Unconditional conservation payments are increasingly used by non-governmental conservation organizations to further their environmental objectives. One key objective in many conservation projects that use such unconditional payments schemes is the protection of tropical forest ecosystems in buffer zone areas around protected parks where the scope of instating mandatory restrictions is more limited. We use a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the impact of unconditional livelihood payments to local communities on land use outside a protected area-the Gola Rainforest National Park-which is a biodiversity hotspot on the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia. High resolution RapidEye satellite imagery from before and after the intervention was used to determine land use changes in treated and control villages. We find support for the hypothesis that unconditional payments, in this setting, increase land clearance in the short run. The study constitutes one of the first attempts to use evidence from a randomized control trial to evaluate the efficacy of conservation payments and provides insights for further research.