April 2006  
RUPES Connects Land, Water and People in Asia
by Cameron Walker

hinking of mountains might call to mind snowcapped peaks, hillsides blanketed in lush forests, and animals from birds to butterflies flickering through distant leaves. Yet in many higher-elevation areas in Asia, farms and plantations point to another aspect of the landscape: people.

With few land rights and often less income, upland people often survive by clearing land for subsistence farming. But as forests disappear, so do the services they provide—sequestering carbon, providing habitat, and preventing erosion in the sensitive transition zones where snowcapped peaks turn into water sources for lowland farmers and urban areas. Far from the mountains, water seems to gush from the tap as if by magic, making it easy to forget its source and the people who live next door.

Since 2002, an innovative program has been working to offer the upland poor better options to improve their livelihood and protect the environment. RUPES, an international consortium coordinated by the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) works intensively at six action research sites in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nepal. With an eye toward developing tailor-made rewards programs for each community, ICRAF, local communities, and local, national and international NGOs collaborate to understand the science and sociology impacting local ecosystem services at every action site.

Payments for ecosystem services programs have already flourished in Costa Rica and Central America. RUPES hopes to tweak traditional PES programs—not only by focusing on Asia, but also by doing more than tallying up each ecosystem's services and passing out payments, says ecologist Meine van Noordwijk, one of the program's founders.

"In many situations in Asia, rural poverty is linked to lack of secure tenure, conflicts over land status between local communities and government agencies," says van Noordwijk, who is the regional coordinator of ICRAF South East Asia. "RUPES has attempted to address these multiple dimensions of poverty based on the priorities of the local communities," he says.

Payments—and Rewards—in the Philippines

In the Philippines, indigenous people like the Ikalahan—the name means "people of the forest"—often have certificates of ancestral domain giving them land tenure. Rainfall in the Kalahan region tops five meters each year, and the average slope angle of this mountainous territory is 45 degrees.

The Ikalahan have been charged with protecting the area's water supply, which feeds the Magat Dam, since 1973. In exchange, the people received land security from the government, says Delbert Rice, the site leader at RUPES' Kalahan action site.

With growing awareness of the true extent of the services that forests provide—from reducing erosion to acting as carbon sinks, Rice and others have realized that, while the Ikalahan struggle to balance forest stewardship with subsistence farming, people downstream are getting off scot-free. "They haven't even sent a thank-you note," Rice says.

In recent years, local people have turned to sustainable planting technology to improve watershed conditions. Production has doubled, allowing the removal of as much as 2,000 hectares from agriculture. And a new trade in processing wild fruits into jams and jellies has reduced dependence on farmland.

RUPES is encouraging the shift in farming methods to create more spots for forest rehabilitation, along with continuing studies of native mossy oak forests to learn more about the services they provide. Since 1994, researchers have measured growth rate data for 10,000 hectares of trees planted outside a protected sanctuary. The growth, Rice says, is quite significant—and may encourage the start of a carbon market. In May 2006, Ikalahan representatives plan to attend the Carbon Expo in Germany, with the hopes of finding potential buyers for their forests' carbon services.

Revenue from a market would go to a local foundation, Rice says, which would fund the tribal high school, medical care, and scholarship assistance. Any surplus could be used to help others start a similar program. "I hope it's not an impossible dream," he says.

Indigenous people in the Cordillera ranges of the northern Philippines face similar pressures as the Ikalahan. The combination of limited livelihood options for some upland people and rising demand for potatoes, cabbages, and carrots to feed vacation hotspot Baguio City and capital city Manila, has transformed many area forests into farmlands.

At the Bakun action research site, one likely method for ecosystem services payments already exists. Two hydroelectric companies now use the area's water. According to a memorandum of agreement, the hydroelectric companies make payments to local governments, both through business and real property taxes and through voluntary, Bakun-targeted community assistance projects. Local governments use these payments for a range of development-related projects, including infrastructure, agriculture, education, and conservation, says Bert Banatao, RUPES-Bakun action site leader.

Based on its goals of protecting ecosystem services and local livelihoods, RUPES research aims to devise more effective ways to distribute these payments directly toward conservation and alleviating poverty, a shift that Banatao says, "would benefit all stakeholders of water in Bakun both for present and future generations."

Innovations in Indonesia

Uplands areas are often hard to reach, both for visitors and for economic development. Landslides and steep slopes can make ecological research—and measuring ecosystem services—a challenge. "We consider that populations in uplands are the most marginalized community," says Beria Leimona, the RUPES program officer based in Bogor who coordinates all of the action sites. "They've been passed by in national and local economic development."

In the 1990s, builders on the island of Sumatra began to install a hydroelectric dam at the base of the Sumberjaya watershed, an area where more and more settlers had started to plant coffee trees along the hillsides. The government assumed that silt from these coffee plantations would interfere with the new dam, and stepped in. Four military campaigns roared between 1991 and 1996, kicking out farmers and torching coffee fields, while people spiraled further into poverty.

The government planted new trees in the burned lands. But watershed health didn't rebound. ICRAF research suggests that the coffee plantations would not have negatively affected the dam – establishing diverse coffee plantations could actually aid in stemming erosion, while boosting farmers' incomes.

