Payments for Ecosystem Services: Scaling Up and Down

Sven Wunder and Chris Santiago

More and more people are trying to save nature by making sure our economy recognizes the value of the carbon she holds, the water she filters, and the other economic services she provides For the schemes they build to work, however, they need to know when to go big and when to go small That will be a central theme of the upcoming Katoomba Meeting in Vietnam, as it already has been in Latin America.

More and more people are trying to save nature by making sure our economy recognizes the value of the carbon she holds, the water she filters, and the other economic services she provides.  For the schemes they build to work, however, they need to know when to go big and when to go small.  That will be a central theme of the upcoming Katoomba Meeting in Vietnam, as it already has been in Latin America.

10 June 2010 |
It should come as no surprise that Rafael Gallo wants to protect Costa Rica’s watersheds. After all, the island-nation’s sparkling rivers and waterways are both his playground and his livelihood.

In 1985, Gallo co-founded Rios Tropicales, an ecotourism company that takes people whitewater rafting on Costa Rica’s pristine rivers. Later on, the company established a fund that keeps its business going by helping to preserve, protect, and restore the rivers, streams and watersheds of Costa Rica. In a classic Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) scheme, Rios Tropicales provides payments to providers of sustainability initiatives in local communities.

“It was natural to us to protect the rivers we were running, help the communities we were visiting, and train fellow Costa Ricans to do what we were doing,” Gallo recently said.

A Drop in the Water

Gallo’s outfit is small, and one that he and his partners grew organically from the ground up. Because of its scale, Rios Tropicales — and organizations like it — asks individual farmers to keep their distance from shores near whitewater rafting operations.

At a larger scale, Costa Rica’s Fondo Nacional de Financiamiento (FONAFIFO), the branch of the Ministry of the Environment and Energy that administers PES schemes, coordinates farmers across entire watersheds. Small-scale operators like Rios Tropicales partner with large-scale organizations like FONAFIFO to have a greater impact. While Rios Tropicales has the advantages of flexibility and focus, FONAFIFO has the legitimacy and managerial economy because of its national scale.

The scale of each organization plays a part in its overall effectiveness.

Scaling Decisions: Large or Small?

Choosing the right scale of operation is key when implementing watershed PES (or PWS, “Payments for Watershed Services”) programs. Some PWS schemes function better at one scale than at others in terms of cost-efficiency, sustainability, equity, and other performance indicators. Most PWS schemes are pilots and, by nature, small. In addition, when decentralization has given considerable decision-making power to regional governments, financing at the sub-national level makes sense.

Colombia, for example, is currently engaged in efforts to create a nationwide PWS system. Colombia’s best chance for success is to go regional, which in Colombia’s case means the corporaciones aut³nomas. These regional environmental agencies collect legally mandated payments from both hydroelectric power producers and industrial water consumers.

For user-financed schemes, the PWS scheme’s scale should fit closely with the scale of the principal biophysical service that users want. Accordingly, the best place to begin is often the micro watershed. Of course, even though the biophysical aspects of the service play a big part in scaling decisions, economic, social, and political factors are just as important.

Other factors that should be considered include the number of units utilized; the source(s) of financing; the services and sub-services being provided, as well as their respective users; the dimensions of the watershed; the administrative context; the possibility of scaling up and/or scaling down; and time (e.g., contract length).

The Importance of Right-Sizing

But small-scale schemes sometimes fail to integrate local service providers. As a result, the non-paid upstream actors could jeopardize the service.

Conversely, the PES might be too large if varying degrees of rainfall cancel out peak flows in the catchment’s larger basins. It may also be too large if political processes bog it down with side objectives. Going big often makes sense from an economic and administrative point of view, due to economies of scale.

The average costs of both starting and running a PES scheme tend to be lower at larger scales. If the state is generally recognized as a good custodian of resources, a national-level initiative may secure legitimacy for the PES more quickly than it would for an NGO or user-led initiative. Marketing to investors may also be easier at larger scales. Donors financing the start-up costs of PES schemes often like the prospect of larger-scale impacts that benefit more people. For those doing advocacy work, the bigger the impact, the better.

