Towards a GREEN future: Conserving Meghalaya’s forests through PES

17 January 2024
ABOUT THIS Perspective

A government initiative to promote conservation and build climate resilience, the GREEN Meghalaya scheme is based on the payment for ecosystems model (PES). This article introduces the PES model and poses inquiries about its operation and implementation, especially against the changing landscape of forest conservation in India.

In the three decades since the first Conference of Parties, COP 1, raised alarm about cutting carbon emissions, the world has devised many creative solutions to address environmental degradation and combat climate change. The most effective solutions integrate tackling the intractable problems of livelihood insecurity and poverty reduction by promoting conservation and building climate resilience.

One such attempt is the Government of Meghalaya’s Grassroot level Response towards Ecosystem Enhancement and Nurturing (GREEN) Meghalaya Scheme. GREEN Meghalaya is based on the payment for ecosystems model (PES) devised by environmental economists, in which the beneficiaries or users of an ecosystem service make payments to the providers of that service.With the aim of reducing forest dependency and promoting conservation, the Meghalaya government supports villages, communities, clans, or individuals who commit to conserving and protecting natural forests for a minimum period of 30 years. They do so by awarding a minimum of INR 8,000 per hectare per year to individual or community/clan owners of non-commercial, natural forest that is at least two hectares in size. The compensation can be used towards specified activities such as demarcating the forest boundary, undertaking forest fire prevention activities, preparing a forest management plan, and composting, amongst others. As per the PES model, then, the ecosystem service sought here is forest conservation, its providers are individuals or community/clans, and the user is the Meghalaya Basin Management Agency (MBMA), a body keen to limit the commercialisation of forests as a way to combat deforestation.

In 2013, the REDD+ framework — “Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries” — was adopted at COP 19. In the decade since, the world has seen a proliferation of PES schemes worldwide. As a market-based solution, PES can develop in one of two ways: either at least one set of stakeholders recognises a noticeable depletion in resources, leading to true demand; or a particular aim is identified, usually in relation to protection or management of national resources and a PES system is introduced to create a market for the service. By paying the providers of a service, PES creates a new source of income for land management, restoration, conservation, and sustainable-use activities. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, this creates the potential to promote sustainable ecosystem management.

In the nearly two years since GREEN Meghalaya’s launch, several rounds of payments have been made to individuals and community/clans, but the scheme’s impact on forest conservation remains yet unknown. Assessing this is crucial as scholars of biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation argue that while paying environmental managers can incentivise ecosystem management, PES presents three notable problems. One, it runs the risk of reducing a complex ecosystem to a single service which has serious technical difficulties and ethical implications on the way humans relate to, perceive, and preserve nature. Second, assigning a single economic value to nature’s services commodifies and oversimplifies ecological relations, making these ecosystem services, which are otherwise just ways an ecosystem functions, into tradeable commodities. Third, PES programs implemented by bureaucratic institutions in places such as Meghalaya, where parallel community institutions exist, run the risk of creating fissures between different governance systems. For instance, in Mexico, where PES initiatives only recognised forms of de jure land tenure in their targeting strategy, the exclusion of de facto owners of forest land undermined community ownership of forests and prioritised private ownership of a community-pool resource.

But while challenges exist, it is possible they do not hinder the successful adoption and implementation of GREEN Meghalaya. That the scheme acknowledges and prioritises communally owned forest land and permits minor forest produce collection are promising signs. But given that the landscape of forest conservation in India has rapidly shifted in favour of plantations and commercialised forestry, and weakened safeguards as a result of the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act 2023, GREEN Meghalaya and PES must be closely studied. Because one thing is abundantly clear: forests stand as the final frontier between a biodiverse and climatically stable planet and complete environmental catastrophe.