After Bellagio/

Jim Salzman

A prominent professor shares how he and a team of researchers incentivized landowners to place a higher value on their natural capital, which would help them and the planet.

Jim Salzman was a Bellagio Resident in 2015 where he wrote the first-ever global comprehensive assessment of Payments for Ecosystems Services. He is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the UCLA School of Law and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Twice voted Professor of the Year by his students, Jim is one of the most-read environmental law scholars, with over 115,000 downloads of his articles around the globe. Many of these are on creating markets for ecosystem services, which was the focus of his Bellagio residency and later convening.

The field I work in is what’s called Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). In a nutshell, nature provides many benefits to us, but these benefits are rarely captured in markets. Take, for instance, someone who lives in the upper part of the watershed. Because they keep their trees and wetlands intact, the water remains unpolluted. This means that others who are downstream will benefit from clean water. However, the upstream person with the trees and wetlands doesn’t benefit. If they were to chop down and sell the trees for timber, or fill the wetlands and build atop the land, then they’d benefit from that, but now those who are downstream get harmed. We need a way for all parties to benefit. PES asks: how do you make trees worth more standing than cut down? In economic terms, how do you capture positive externalities, and how can we all benefit from the environment around us?

We’re essentially trying to encourage landowners to value their natural capital. It’s an idea that’s become extremely popular over the past few decades, and I’ve given many talks on letting nature pay its way across the globe. There are some famous examples of it working in real life, not just in theory. For example, New York City pays towns and communities in a watershed 120 miles away, so its water stays clean when piped down. There are many examples of this approach in the Amazon rainforest, too.

There has been great excitement over PES, but the concern I had before my time at Bellagio was whether the hype I was seeing really justified the attention it was getting. Was this hype based on data, or anecdotes – what I call “anecdata”?

Despite some well-known cases that received a lot of attention, no one had ever done a comprehensive assessment of how big PES was around the world – which types of ecosystem services were being paid for, in which countries, and through what instruments? To use a clunky image, instead of talking about just the trunk or foot, I wanted to try to put together the whole elephant. At Bellagio in 2015, I teamed up with a think-tank called Forest Trends, who allowed me to access their data. Our paper ultimately came out in Nature Sustainability and was the very first peer-reviewed, comprehensive assessment of PES around the globe.

One of the beauties of Bellagio is that you’re with people from very different fields. Among other residents was a public health expert, a person who does installation art, someone who restores ancient manuscripts, a video documentarian, and someone writing a book about death. We each sought to translate our ideas so everyone else could get a sense of our practice and the kinds of questions that animate our work.

After Bellagio, I informed the team at The Rockefeller Foundation about my progress. Because it lined up with their focus on human livelihoods and environmental protection, I was invited back the next year to host a workshop. The aim was to focus on and expand the ideas developed during my residency, namely scaling up the PES approach based on what I had learned. We teamed up with Forest Trends again.

  • The focus of the 2016 convening was split 50/50 between the Global North and the Global South, and so were the attendees. Most of the interesting places where this work is being done are in the Global South.
    Jim Salzman

The former Minister of the Environment of Peru was there and proved critical in terms of helping us form ideas. We brought together all kinds of people in the field and, as a team, we catalyzed a project that eventually developed into a national infrastructure approach for improving water security in Peru. This project received significant funding from USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and Canada and has been a success to date.

The thing about Bellagio is that it encourages a strong sense of community among folks who are just thrown together. Thanks to Bellagio, I was able to accomplish my goals much faster than I would have without the residency. I think it would’ve taken an extra two to three years to finish my article without it. And the convening led to a major development project conserving watersheds in Peru that might never have happened.

I felt energized after Bellagio and excited about my work. It was great to get out of the bubble of regular life and share my findings with people from different disciplines who reinforced the importance of the project I was doing, and the task we were undertaking.

And I’ll always remember us all playing croquet together, every afternoon. It was a wonderful community experience, doing something simple and fun.

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Jim’s Recommendation: Nature Services by Gretchen Daily, 1997.

To find out more about Jim’s work, you can read a 2021 interview with Jim about his book with co-author Michael Keller, entitled Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives.