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Bolivia case study: The Rio Grande project

The Rio Grande catchment in the eastern Bolivian Andes has an area of 57,000 square kilometres and is one of the largest watersheds in the country. It plays an important role by providing irrigation and drinking water services to villages, towns and cities downstream. However, deforestation and extensive cattle ranching due to unsustainable agricultural practices along the rivers may adversely affect such important ecosystem services.

In 2011, a Bolivian NGO, Natura Foundation Bolivia (NFB), launched a Payment for Watershed Services (PWS) scheme aiming at connecting ecosystem service users (Municipal Government, Water Cooperatives and downstream villages) with services providers (Upstream farmers and cattle-ranchers). Named Acuerdos Reciprocos por Agua (ARA) (Watershed Reciprocal Agreement) the scheme is based on an in kind contribution (beehives, fruit seedlings, irrigation tubing, barbed wire and other similar products) paid by the ES buyer (and FNB's international donors) to the ES provider ranging from $1 to 10/year/hectare. The aim is to support farmers reducing the impact of unsustainable agriculture practices on watershed ecosystems.

Because of FNB's interest in how this novel scheme would work and its potential to deliver benefits, they took the highly unusual steps of setting the project up as a Randomised Control Trial (with support from the espa programme and technical input from Harvard University). Baseline studies were carried out before the implementation of the project in 2500 households in 148 villages in the area, including a socio-economic survey, biodiversity measurements and water quality and quantity measurements.

Our research project, developed by the School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, in partnership with FNB and funded by The Leverhulme Trust and NERC, aims at evaluating the impacts of the ARA scheme on farmer livelihoods and environmental sustainability.  Five years after the baseline study was undertaken, we are working with our partners in FNB to carry out follow-up studies to measure the outcomes of interest and thereby calculating changes that can be assigned to the program on famers' livelihoods, water quality, biodiversity and deforestation, using a wide range of socio-environmental research instruments such as a large scale household survey, interview and focus groups, water quality measurements, remote sensing and participatory mapping. In addition, we are also exploring the potential and challenges for more widespread evaluation of conservation through the RCT method.