© 2015 Elsevier B.V. We undertake a review of academic literature that examines the effectiveness and equity-related performance of PES initiatives targeting biodiversity conservation in tropical and sub-tropical countries. We investigate the key features of such analyses as regards their analytical and methodological approach and we identify emerging lessons from PES practice, leading to a new suggested research agenda. Our results indicate that analyses of PES effectiveness have to date focused on either ecosystem service provision or habitat proxies, with only half of them making explicit assessment of additionality and most describing that payments have been beneficial for land cover and biodiversity. Studies evaluating the impact of PES on livelihoods suggest more negative outcomes, with an uneven treatment of the procedural and distributive considerations of scheme design and payment distribution, and a large heterogeneity of evaluative frameworks. We propose an agenda for future PES research based on the emerging interest in assessing environmental outcomes more rigorously and documenting social impacts in a more comparative and contextually situated form.