Non-technical abstract - Payments for ecosystem services are incentive-based mechanism under which payments are made directly to natural resource users to reduce pressure on natural systems that provide ecosystem services, i.e., functions or processes crucial for human welfare. Although in practice for over two decades, the reciprocal relationships between payment programs of interest and the associated coupled natural and human systems (coupled systems hereafter) have not been systematically investigated before with a focus on human decision-making processes as well as feedback effects within the systems. The overarching goal of this project is to understand the interactions between payment programs and coupled systems over space and time, shedding crucial light on the following questions: 1) What specific, measurable environmental changes have occurred due to payment programs? 2) What changes in human livelihoods, demographic behavior, and their interrelationships have occurred since payment program implementation? How have such changes in turn affected the programs? 3) How are the integrated systems of human behavior and demographics, the environment, and policy expected to evolve? We will use data from Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve in China (the habitat of the endangered Guizhou golden monkey; Rhinopithecus brelichi) to address these questions of both local and global importance. Grounded in theories in ecological (e.g., species distribution, habitat occupancy), socioeconomic and demographic (e.g., theory of the multiphasic response), and human geographic (e.g., place attachment, critical service dependence) sciences, we propose a generalized complex systems framework that incorporates the mutual relationships between payment programs and the corresponding coupled systems. We will use forest cover and its change (measured by remote sensing) as well as habitat occupancy of the golden monkey (captured by camera trapping) to quantify key aspects of the environment and its change over time. The use of habitat occupancy as a measure of environmental effects of payment programs is a unique innovation of this project. On the social science side, we will combine existing census data with extensive household surveys as well as participatory mapping to test hypotheses based on the aforementioned questions. Since participants respond to payment programs in multiple possible ways, we propose to use and empirically test the theory of multiphasic response to capture these ways, including the use of multilevel simultaneous equations models. This innovative analytical framework has the potential to transform the quantitative methodology for exploring coupled natural and human systems. This project also seeks to identify local villagers' place attachment, a psychosocial and human geographical dimension conducive to understanding decisions of local people regarding migration and other livelihood activities. Finally, the proposed research will develop a complex systems methodology that highlights feedbacks among human demography, livelihood strategies, the environment, and policy, generating a broader understanding of human behavior and the dynamics of coupled systems. In addition to a web-based participatory agent-based model, we will develop protocols that facilitate the transferability and comparability of different agent-based models in varying contexts or sites.

The broader impacts of this project are multiple. First, this project will develop an innovative conceptual framework from a complex systems perspective, which represents a substantial methodological advance in studying coupled natural and human systems. This framework will facilitate improved integration of data and models from various disciplines, and simulate systems dynamics in ways that cannot be done using traditional empirical studies alone or existing systems models. These unique features will contribute to advancing the theory and methodology of complexity science. Second, current literature shows that the conservation benefits and the benefits to local populations involved in payment programs are usually not sustainable once the payment ends: many payment program participants return to their previous behavior patterns. This project will specifically examine this issue, which should enhance our ability to plan, design, and implement payment programs worldwide, substantially increasing the effectiveness and sustainability of our tax dollars in protecting our environment. Third, the project includes a strong education component. We will educate K-12 students and teachers in both the United States and China through a mentoring and curriculum development program, enhance our student-centered pedagogy, and train future academic leaders in multiple disciplines. The project also will promote cross-education among local indigenous populations, reserve staff, and our team. Lastly, the project will empower policy-makers at various levels as well as the general public around the world, providing enhanced knowledge about payment programs, coupled natural and human systems, and their complex interactions. Such enhanced knowledge is crucial to improve conservation awareness, promote conservation planning and design, and enhance the effectiveness of policy implementation. In addition to regular presentations and publications, a movie that documents the multi-disciplinary nature of the project and a comprehensive website will be developed to reach stakeholders at local to global scales. All these efforts will contribute to increasing understanding about linking coupled natural and human systems to effective policy implementation, and provide an interdisciplinary and international setting for effective education programs.