Ecuador ranks among the top 17 megadiverse countries in the world. Recognition of its vast natural heritage is enshrined in the country’s 2008 Constitution, and celebrated in the constitutional principal of Buen Vivir — the coexistence of humans with nature. For several decades the Government of Ecuador (GOE) has led internationally recognized efforts to slow deforestation of Ecuador’s natural forests and mitigate additional damage to marine and terrestrial ecosystems caused by over-exploitation of resources, population pressures, and climate change.
To complement the GOE´s efforts, the USAID Sustainable Forests and Coasts Project aimed to simultaneously create long-term improvements in conservation and the lives of the poor along Ecuador’s coast through a $15.7 million initiative implemented from June 15, 2009, to June 14, 2014. The presence of large human settlements along the coast — including Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city — have resulted in the coast experiencing some of the severest threats to biodiversity. The project worked closely with the Ministry of Environment (MAE), local governments, communities and producer groups along the coast to promote practices, processes, and GOE programs that connect economic benefits with improved management of the natural resource base upon which the livelihoods of Ecuador’s residents depend.
OBJECTIVES AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The project´s main goal was to conserve biodiversity in critical habitats along the Ecuadorian coast and benefit communities that live in and/or around these areas while forming lasting partnerships for conservation.
The project´s implementation approach focused on reducing key threats to biodiversity. Within each site, the project established priorities and guided work planning based on analysis of the following threats to conservation: (1) loss and/or alteration of critical habitats, (2) climate change, (3) lack of economic alternatives, and (4) insufficient institutional capacity for biodiversity conservation.
In response to these threats, Sustainable Forests and Coasts developed activities that provided complementary benefits across the project’s three main objectives: (1) Improvement of biodiversity conservation in critical habitats; (2) Improvement in local livelihoods; and (3) Formation of partnerships for ongoing support for biodiversity conservation. The project advanced a wide set of practices, methodologies, and tools to benefit stakeholders ranging from rural farmers to MAE staff, and also furthered multi-stakeholder platforms to bring actors together and coordinate shared conservation goals.
Biodiversity conservation: Since much of the forest coverage has vanished on the Coast of Ecuador, the project’s primary objective was to preserve the remaining critical areas of biodiversity. Most of these areas are government managed Protected Areas (PA) and their buffer zones, as well as indigenous lands. Project interventions resulted in 427,227 hectares of terrestrial area of biological significance under improved management, 317,105 hectares of coastal marine area under improved management, and 4,838 people trained in natural resource management and or biodiversity conservation.
Noteworthy project successes included:
- Expansion of conservation corridors by assisting communities and individuals to apply for the MAE’s Socio Bosque cash-for-conservation program and mangrove concession partnerships, in addition to streamlining application procedures to facilitate future applications to the programs;
- Support for two extensive monitoring and surveillance systems;
- Introduction of land use planning models and a model for determining climate change adaptation measures;
- Assistance for the creation of the Guayas Province climate change adaptation strategy; and
- The piloting of mutually beneficial approaches to the relationships between communities living in and around PAs and the government officials who monitor these areas.
Local livelihoods: The inhabitants in project sites are primarily subsistence-level farmers and fishermen in extreme poverty, and these remote areas faced commercial barriers such as high transportation costs and lack of infrastructure. Despite these challenges, the project adopted a market driven strategy to improving livelihoods and conservation by serving as an honest broker between producers and environmentally responsible markets. Many project activities took the form of pilots with selected crops in specific communities — for example, artisanal ivory nut production in Matapalo and La Crucita, and improved crab processing in 6 de Julio — with the intention of establishing good practices for the communities to build upon and lessons learned for replication elsewhere.
Noteworthy project successes included:
- Application of good agricultural practices with 185 farms in the Ayampe and Galera San Francisco watersheds, with the introduction of better water systems management, reduced agrochemical use, and other practices that resulted in cost savings and also provided co-benefits for climate change adaptation; and
- Twenty-two new commercial linkages that resulted from project support, with more than 16,225 people enjoying increased economic benefits as a result of these linkages, better management practices, and conservation incentives.
Partnerships for conservation: Initial assessments determined that insufficient institutional capacity and poor communication between stakeholders pose limitations to coordination of biodiversity conservation in the project areas. The project formed strategic partnerships with the National Fisheries Institute (INP), the Guayas provincial government, municipal governments, and communities in each of its four project sites.
With these partners, noteworthy project success included:
- Formation of five conservation coalitions with public and private sector stakeholders that continue to serve as a venue for coordinating regional conservation priorities;
- A historic survey of the red crab population, undertaken jointly between the INP and more than 940 local fishermen under the coordination of the Gulf of Guayaquil coalition;
- Inputs for the review of national-level forestry policies; and
- Piloting of a methodology for management planning in 25 PAs that has received international attention.
CHALLENGES AND LESSONS LEARNED
The project had a wide geographic scope and ambitious set of goals, given the structural barriers faced by many project beneficiaries. Increasingly severe climatic variability and the poverty in beneficiary communities were external challenges both to biodiversity and to the project itself, particularly for the design of sustainable value chains with a viable scale and scope. The process of establishing trust with stakeholders was long and experienced setbacks as a result of a general distrust of international actors in some communities, fluctuating USG-GOE relations, and regular turnover of MAE staff especially at the provincial level. The changing of attitudes and demonstration of the economic benefit of altered practices takes time, particularly when it involves agriculture and aquaculture-based activities with determined seasons and multi-year productive cycles. The project’s five-year implementation period was short in the context of the long-term changes the project sought to bring about.
The project operated with an adaptive management style that allowed it to learn from failures as well as successes, and to adjust resources and activities accordingly. It worked through pilot projects that could determine potential benefits from conservation-oriented productive activities and then demonstrate the results to other beneficiaries who may have been reluctant — or unable — to invest the time and resources toward changing practices without clear incentives. The project’s local partner organizations, MAE and other government counterparts, and the beneficiaries themselves will be the stewards of project’s methodologies, processes, and approaches moving forward.
Lessons learned through the Sustainable Forests and Coasts Project are summarized throughout the report, and include:
- Governments seeking to effectively regulate resource use should approach communities living in and around PAs as allies for conservation, not as adversaries.
- A focus on regulating resource and land use rights, instead of regulating land ownership rights, will engage communities and provide the framework for more effective, community-based conservation strategies.
- Although land in project sites was frequently under communal ownership, “community” enterprises were rare. Support to communities for regulatory frameworks was paired with support to family units for productive activities that supplemented household income.
- Good agricultural practices and better land use planning at the watershed, community, and farm level yield important and necessary co-benefits for climate change adaptation.
- Driving site selection by conservation criteria resulted in sites whose economic growth potential was extremely limited. The project needed to orient productive projects toward the modest expansion of subsistence livelihoods, with the constraints of producers’ capacity taken into consideration.
- The project’s short duration limited its potential to provide the extensive assistance communities needed to build the skills for market participation and secure the sustainability of market linkages.
- The establishment and/or strengthening of local and regional cooperatives and producers’ associations will give small producers leverage to eliminate middlemen and collectively achieve economies of scale.
- Close collaboration with local counterparts, including local subcontractors, helped the project introduce itself and gain beneficiary trust. Additionally, local grassroots organizations, with appropriate guidance, can advance project agendas and promote sustainability through a continual field presence in a way that national or Quito-based organizations may not be able to.
- Increasing the number of hectares of biological significance under improved management does not necessarily imply or yield greater conservation impact. Measuring the changes in management quality is as important as measuring increases in the number of hectares, given the wide range of threats that critical habitats face.