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Direct conservation payments have become an increasingly popular policy instrument around the world, but empirical evidence on their effectiveness in attaining conservation outcomes is notably lacking. Our objective is to conduct a rigorous and systematic empirical evaluation of direct conservation payments, by applying state-of-the-art matching methods that have been developed in the program evaluation field.

As the only long-term, large-scale payment initiative for tropical forests, Costa Rica's Programa de Pago de Servicios Ambientales (PSA) provides a unique opportunity to evaluate direct payments as a conservation policy tool. Because the PSA is a non-experimental (non-randomized) real-world program, it is challenging to estimate its effect on landowner behavior. Differences in forest area (the environmental public good that is the desired outcome in this case) between the treatment (with PSA contracts) and control (without PSA contracts) groups may be entirely attributable to the PSA or may be a result of systematic differences between the groups.

We are conducting a pilot study of PSA in the Sarapiqui region of northeastern Costa Rica to characterize landowner participation in the program, to test matching methods from program evaluation, and to plan for a national-scale evaluation of the impact of PSA on tropical forest conservation in Costa Rica.