expansive use of the ES concept as a driver of major policy approaches, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES), biodiversity and carbon offsets, and REDD+, major barriers remain in operationalizing, governing, measuring, valuing, and commodifying ES. This series of paper sessions will examine the ways in which the intersections of material ES, communities where ES are found, and the historical and institutional structures that govern existing ways of enacting environmental management have resulted in contestation, hybridization and transformation of this seemingly hegemonic framework.

Much of the critique of the application of the concept of ES as a driver of environmental policy approaches have come from the “neoliberal natures” literature, which has focused primarily on the negative impacts of reducing the non-human world to simple economic values. Scholars pertaining to this school of thought have asserted that the imposition of the ES concept in particular leads to “nonhuman natures [that] tend to become flattened and deadened into abstract and conveniently incommunicative and inanimate objects, primed for commodity capture in service to the creation of capitalist value” (Büscher et al. 2012: 23). These scholars also note that imposing the structure of market logics and capitalist rationales on the conservation of nature is akin to allowing the cat to guard the canary. Yet despite these understandable worries that the use of ES concepts leads inevitably to commodification and financialization (Sullivan 2009), there are indications this neoliberal project is not being enacted nearly as quickly or hegemonically as feared (Dempsey and Suarez 2016).

Payments for ecosystem services (PES), through which financial incentives are provided to landowners for management practices thought to produce ES, currently a ubiquitous approach in both the global North and South, is one example of a broad application of the ES concept. Developed conceptually in the 1980s, PES is a market-based environmental approach founded on a neoclassical economic model intended to increase both the efficiency and effectiveness of environmental initiatives through voluntary, direct, market-like agreements between users and providers of ecosystem services (Wunder 2005), and which matched well with and was bolstered by the neoliberal ideology that was on the ascendency in the early 1990s. However, although the original neoclassical economic model of PES largely continues to be upheld as the ideal by those who promote and fund PES, from multilateral lending institutions to international environmental NGOs, few if any initiatives conform to its constructs.

The empirically grounded, theoretically informed papers presented as part of these sessions will explore the many ways in which ES concepts and policies such as PES are, or are not, contested, hybridized and/or transformed by, discursive battles over the framing and mapping of these initiatives, other values for socio-natural systems, concerns over equity, labor and identity, and through existing institutions and emergent governance.


Büscher, Bram, Sian Sullivan, Katja Neves-Graça, James Igoe, and Dan Brockington. 2012. “Towards a Synthesized Critique of Neoliberal Biodiversity Conservation.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 23 (2): 4–30. doi:10.1080/10455752.2012.674149.

Dempsey, Jessica, and Daniel Chiu Suarez. 2016. “Arrested Development? The Promises and Paradoxes of ‘Selling Nature to Save It.’” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106 (3): 653–671.

Fisher, J.A. and Brown, K., 2014. Ecosystem services concepts and approaches in conservation: Just a rhetorical tool?. Ecological economics, 108, pp.257-265.

Sullivan, Sian. 2009. “Green Capitalism, and the Cultural Poverty of Constructing Nature as Service Provider.” Radical Anthropology 3: 18–28.

Wunder, S., 2005. Payments for environmental services: some nuts and bolts, Occasional Paper No. 42. Bogor, Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Maron Greenleaf*, Columbia University, “Carboninho” and the value of the forest: Opportunity costs, ecosystem services, and forest protection in the Brazilian Amazon 15 10:00 AM
Presenter Pamela McElwee*, Rutgers, The Bumpy Road to Commodification: Why Vietnam’s PES Program Can’t Value Priority Ecosystem Services 15 10:15 AM
Presenter Nigel Asquith, Fundación Natura Bolivia, Zhao Ma*, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, Watershared Agreements: A Contestation, Hybridization or Transformation of Payments for Ecosystem Services? 15 10:30 AM
Presenter Niki vonHedemann*, University of Arizona, Measuring carbon in Guatemala’s Payments for Ecosystem Services Programs: how much of a difference do payments really make? 15 10:45 AM
Presenter Sara Nelson*, University of Minnesota, Leah Bremer, University of Hawaii, Kelly Meza Prado, University of Minnesota, Alternative histories of PES in Valle del Cauca, Colombia 15 11:00 AM
Discussant Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza Duke University 15 11:15 AM
Discussant Esteve Corbera Institute of Environmental Science and Technology 10 11:30 AM

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