Financial incentives often fail to reconcile agricultural productivity and pro-conservation behavior

A series of dynamic games built around collective action dilemmas in conservation suggest that payments to encourage conservation often fail to jointly improve agricultural production and environmental outcomes, but are more successful in more educated and gender diverse groups.
Published in Social Sciences
Financial incentives often fail to reconcile agricultural productivity and pro-conservation behavior

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Trade-offs that demand hard choices between production and conservation goals are a widespread challenge in many parts of the world. Many of these trade-offs are poorly understood and not easily managed. A key part of the problem is that the interests of small-scale rural farmers and wider communities are often misaligned. For instance, forest conservation has global benefits and plays a major role in regulating the world climate, but it often comes with restrictions on forest use and access, and this can lead to a decrease in production, and generate local costs.

Paying resource users to preserve features of their environment could in theory better align production and conservation goals at the landscape scale. In some contexts, payments might nudge environmental goals at the expense of production.  In others however, they may encourage behaviors that harness the many and varied benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems (a.k.a. ecosystem services), and hence jointly encourage conservation and production outcomes. 

We developed a small family of games, built around production-conservation dilemmas, and played them with hundreds of farmers across Europe, Africa, and Asia to try to understand this divide better.  Specifically, we asked, in contexts where there is potential for the pro-environment practice to lead to private benefits, do payments help encourage this?

We built the games using the freely available Netlogo platform – in which spatial interactions and ecosystem dynamics are easy to capture – and played them on tablet PCs connected via a mobile router. We wanted to develop games that we could code ourselves, would link players in real time, anywhere (with or without internet), could be as visual as we liked, and could have cues in any written language or symbology if necessary.  Players in our games tackled decisions around whether to spray pesticides on their crops or share a reliance on natural enemy services (like wasps) with neighbors, or how best to manage conflicts with wildlife such as elephants or lions – with guns, with scare tactics, or with dedicated habitat. This approach let us capture key features of the problem that matter for natural resource management decision-making –  uncertainty, nonlinearity, temporal variation, and spatial interaction –  but are difficult to capture, communicate, and make relatable using other research or learning tools. 

We first developed “NonCropShare” in 2013, which stylizes the challenge of sharing insect-based ecosystem services as a symmetric coordination game in Vietnam and Cambodia. We then expanded to “Goosebump” in 2017 which takes the same coordination problem and uses it to look at human-wildlife conflicts where farmers have to share a space on the same landscape with species of conservation concern. In Goosebump, farmers can decide between scaring animals away to become someone else problem, killing the animals, or setting aside habitat for animals to occupy, thereby offering a spatial public good to everybody else in the landscape. We did this first for the Orkney Islands where there are overabundant geese feeding on farmers’ crops (hence the name “Goosebump”). We then expanded it to a number of different human wildlife conflicts, including elephants in Gabon and lion-livestock conflict in Tanzania. Our third game in the family is “Sharedspace,” played in Kenya and Madagascar, which is a simpler system where forestlands or fallow offer restorative ecosystem services to neighboring farmlands, like what you might find in swidden agricultural systems. We examined how he definition of who can use what land when shapes the degree to which people maintain those ecosystem services.

All of these games share the features of being symmetric access coordination games, and having some production outcome in tension with some environmental goal. And across all of our experiments, we applied similar mixed methods approaches – including similar survey instruments and debriefing sessions with participants to understand in more depth what drives their decisions in the games. These shared features across experiments allowed us to synthesize both quantitative and qualitative findings to build bigger insights about what peoples’ in-game choices meant.

We found that while payments can encourage pro-conservation behavior, they failed to capitalize on the potential for jointly improving productive and environmental outcomes, highlighting the more nuanced challenge of reconciling livelihoods with conservation goals. We also found higher production (yield) and joint production-environment outcomes (i.e., a measure of agricultural production multiplied by a measure of pro-conservation practice) to be associated with greater education, as well as increased representation by women and gender diversity in the group.

These results have important policy implications for the the design of incentive programs that aim to harmonize livelihood and environment outcomes. One form of such harmonized design might be incentives programs calibrated jointly to a conservation outcome (e.g., living animal population) as well as a production outcome (e.g., production of a locally important crop).  Alternatively, improving access to insurance programs calibrated to the risks posed by the pro-environment outcome (e.g., crop raids by elephants or livestock raids by lions or tigers) may provide the security and income smoothing necessary for producers to experiment with longer-term solutions, or, at the very least, to continue producing. 

The results suggest dynamic games such the ones we developed can provide a critical participatory and engagement tool to examine resource users’ response to intervention where full field trials are expensive or infeasible. The games provided a safer atmosphere to get participants (in our case small scale farmers who are very familiar with the contexts investigated in the games) to talk openly about issues that might be challenging or sensitive to raise otherwise.

In our experience, investment in capturing dilemmas that people can relate to pays off in great engagement and new insights.  Our work continues in further contexts – capturing pasture reserve decisions in pastoral systems, or the challenges of diversifying landscapes in the face of lucrative commodities like vanilla – and we’re hopeful that this NetLogo-based approach could be valuable to graduate students and other researchers working at various human-environment problem contexts.

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