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Should we pay people not to cut down trees?

To safeguard forests, wetlands, estuaries, and other natural resources, policymakers have long employed a strategy that is at once straightforward and counterintuitive: pay landowners to leave their land alone.

But researchers have worried that such policies, known as payment for ecosystem services (PES), have two big pitfalls. First, how do we know that landowners wouldn’t have preserved their land anyway? And second, how do we know that they won’t just shift their land use to places not covered by the payments?

A case study of such payments to landowners in Uganda, published Thursday in the journal Science, may help ease these concerns. A two-year experiment found that tree cover declined by about half as much in villages where landowners were offered payments compared to the villages where they weren’t, and it found no evidence that landowners who were paid to preserve their land shifted their deforestation to nearby land. The study raises hopes for similar efforts around the globe – particularly in the developing world, where strategies to address climate change can harm the livelihoods of already marginalized people.

“I think our results should make us more optimistic that this approach will work elsewhere – and thus more willing to pursue it elsewhere and find out,” says Seema Jayachandran, an economics professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the study’s lead author.

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