Evaluation Report: USAID/Ecuador’s Sustainable Forests and Coasts (SFC) Project

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)/Ecuador Sustainable Forests and Coasts Project (SFC) is a biodiversity conservation effort for the Ecuadorian Coast. The project is implemented within the framework of the USAID Biodiversity Code that demands that investments in productive activities need to support biodiversity conservation objectives as an overriding principle.

SFC commenced in 2009 and is expected to be completed in 2014. The project focuses on four ecosystems: 1) coastal rainforest of the Choco bio-geographic region; 2) dry forests along the central and southern coast; 3) mangroves, and 4) other near-shore coastal/marine areas. Each of these ecosystems harbors biodiversity that has been dramatically reduced in recent decades. The strategic components, or Project Intermediate Results (PIRs) of this project are threefold: 1) to improve biodiversity conservation in critical habitats by designing resource management strategies that address biodiversity threats and strengthening the capacity of stakeholders to implement natural resource management best practices in critical terrestrial and coastal marine areas (especially in habitats located in government protected areas (PAs)); 2) to improve local livelihoods by supporting priority activities that ensure sustainable use of the resource base for commodities in the value chain, 3) to nurture and develop partnerships formed for ongoing support to biodiversity conservation.

The project is implemented by Chemonics International Inc, in conjunction with different partners and sub-contractors. The project was initially planned for a total period of performance of five years with a three-year base period and two one-year optional periods that were subject to good performance and availability of funds. It began collaborating with six main subcontractors. Over the course of time, contractual arrangements with some partners were terminated, while others were added. Currently the project is working with four subcontractors and one grantee.

In order to review the project’s accomplishments, and in anticipation of possible follow up activity in the biodiversity field, USAID determined that an evaluation of SFC should be undertaken.

USAID expects this assessment will help the project to further progress towards achieving its goals and to determine key needs in ensuring a successful completion of the project, and to inform the development and execution of future efforts supported by USAID to conserve biodiversity and tropical forests in Ecuador. The evaluation sought to: 1) assess the project´s performance and impact at both the output and the outcome levels, and the internal and external factors that led to success and challenges encountered by the project. Furthermore, the evaluation aimed to: 2) determine the extent of the sustainability and reliability of project activities. Finally, the evaluation sought to: 3) contribute to the understanding of how to improve subsequent project activities and to inform the decision making process regarding future conservation activities in coastal areas and in the country.

The evaluation process found that the project is on the way to achieving its intended results. The project has had significant success in areas such as the building of coalitions, conservation agreements and concessions to ensure biodiversity conservation in critical areas, and Protected Area (PA) management (PIR 1 and 3). While there are some encouraging results related to economic development activity designed to encourage better conservation practices (PIR 2), overall success in this area is considered to be mixed.

One of the aspects of the SFC Project that resonated with the evaluation team was the level of stakeholder engagement. The project has strong support from all current partners at the local, regional and national levels. This includes implementing organizations and government departments. Very good relationships have been established between project staff and community level project beneficiaries. The project has been credited with giving visibility to marginalized rural communities.

Regarding the project design, one of the fundamental assumptions of the project is that people living in and around critical habitats would have an incentive to conserve biodiversity if they could benefit from the sustainable use of natural resources. Even though the original assumptions are still relevant, the initial expectations of what can be achieved, were too ambitious considering the short time-frame for implementation and the initial circumstances and structural barriers found in communities to be engaged in project activities.

The decision to support coastal and forestry issues simultaneously is regarded as innovative by many stakeholders and represents an interesting template for learning and advancing the conservation agenda in Ecuador. The project team´s responsive attitudes towards the needs and requests of beneficiaries, and its consistent pattern of behavior translated into good programming results. The decision to work with established practices and to associate the project with successful programs such as Socio Bosque (SB) brought predictability and strong engagement. The project has also consistently aligned itself with government policies and sought to address the needs and priorities of the Ecuadorian Government.

While the results-based approach has certainly been a success, it has encountered some problems. Some implementing partners expressed a concern that there is sometimes a rush for results when it is counter-intuitive to what is taking place in the field, i.e. pressures were experienced between the pace in which communities could assimilate and internalize technical assistance and the project’s relatively short time frame. Additionally, this concern can be attributed to the fact that several project subcontractors had not been accustomed to delivering concrete results within a defined time frame.

There is also concern that the approach to spread the resources across a wide portfolio of projects denies the possibility of developing more high profile activities. The project instead could have engaged more and expanded in the activities where it proved to be successful from the beginning. This would include activities like access to SB and to develop investment plans for the SB incentive, crab monitoring and stock management and best management practices.

Many local beneficiaries and their respective implementing agencies stated that the project allowed them the necessary latitude to determine project activities and respond to changes in the communities at the project sites. Government representatives appreciated that the project has been flexible in terms of responding to emerging circumstances and reacting to stakeholder needs. The reliance on providing ongoing guidance and technical support, as opposed to simply transferring large amounts of financial support or large purchases for logistical purposes proved to be both an effective and efficient use of project resources. Assistance was selectively provided to avoid dependence.

However, there is a difference in opinion between the project and its stakeholders regarding the urgency to find ways to develop and enforce more income generating opportunities and support value added processing facilities with improved environmental protection standards. The evaluation team regards as a bottleneck the fact that the project design provides no financing mechanism to support good practices to speed up certain commercialization processes.

