The discourse and reality of "win-win" interventions for forests and people in the Peruvian Amazon
Local projects aiming to jointly reduce deforestation, climate change and poverty are increasingly popular. Yet, despite widespread claims of “win-win” success, there is growing evidence of significant trade-offs. My doctoral research examines three globally widespread strategies to achieve “win-win” outcomes by both conserving forests and improving the well-being of local people: 1) voluntary incentive-based mechanisms such as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) and sustainable intensification, 2) protected area enforcement alongside livelihood compensation, 3) community-based natural resource management. In the region of San Martín in northern Peru, over 50 million US dollars have been committed to these approaches since 2008 by international actors such as Disney, Hugo Boss and Althelia Ecosphere. This thesis compares the perspectives of organisations and local community members across 15 project sites in this region regarding these strategies and their implications for local people and forests. Organisational perspectives were investigated through 36 semi-structured interviews with project managers and a review of 103 project documents. Local perspectives were explored through 15 participatory workshops and 270 day-long semi-ethnographic mixed method interviews with project beneficiary and non-beneficiary households.
The main body of this thesis uncovers a significant gap between “win-win” project theories of change and outcomes in San Martín. Combined quantitative and qualitative analyses demonstrate the role of different social, economic, political and ecological factors in producing and sustaining conservation and well-being outcomes. These outcomes are explored through twenty-seven distinct ways of framing “successful” outcomes for forests and/or people, based on diverse community and external perspectives. This permitted an examination of what interventions appeared to be achieving given the broader context, as well as the implications of how “success” is framed. My findings highlight several ways in which the assumptions underpinning projects tend to break down in practice. For example, attempts to increase farmers’ income to reduce pressure on forests ignored how increased wealth was actually a principle driver of deforestation. Additionally, although projects often claimed that material incentives could “crowd in” intrinsic values for nature, in practice this did not commonly occur.
The contradictions between local and organisational perspectives led me to examine how projects maintain their coherence, plausibility and legitimacy despite being largely unreflective of local dynamics. I found that “win-win” strategies were wrapped up in globally hegemonic discourses – protection-focused, community-oriented and incentive-based – which differed in how they framed problems and embraced assumptions about solutions. For example, the protection-focused discourse viewed nature as “pristine” and appealed to protected area enforcement to safeguard it from local people. Contrastingly, the community-oriented discourse emphasised the role of nature in human well-being and thus sought to increase awareness through community initiatives. Finally, the incentive-based discourse emphasised the economic value of nature and used material benefits to incentivise “self-interested” actors to conserve. These relatively narrow views of human behaviour produced unrealistic expectations that limited project success. In spite of this, these global “win-win” discourses shaped the structures, policies, practices and subjectivities of project accountability chains in ways which served to reinforce them.
To escape the performative circularity of these discourses and the associated gap between “win-win” project intentions/narratives and local realities, I propose a similarly discursive intervention to pursue transformative change within San Martín and globally. The intervention seeks to transform how knowledge is produced in conservation and development research and practice in order to shape structures, policies, practices and subjectivities in ways which facilitate more bottom-up approaches to conservation governance and more directly confront hegemonic neoliberal governance structures.