Changes within the Indonesian government, along with rising coffee prices worldwide, brought people back to the area. In the late 1990s, Hutan Kemasyarakatan (HKm) began giving farming groups land tenure in exchange for planting coffee-based plantations with multiple species and protecting existing natural forests.

In Sumberjaya, research takes two tacks: technical forestry work, through which RUPES can help establish values for ecosystem services, and interviews with local farmers that help RUPES understand how HKm is spreading and whether it's encouraged conservation practices.

In other PES programs, concerns have been raised that wealthier, better-connected landholders receive the lion's share of PES benefits, with high transaction costs often shutting out poorer participants. With HKm, a farmer can't apply for the reward on his own. "You cannot take advantage of it without the help of your neighbors," says John Kerr, an economist at Michigan State University, who has studied the Sumberjaya area with RUPES-Sumberjaya site leader Suyanto. Instead, the challenge comes in organizing individual farmers into a group to apply for rewards.

Through ICRAF, RUPES has helped farmers tackle these difficulties. Last year, three groups of farmers applied for HKm permits, while 10 groups started preparing applications with RUPES assistance.

Two other research sites in Indonesia—Bungo and Singkarak—deal with fewer land tenure issues, but are also working on understanding the science behind ecosystem services and how to distribute rewards to the upland poor.

In Bungo, traditional rubber agroforests provide most of the forest services for the Batang Hari watershed. These "jungle" rubber forests usually include a wide range of plants, but most natural forests have been converted into monoculture stands of oil palm and rubber. Other areas have been cleared completely: forest cover in the Bungo area dropped 53 percent between 1973 and 2002.

Since 2004, the consortium of institutions working on RUPES has spread the word about biodiversity and the conservation values of traditional ecosystems. Farmers' groups share techniques for rehabilitating former rubber plots and encourage conservation and sustainable production.

In investigating rewards near Singkarak Lake, the group has talked with the national electricity company about using a portion of the tax it pays to the provincial government to reimburse people for ecosystem services. Rewards could be distributed through the local level nagaris, or village governments, already in place. This process may prove lengthy, so the RUPES-Singkarak site has now proposed the electricity company fund ecosystem services through community development projects. The site has also suggested a joint committee at which potential buyers and sellers could discuss ecosystem service projects and multiple funding sources.

Along with ironing out technical details of how rewards are tallied and disseminated, programs like RUPES may be able to transform an outsider's view of the poor from squatters to stewards. In Sumberjaya, says van Noordwijk, this type of a shift may already be taking place. But some higher-level government factions have started to take backward steps in their support of payments, van Noordwijk says, "so we'll need to work hard to maintain the achievements made."

Rewards in the Himalaya

Shyam Upadhyaya had been working at equitable hydropower projects across Nepal, working with communities that had been directly affected by hydropower projects.

The Kulekhani watershed, 50 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu, drains to a reservoir that supplies water to downstream hydropower plants. When water drains from the Kulekhani uplands, sediment tags along. As erosion continues, it can fill reservoirs—decreasing capacity and shortening a hydropower plant's lifespan.

Several conservation groups started tree-planting programs, helping slow sediment's journey toward the reservoir. Even though people in the area may have never heard the term "ecosystem services," Upadhyaya says, "I think people had some understanding that forest conservation helps to reduce landslides and protects water sources." Yet many tree-planting programs have now ended, leaving Upadhyaya and others to find new ways to maintain the growing forests.

Upadhyaya is working on generating rewards through channeling some of the royalties hydropower companies pay to the government back to local communities.

One of RUPES' goals in Nepal is to immerse upland dwellers in managing the resources under their care. The rewards program, which Upadhyaya hopes to have in place by the end of the year, might take the form of a fund managed by a committee of local stakeholders, government, and hydropower company representatives, which would pay out to conservation and development in the upland watershed.

Boosting involvement may be key in RUPES' long-term success in any country. "Lack of recognition and voice is still a major determinant of what happens," says van Noordwijk, "and a minimum level of trust is needed before reward mechanisms can have a chance."

Forging New Connections

RUPES' work hasn't yet reaped direct payments for ecosystem services. "In the beginning, the idea was to capture international buyers. But it's not as easy as we thought," Leimona says.

While payments linger somewhere out on the horizon, the program has generated novel ways to boost the livelihood of the upland poor. The action-site programs, Leimona says, help strengthen local institutions, giving communities a more-united front when petitioning governments to account for ecosystem services.

RUPES is also starting work at additional sites in the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as spreading its reach to Cambodia and Vietnam. Rewards programs with similar philosophies are also being considered to address poverty and the environment in Africa (see Payments for Ecosystem Services in Rural Africa).

The program walks a tightrope between encouraging changes while being realistic about how long it takes to put a payments program in place—and to watch forests grow. Sustainable agroforests can take ten years to reach maturity, so the true measure of the services they provide may be a long time coming. With limited scientific and environmental information available in the countries where RUPES works, "we want to progress at the local level, but we don't want to raise high expectations from the community," Leimona says.

Still, it seems some progress has been made. Delbert Rice tells the story of the time he accompanied a group of Ikahlahan tribal elders from farm to farm. One elderly farmer told the group that he'd been protecting the land for eight years. The man pointed to a spring in the corner, saying that when he was a young boy, the spring had dried up. Since the area had been protected, the spring had started flowing again. "Now," Rice says, "he believed there was a connection between protecting the biota and the water."