Among key partners and beneficiaries, there was not a universal understanding that the program was ending soon. With approximately one more year to go, SFC should focus on specific strategies to strengthen the sustainability of the results achieved. This includes a comprehensive approach towards disseminating the lessons learned and promoting learning platforms.

In general, the project has a favorable record in terms of sustainability. This is due to a number of factors including the extensive capacity development of project leaders and of government representatives and institutions, and the strengthening of and contribution to legitimizing community organizations and establishing their legal recognition. The focus on training and capacity development has been successful from a sustainability standpoint in that many of the skills being developed at the community, organizational and individual levels can be applied beyond the project’s termination. Beneficiaries acknowledge their personal growth in terms of improving their decision making capabilities in areas like participatory planning, administration, planning in general and understanding how to carry out effective meetings. Skills and technical capacity were developed to plan and carry out activities related to forestry and agriculture. There is sense of local ownership of activities and control by beneficiaries and government representatives. The project has also made important strides in building networks and coalitions, a number of which will be well placed to continue nurturing project activity or other endeavors that promote community well-being.

The analysis of strengths and weaknesses per PIR revealed that the project´s strengths include its ability to leverage additional funding, its focus on building networks and coalitions, the support provided in improving the management of PAs, and on national legal and policy matters (PIR 1 and PIR 3).

As for PIR 2, a significant number of activities were developed creating an important source of lessons for future projects; however, their impact is less visible and sometimes diffuse. Despite the fact that productivity and product portfolios have increased, the necessary connection to target markets has not been established in most cases in a sustainable manner. The scaling up of positive experiences in terms of including more small-scale farms would be beneficial especially in cases where the combined production volume of organic agricultural products of participating farms could be combined to meet the minimum amount demanded to sell on the market on more favorable terms. Creating such market access would help to create a strong understanding of the potential of good practices close to PAs and biodiverse areas in general and ensure the sustainability of the project activities related to these good practices.

The Chemonics team is doing an adequate monitoring job with detailed reports covering the project’s achievements. Reporting does reveal that no specific strategies or structured actions are in place to increase the participation of women in the project in a way that can be properly monitored. SFC reports in September 2012 that 3,260 women have improved their economic circumstances, but there is no economic baseline to confirm this. Out of the 3,657 people trained in natural resource management, 802 were women, but there is no detailed information on how effective the training of participants has been.

With regards to the participation of minority groups the project should be recognized for its emphasis on working with minority groups. The majority of the project beneficiaries are minorities (indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorians and “montubios”).

While the project´s performance can be evaluated with a high degree of certainty at this point in time, its ultimate impact on biodiversity conservation can only be realized through a long-term commitment to the project sites. The evaluation found that the project had an important conservation impact through monitoring of the state of the crab stocks in the Gulf of Guayas. These studies have generated data critical to resource management and feature pioneer case studies with high replicability for other regions and resources. The studies support national efforts to design sustainable use schemes of biodiversity inside and outside of PAs. However, to enable the replication and scaling up of these activities and experiences, a long-term commitment needs to be ensured to promote and further the lessons learned. Finally, a clear positive impact on biodiversity conservation was achieved through the support to protected area (PA) management, such as tourism and land use regulations, and support to the development of control and surveillance schemes.

Regarding future opportunities for USAID conservation and sustainable forestry actions, there is still an important demand for technical assistance and mentoring among the different actors working on the Ecuadorian coast. There is no other organization currently perceived as capable of filling the role currently played by SFC. The evaluation team sees the importance of continued USAID involvement in collaborating with the Government of Ecuador to support the coastal areas of Ecuador, prioritizing the current project sites to demonstrate the benefits of long-term commitment including the sustainability of the results achieved. In addition, integrated coastal management is recommended as a future priority especially in terms of developing and implementing new tools and capacities to help align local and national planning. There is also need for strengthening territorial planning of the Ecuadorian Coast at a regional scale incorporating variables such as climate change, oceanic policies, sustainable fisheries and infrastructure with the overall development.

Moreover, the evaluation recommends to build on the success of the project and to put an emphasis on the development of more sustainable market linkages, the promotion of small-scale agroforestry production processes, and the development of holistic management systems of farms and community land. This includes identifying ways to make the protection of biodiversity more financially beneficial, which go beyond the SB model of economic incentives and include creating access to new markets or generating higher prices for local sustainably produced products, such as ivory nut, crabs or agricultural products. Future projects of USAID should explore options for promoting new types of partnerships, e.g. with initiatives that are more focused on the improvement of agricultural productivity and developing approaches and practices that respect environmental protection and economic diversification simultaneously. In order to establish these approaches on a significant scale, knowledge and continuous technical support for improved agricultural practices and the possibility to fund the purchase of additional equipment is necessary. This goes beyond the mandate and possibilities of a biodiversity project like SFC. Thus, it is recommended to introduce new stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Agriculture (MAGAP) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the agricultural sector as part of the project design or to design a separate agricultural project that can build on the best management practices of the project that establish a proven track record of success.

Finally, it is recommended to continue providing technical assistance especially regarding human resource development and applied research concerning biodiversity conservation. This includes support to protected area management, the establishment of biodiversity inventories, information and strategies for climate change adaptation, and the sustainable use of natural resources (such as fisheries, ivory nut etc.).