Downsides to Going Big

However, when it comes to PES schemes, bigger isn’t always better. In large-scale schemes, the government assumes the role of the service buyers, who then lose their independent power to stop paying if they believe the service is not provided. For instance, in the Mexican national watershed scheme, downstream water users are supposed to benefit from PES, but they have no “economic vote” to increase or withdraw payments.

Large-scale, government-run schemes also run the risk of being sidelined for the sake of competing political objectives. The Mexican national watershed scheme, for instance, zeroed in on areas that were highly threatened by deforestation. Recently, though, the focus shifted much more toward the poorest providers, unintentionally compromising the scheme’s environmental additionality.

National-level PES schemes, such as those found in China, Costa Rica, and Mexico, also have a harder time targeting high-value, high-threat zones. In addition, these schemes come up short in terms of differentiating payment rates in space, which is one of the best ways to make PES schemes more efficient: When payment rates are fixed, they fail to reflect variations in the cost, quality and amount of service provided. Key economic signals between buyers and sellers get lost, making resource allocation less efficient. In particular, there is a high risk of paying for actions that would have happened anyhow (zero additionality).

When Does It Make Sense to Scale Up?

When a pilot program succeeds, there may be a temptation to increase its scale. But when is “upscaling” a good idea? To answer that question, let’s use a hypothetical example. Imagine a pilot PWS scheme succeeded at reducing sedimentation in a single village.

The first question to ask before upscaling would be: Can the PWS be scaled up within the watershed? In other words, can the scheme be made to encompass the entire watershed that makes up the potential area of influence? The answer is yes if certain conditions are met: First, water users would need to be willing to extend payments.

Second, the critical areas would need to be distributed fairly within the entire watershed. Finally, the delivery of service would need to be significantly improved by extending coverage. If, on the other hand, environmental threats are concentrated in “hot spots” that are already covered, and if user resources are likely to remain limited, intra-watershed upscaling is not desirable.

Another question to ask would be: Should the PWS scheme be extended beyond the single watershed? Under certain conditions, functions like aquifer recharge might depend on processes functioning in neighboring watersheds. If this were the case, it would be an argument in favor of upscaling. Upscaling may also be a possibility if several services from the same watershed are sold simultaneously.

If a PES scheme provides carbon services in addition to water, for example, then an extension beyond a single watershed could be meaningful, since carbon services are not limited to the watershed. If the scheme aims to produce other integrated ecological benefits (it aims to create a biodiversity corridor, for example), upscaling can also be a good idea.

When to Avoid Changes in Scale

However, upscaling should not be the goal of every PES program. Because risk and uncertainty are higher at the outset, starting out small may make it possible to manage and adapt the program more effectively. Starting from scratch with a single-design, large-scale scheme also precludes important learning experiences and experimentation. There are several advantages to staying small. Besides being able to maintain flexibility and focus, small-scale PWS schemes foster a participatory process and negotiated solutions. On the down side, small-scale PWS schemes may suffer from high transaction costs, and receive rather than make policy. In addition, any innovations that might occur will have a limited impact. Conversely, there are times to definitely avoid “downscaling” a large-scale focus. To mitigate climate change, “avoided deforestation” schemes are currently being developed. National-scale carbon accounting frameworks can limit project-induced displacements of environmental threats (“leakage”) and are clearly preferable in these cases. Besides being better at addressing leakage and the phenomenon known as “free-riding,” (e.g., non-paying users exploiting non-excludable services), large-scale PES schemes enjoy economies of scale, are able to replicate good ideas quickly, and are able to fine tune their policies. Because of these different considerations, PES scale decisions should be made according to the subsidiarity principle. In other words, PES schemes should be organized at the least-centralized, competent level of authority, given the nature of the environmental problem the program is trying to solve.

Vertical Upscaling

Once a decision has been made to scale up, how is it done? In a typical upscaling process, a good idea develops in a suitable context for innovation and a pilot program is created. If the pilot looks promising, it can be scaled up vertically. In other words, it can be escalated to a higher level of decision-making. For example, a pilot PES scheme in Los Negros, Bolivia, was the direct inspiration for the development of a larger-scale flood protection PES scheme in the Rio Grande basin. Similarly, Ecuador recently developed a national forest conservation PES (Socio Bosque) that was clearly inspired not only by the Costa Rican national PES program, but also by smaller-scale field projects at home. (This process is also sometimes referred to as “scaling out.”) In both cases, some of the same NGO actors also lobbied for the legal steps required to upscale vertically and provided technical assistance as well. Vertical upscaling, however, isn’t always a spontaneous, bottom-up process. PES programs such as the seven-million hectare Chinese Sloping Land Conversion Program and the British Environmentally Sensitive Area Program first commissioned pilot phases. These pilot schemes tested strategies under different circumstances. The advantage of these planned strategies was that certain factors of variation in the samples could be controlled, so that design strategies could be tested. Each of these programs also made upscaling an explicit, stated aim.

