We have compared three cases of payments for water-related environmental services (PES) in Central America, in terms of socioeconomic background, opportunity costs of forest conservation and stakeholders’ perceptions on the conditions of water resources and other issues. We found that, in general, the foregone benefits from land uses alternative to forest cover are larger than the amount paid, which apparently contradicts the economic foundation of PES schemes. A number of possible explanations are explored. The results also suggest that trade-offs between different environmental and social goals are likely to emerge in PES schemes, posing some doubts on their ability to be multipurpose instruments for environmental improvement and rural development. We also found that PES schemes may work as a conflictresolution instrument, facilitating downstream -upstream problem solving, though at the same time they might introduce changes in social perceptions of property rights.