Confessions of an RCT: how evaluation theory met complex realities in one of the first large-scale Randomized Control Trials of a conservation intervention

Authors: Nigel Asquith, Cuencas Sustentables, Edwin Pynegar, Bangor University and University of Sussex, Emma Wiik, Bangor University, Tara Grillos, Purdue University, Julia P.G. Jones, Bangor University, Tito Vidaurre, Fundación Natura Bolivia, Zhao Ma, Purdue University, Brooke McWherter*, Purdue University
Topics: Latin America, Field Methods
Keywords: watershared, payments for ecosystem services, reciprocal watershed agreement, conservation and development, watershed conservation, incentive-based conservation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Roosevelt 5, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Randomized Control Trials (RCTs), in which a counterfactual is created through randomly allocating experimental units to a treatment or control group, have been a mainstay of impact evaluation in many fields of applied science. However, their use in the field of conservation remains rare. Here we present our experiences using an RCT to evaluate a large-scale conservation intervention, the forest, and water conservation program Watershared, in the Río Grande-Valles Cruceños conservation management area in Bolivia’s Amazon headwaters. From 2011 to 2016, the non-governmental organization Fundación Natura Bolivia randomly allocated 129 communities into two groups. In the 65 treatment communities, landowners were offered in-kind incentives, such as beehives, fruit trees, or irrigation equipment, for conserving forests and preventing livestock from contaminating watercourses. Here we present results describing the impact of Watershared on water quality, deforestation, and social attitudes. We also examine challenges encountered when evaluating the program: how multiple desired outcomes, monitoring uncertainties, and the behavior-mediated nature of the intervention made conducting a high-quality RCT difficult. Additionally, we discuss the relative utility of RCT results in providing useful information for conservation researchers and practitioners, when compared with other evaluation methods. We conclude that conducting a high-quality conservation RCT requires a well-designed intervention supported by a clear theory of change, substantial planning, and a focus on a small number of key outcomes of interest. Lessons learned from this RCT have been applied to a second RCT in these 129 communities to evaluate the role of conditionality in conservation programs.

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