in: Human Organization 73 (4), 351-362
Payment for Environmental Services (PES) is a globally expanding concept used to address environmental degradation. PES advocates argue that conservation of ecosystems can and should be enhanced by voluntary transactions among environmental service providers and buyers. PES policy and interventions instruments, however, are not neutral development tools entering voids. Apart from being manufactured by scientific, policy and development networks with particular market-environmentalist visions, values and interests, PES also deeply interacts with the contradictions and unequal power structures of those local societies where the policy tool is introduced. This paper shows how comprehending the historic and current struggles over natural resources among stakeholders who provide and demand ‘environmental services’ is fundamental to understanding PES workings and outcomes. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in the Chamachán watershed, Northern Ecuadorian Highlands, we analyze the dynamics and entwining of ‘visible’, ‘hidden’ and ‘invisible’ power mechanisms in shaping PES and natural resource control. Our findings show how power asymmetries among stakeholders pervaded negotiations and agreements. The paper highlights the political character of market-based conservation efforts and the power plays that surround PES interventions.