Understanding and managing watershed services in Andean and Amazonian catchments
This project was part of the ESPA scoping phase, which ran between 2008 and 2011. The resulting proposal for further funding was unsuccessful.
Andean countries face major challenges in meeting demand for water among different sectors, while making water available for low-income groups and conservation needs.
In Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia, the recognition, management and valuation of the watershed services that support ecosystems and people has been weak. Yet, assuring the supply of water for these demands by improving watershed management has become increasingly important, especially in the context of climate variability and the growth of agribusiness and mining.
Payments for environmental services (PES) schemes have become a popular policy strategy for assuring the supply of water in Andean countries. They are often supported because they enable low-income communities living in upstream areas to increase their incomes by 'selling' healthy watershed services to downstream users, such as water utilities and industries. For example, in Ecuador, water utilities pay campesinos [peasant smallholders] with land near their drinking water sources to not use fertilizer or pesticide, or to leave their land fallow, so as not to pollute rivers. Payments for environmental services schemes are based on important assumptions about the behaviour of ecosystems and people, and their interactions. For example, it is widely thought that preventing deforestation upstream will protect water flows downstream, and many payments for environmental services schemes are based on this relationship. However, this does not apply to all conditions, as sometimes deforestation can increase water flow.
A further problem in Andean countries is that little is known about their native ecosystems, and there is very little data available to improve our understanding of them. These assumptions about the relationships between ecological processes and human activity are also often over-simplified. This type of approach is problematic because it pays little attention to wider political and economic factors that shape resource use at the local level. This often results in low-income people being held responsible for environmental degradation, and policies that are based on these inaccurate understandings (such as planting trees in headwaters in the high Andes) can damage ecosystems and jeopardise poor people's livelihoods. More importantly, payments for environmental services schemes fail to consider the rules and institutions that campesino and indigenous groups already have in place to manage their water sources and environments. These comprise local knowledge, forms of community organisation, customs and values, that these groups use in their everyday lives.
These existing institutions and practices cannot simply be erased, and so it is important to consider them when designing payments for environmental services initiatives, rather than looking to override them. In order to analyse these key assumptions about watershed services in Andean and Amazonian catchments, and to be able to assess the appropriateness of payments for environmental services schemes for places inhabited by low-income campesino and indigenous peoples, the key research question for this project was: How are the ecological and social dynamics of watershed services in Andean and Amazonian catchments understood and managed by different actors (scientists, policymakers, communities)? By asking this question, we wanted to better understand how watershed processes function in landscapes that were shaped by both ecological and social dynamics; to get insights into the ways in which understandings of watershed processes - both scientific and local - influenced traditional management and payments for environmental services schemes; and to analyse how these perspectives and practices could contribute to equitable watershed management in Andean countries.