Horizontal Upscaling

Upscaling can also be achieved horizontally. In these cases, the initiative is not escalated to a higher political-administrative level. Instead, upscaling can be achieved through the gradual inclusion of additional participants within a predefined zone (e.g., extending coverage of a PES scheme within a watershed). The previously mentioned Los Negros scheme, for instance, started off with only a few households under contract in 2004, but was later spread by word-of-mouth and trust-building to cover 2774 hectares. Horizontal upscaling also occurs through replication. This helps preserving the advantages of the small scale, but achieving larger impacts in the landscape. Thanks to the NGO Fundaci³n Natura Bolivia, the Los Negros scheme has been replicated in the neighboring Comarapa and Mairana watersheds. The Ecuadorian NGO Cederena piloted the Pimampiro watershed PES in 1999, and has since replicated the scheme at the El Chaco and Celica sites. Similarly, the PASOLAC program is involved in the execution and development of ten different municipal-level watershed PES schemes in Central America. With 14 and 300 hectares under contract, the Comarapa and Mairana watersheds are still a lot smaller than the Los Negros scheme. But where replications are often small, repeated replication can arguably yield a significant cumulative impact. Moreover, replicating the same type of scheme under different circumstances contributes to the understanding of PES systems in general.

Upscaling PES in Agriculture

What scaling issues and obstacles might confront PES programs focused on agriculture? These kinds of programs are still quite new: No government-financed schemes in the Southern Hemisphere are focused solely on dryland agriculture, and only a handful of small user-financed schemes exist. In the EU, US, and various other developed countries, however, extensive agri-ecological PES programs exist. In Colombia, an organic farming scheme involving poor farmers revealed low upscaling rates within the watershed. Thus far, it has not been possible to sell the organic farming concept to commercial banks in order to make use of their credit channels. Technical assistance is also scarce and costly. In similar settings, the lack of markets for new seeds can also constitute obstacles for upscaling, in spite of their superior economic returns. These problems will need to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.


In the world of PES schemes, not much up- or downscaling has actually occurred yet: Big schemes tend to stay big and small schemes tend to stay small although, as mentioned, the latter may be replicated at similar scales elsewhere. The high financial and political costs of moving across scales may simply keep it from happening (ongoing payments are often expected to continue; renegotiating incentives and redesigning contracts can be cumbersome). This underscores the importance of choosing the right scale from the outset, before the initiative becomes locked into certain modalities. It is also important to note that multiple PES scales can and do operate successfully on the same playing field. Though differently scaled, Rafael Gallo’s ecotourism company Rios Tropicales and the Costa Rican government’s FONAFIFO co-exist and supplement each other. In addition to partnering with Rio Tropicales to protect the island’s rivers and waterways, FONAFIFO also acts as an umbrella for breweries and water-utility companies who provide services to users in other target watersheds. What makes multi-scaling interesting is that you can have the best of both worlds: the legitimacy and managerial economies of the national-scale PES, and the flexibility and focus of small-scale schemes. Parallel implementation of large- and small-scale schemes encourages complementary experiences and cross-fertilization of knowledge. “While government organizations and NGOs are certainly important in protecting Costa Rica’s natural resources,” says Gallo, “the partnership of local and indigenous communities to support and self-monitor wildlife and forest protection is our biggest achievement.” “Without such grassroots ownership and involvement, many valuable and well-meaning efforts at environmental protection ultimately fail.”

Chris Santiago is a freelance writer and editor who frequently blogs for He most recently worked at McGraw-Hill and “got green” at Oberlin College.

Sven Wunder is Principal Scientist with the Center for Forests and Livelihoods program of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). He can be reached at s.wunder (at)

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