The proudest moments of my life: To see my science in practice

Women walk along the Peruvian Andes. Photo by: Manon Koningstein / CIAT

One of the proudest moments of my career as a scientist came in 2014. In the middle of that year, the bill that I helped draft became law in a country at risk of a water crisis due to the inevitable melting of its glaciers.

I’m talking about Peru and the law on payment for ecosystem services.

Peru is a country that experiences water poverty, with millions of people having no access to drinking water.

That could become worse in the next few decades, when the Peruvian icecaps, which make up more than two-thirds of the world’s tropical glaciers, are expected to disappear. Both rural and urban areas depend on those glaciers for their water supply.

Knowing this, the government has been ramping up its efforts to conserve the environment in the Andean mountains. Payment for ecosystem services is part of that effort.

Early initiatives, however, proved unsuccessful as there was a lot of confusion about what the concept meant.

From a study we did with the support of the Peruvian Ministry of Environment, we found out that local governments hesitated to implement any related scheme because they didn’t know whether they were allowed to make those payments. There was nothing on paper that indicated they could.

Farmers, meanwhile, were unsure if they will be required to return the money. The constitution says that all natural resources belong to the state. So the question for them was: If ecosystem services belong to the state, would the payments also be the property of the state?

The findings from our study prompted the ministry to propose a bill, which would address those bottlenecks and therefore facilitate implementation of payment for ecosystem services initiatives.

The bill we drafted defined the term as rewards for actions that benefit the provision of ecosystem services. It specified that the ministry is responsible for determining the roles of each actor, including the private sector, and overseeing the program.

The measure also encouraged voluntary but legally binding agreements, for example, between hydroelectric power companies and farmers’ groups. These contracts should spell out the actions, the amounts and types of payment — both monetary and nonmonetary — and the monitoring mechanisms.

Now with the law, both local and regional governments, as well as water supply companies, have a basis to make payouts are rewards for positive actions on the environment. Farmers likewise need not worry about having to return the money.

Payment for ecosystem services, to be clear, won’t stop the Peruvian glaciers from melting. But by encouraging people to take care of the land they manage, they can better manage water resources and likely prevent a future crisis.

Our work in Peru helped change perceptions around an important issue. We are aiming to do the same in Colombia.

Colombia targets a zero net deforestation rate in its Amazon region by 2020 and seeks to end all forest loss by 2030. Still, massive deforestation is happening: In 2016, the country saw an increase in deforestation rate of 44 percent from the previous year, or a loss of nearly 179,000 hectares of forest.

Together with colleagues at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and local partners, I’ve been working to change how farmers manage livestock, the biggest driver of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. We do this by working directly with farmers.

We’re now seeing success. In our project in Caquetá, a region ravaged by the country’s 52-year armed conflict, some farmers have taken up sylvopasture, shunning the conventional livestock system, which involves extensive grazing and zero rotation. The sylvopastoral system marries forestry and grazing, leading to increased soil fertility and improved cattle feed, among other benefits.

When we asked farmers what made them change their livestock systems, those benefits, however, were not the first on their lists of reasons for doing so. They told us that it was because we have been with them throughout the process, and not simply telling them what to do or providing them with inputs such as fertilizers or wires for fencing their farms.

Aside from a local organization with experience in providing extension services, we are also collaborating with Universidad de la Amazonia for our project in Caquetá. Most of the university’s students come from the region and as such would know best how to interact with the farmers. We provide them with training, and they work with us to support the farmers as part of their master’s or doctoral theses.

The students told us that by getting involved in the project, they felt they were doing something for their region. That motivation gives us hope that the successes we’ve achieved will continue on even after the project finishes.

For many scientists, seeing their names on peer-reviewed journals is a source of pride. I am the same. But it gives me more pride when I see my work in practice, whether on a nationwide or a local scale. I’m lucky to have seen both.


About the author:

Marcela Quintero is the research theme leader on ecosystem services at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Her core work experience has been on project formulation and implementation related to payments for ecosystem services schemes design, and environmental impacts produced by diverse land uses in Latin America. Recently she worked on environmental impacts and adoption determinants of conservation measures, including mixed crop-livestock systems and REDD+ projects. She is Ecologist and earned a PhD in agronomy from the University of Florida.