by Alejandra Zaga-Mendez and Rose Pritchard

In December 2019, SIID and the University of Sheffield Department of Geography held an interdisciplinary ‘Super Seminar’ on the use of market-based mechanisms in conservation. Involving visiting speakers from the Universities of Antwerp and Québec and over 30 Sheffield staff and students, the resulting discussion raised important questions on how we engage with these approaches in our work.

Why the need for analysis of market-based approaches?

There is a growing academic literature on the analysis and understanding of market-based mechanisms in conservation, such as incentives, offsets, or Payments for Ecosystem Services. There is also a developing research base on the use of economic metaphors, such as the term ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘nature valuation’ to motivate more environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Some authors argue that ‘taking nature into account’ by using market-based mechanisms is necessary to address climate change and biodiversity loss.  On the other side, critics characterise these types of policy interventions as being symptomatic of the continued neoliberalisation of nature and as threatening social and ecological relations.

But is it just a matter of polar opposites when it comes to understanding such tools? Critically assessing such conservation mechanisms requires analysing social and ecological complexity in terms of goals, and their reach  for natures and communities.

The Super Seminar

 This Super Seminar aimed to share viewpoints and case studies on how market mechanisms and economic metaphors behave, drawing on perspectives from ecology, ecological economics and political ecology. The diverse  disciplinary perspectives revealed the complexity of market-based mechanisms, and illustrated how the consequences of using these approaches vary according to the socio-ecological, political and economic context in which they are applied.

The seminar was opened by visiting speaker Gert Van Hecken of the University of Antwerp, who discussed the need for new approaches to evaluate the impacts of using market-based mechanisms and for greater recognition that current standards for ‘rigorous’ impact assessment are shaped by particular value systems and particular assumptions about human-nature relationships, which risk feeding dominant narratives of market-based conservation instruments as ‘success stories’.

In a session on the use of economic metaphors to promote conservation, Karl Evans of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences discussed different ways of framing conservation marketing messages and presented a case study indicating that ecosystem services language is not necessarily more impactful than language centred on biodiversity. Rose Pritchard of SIID reached a similar conclusion when presenting on the uptake of natural capital valuation approaches by private sector organisations, highlighting the limited current evidence that the use of such approaches is resulting in meaningful behaviour change.

Alejandra Zaga-Mendez of the Université du Québec en Outaouais presented a case study of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) initiatives in Amanalco, Mexico, showing how local stakeholders are hybridising multiple PES schemes and adapting them to achieve their own economic development objectives (for example by incorporating them as inputs to production for the development of community forestry). Charis Enns of the Department of Geography discussed her work on partnerships between extractive companies and biodiversity conservation organisations, and how such partnerships work to maintain the control of both sectors over the means of production – often at the expense of more marginalised groups.

Finally, Frances Cleaver presented on how Critical Institutionalism could offer a valuable analytical lens for explaining the socially and culturally embedded nature of people’s actions, power dynamics, and the unintended consequences of market-based approaches in conservation.

Four Emerging Questions on Market-Based Approaches

Four key questions were highlighted in the seminar discussions, that could form the basis for further research, on engaging with market-based mechanisms.

  1. What type of conservation are we trying to achieve – and who gets to decide?

The term ‘conservation’ can be interpreted differently according to the value system of the interpreter. Sometimes conservation aims are framed only around non-human natures, detaching the social system from the overall environment. But such a separation of humans and nature is alien to the world-views of many, and can lead to injustice if used as the basis for action in human-dominated landscapes. Market-based mechanisms may be the means; but we first need greater clarity on the proposed end.

  1. Can we achieve conservation goals without market-based mechanisms?

Financial incentives or offsets might be presented as inevitable in the context of environmental and climate urgency. But what other institutions are involved in the conservation of human and non-human natures? Could market-based mechanisms act as one component in a pluralistic institutional constellation? Could existing resources for conservation be more effectively distributed? And what are the alternative ground-up policy tools emerging to solve complex conservation problems?

  1. What impacts are resulting from market-based instruments, and how is ‘success’ evaluated?

The effects of market instruments are rarely evaluated. Where evaluations exist we often see a gap between theory and practice, between what is being said being done, as market-based mechanisms are reshaped and co-opted by diverse actors with diverse social, economic and environmental goals.  What actions and power structures are market-based mechanisms acting to legitimise, particularly if they are not leading to the (purportedly) intended conservation and sustainability outcomes? What epistemological assumptions currently inform impact evaluation processes, and can positivist evaluation approaches be integrated with evaluation methods arising from a greater diversity of epistemological backdrops?

  1. Can valuation for market-based mechanisms ever be fair or meaningful in a world of plural values?

People relate to non-human nature in a huge diversity of ways. Can placing a value (monetary or otherwise) on nature ever adequately and equitably reflect these diverse values?

The Way Forward

Market-based mechanisms and economic metaphors are becoming increasingly dominant in conservation. This may open up interesting opportunities for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. But we need to look critically at the value systems shaping the application and evaluation of market-based mechanisms, carefully consider the kinds of conservation we seek to achieve, and improve understanding of how market-based mechanisms play out when they encounter the complexity of real-world contexts.


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