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Tackling Conservation with the Chachi

In Focus, January 2006

by Ben Jolliffe

A few meters inside the boundary of the Gran Reserva Chachi in northern Ecuador’s province of Esmeraldas in the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena Hotspot, there lies a nearly finished canoe. What might not be obvious to the casual observer is that this canoe has been here for almost a year, and is not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

In March of 2005, a group of young men from the local Chachi indigenous communities who were training to be forest rangers were on their first circuit around this community protected area. They found four men from a village outside the reserve hard at work with a chainsaw on the trunk of a Vulnerable guadaripo tree (Nectandra guadaripo), building a canoe. The rangers immediately took action.

“I was amazed at the rangers’ decisiveness,” said Xavier Cisneros, a biologist with Fundación Ecuatoriana de Estudios Ecológicos (EcoCiencia), a local nongovernmental organization (NGO). “They explained [to the four men] that they were inside a protected area which had been created by the communities who live within it, that using guadaripo lumber was not allowed, and that there would be penalties if they continued to do so.”

The rangers then cut a number of holes in the bottom of the canoe and left it where it lies today, a potent symbol of the new, more sustainable path the local communities are trying to take.

“You could hardly say it more clearly: A canoe made out of a threatened species just won’t get you there,” Cisneros said. “It’s got holes in it. You might not see them at first but you’ll sink in the end.”

Cisneros and EcoCiencia have been working with the rangers on a groundbreaking project supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) to engage local residents in the management of Gran Reserva Chachi, a pilot reserve established just over a year ago. This unique area of Ecuador faces increasing pressure from large-scale commercial logging and clear-cutting for oil palm plantations, while its people face the challenge of intense poverty.

With the majority of intact forest legally titled to indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities, regional conservation initiatives necessarily rely on the communities’ support and participation. At Gran Reserva Chachi, three of these communities and several NGOs have come together to achieve vital conservation goals while at the same time providing economic and social benefits to local residents.

Paying for the Costs of Conservation

For many of those who live in this impoverished part of northern Ecuador, there is little alternative to unsustainable use of the natural resources at hand. However, the Chachi’s ability to make choices about how their native land is used is the result of an innovative partnership project with Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), a company owned by the German government dedicated to sustainable development; Conservation International (CI); and more recently, EcoCiencia.

The project combines the skills of the three implementing agencies in traditional conservation and development in the field and is based around a new mechanism: a conservation incentive agreement that remunerates local communities for their role in environmental stewardship.

CEPF contributed to funding in the preliminary planning stages of this mechanism through a grant to CI as part of the initiative’s strategic approach to establish local and regional mechanisms to foster corridor-level conservation in this hotspot.

“From the start, we have developed the project as a transaction between equals,” said Aaron Bruner, CI’s director of conservation incentives and protected areas financing. “We recognized that in this context, there is a cost to the communities for doing conservation – losing income from logging or hunting in the reserve, for example – so we worked together to design an agreement that makes conservation economically beneficial through providing a direct payment based on the provision of conservation itself.”

The implementing partners approached local people with as much openness and respect as possible, explaining their interest in conserving the extraordinary wealth of species found only in the Chocó-Manabí Corridor, working to understand community objectives, and then jointly designing a mutually beneficial agreement.

“These remarkable areas are valued as priceless by people all over the world,” said Christian Terán, GTZ’s Gran Reserva Chachi project coordinator. “But it’s very important that their conservation also be beneficial to the communities who live here.”

Improved Management for Protected Areas and Species

The Gran Reserva Chachi significantly increases protection of species dependent on this unique ecosystem, such as the Endangered Ecuadorian sac-winged bat (Balantiopteryx infusca) and the Vulnerable long-wattled umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger). The reserve also creates a protective buffer zone for the neighboring 200,000-hectare Reserva Ecologica Cotacachi-Cayapas (RECC).

With help from CI, GTZ collaborated with the three local communities on preliminary planning in 2004. They discussed whether the communities wanted to explore the possibility of creating a reserve, where the boundaries might lie, what their primary socioeconomic needs were, and what kind of an income the land provided.

After an in-depth survey and much discussion throughout the year, all partners agreed on the reserve’s location and permitted uses, and settled on a compensation of five dollars per hectare per year. For each hectare placed under strict conservation protection, the CI/GTZ project made a payment into a community fund that would then be available to local residents to finance sustainable economic development projects.

“Every phase of reserve creation was participatory,” Terán said. “Assemblies representing each of the three communities invited us to work with them in the first place. Together, we designed a protected area that would be both viable and attractive for the community, as well as potentially attractive to funders.”

Being flexible about what could be achieved was important. The assembly representing the community of Corriente Grande, one of the three villages participating in the project, decided that despite a reduction in compensation payments, 500 meters on either side of the Chimbagal River would be declared a sustainable use zone – as opposed to strict conservation – because of the area’s importance as a community resource, mainly for logging and fishing.

Reserve design was finalized following a planning workshop in August 2004 that brought together local and international experts to assess the proposed reserve and make recommendations to the community assemblies.

Economic Benefit

At the beginning of 2005, the communities elected reserve guards, approved plans, and began to implement activities financed through the community fund. Managed by GTZ and CI’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation in the Andes, these activities include distributing school supplies and medicines and planting shade-grown cocoa in all communities.

Community-specific projects have also come from the fund. In Capuli, structures providing running water were installed, saving women from the arduous task of drawing water from rivers. A group of women in El Encanto set up a small gas station. In Corriente Grande residents have opened a general store.

CEPF’s investment was not restricted to the formation of the reserve and community fund. A CEPF grant to EcoCiencia in early 2005 enables the group to assist in building the capacity of park rangers for the reserve and more fully engage the Chachi indigenous communities in the preservation of their native lands. This work helps bring protected areas and species in the region under improved management, another of CEPF's strategic approaches for this hotspot.

The Gran Reserva Chachi is now nearing the end of an initial one-year agreement phase, which has been critical for the communities to weigh how valuable the reserve really is to them, and for the implementation partners to see how serious the communities are about their side of the commitment.

“This first year has been a real process of learning together,” Terán said. “This is a new strategy for promoting conservation and development, built around participation and joint responsibility. Both sides have put in a lot of effort and commitment. We should be clear that it hasn’t always been smooth, but that’s to be expected. Step by step we have been overcoming challenges along the way and I think we are off to a great start.”

Judging from the findings of Xavier Cisneros in his monitoring and evaluation field trips – funded by CEPF under the same grant as the capacity building– the project is already a success in terms of biodiversity. Increasingly, there are larger numbers of rare species inside the reserve than outside. He has also confirmed older villagers’ reports of the presence of the Vulnerable giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), previously found only in eastern Ecuador.

“Furthermore, every community along the northwest border of the RECC has expressed interest in adding part of their territory to the reserve, so there is great potential to create a shield of well-managed community lands protecting the entire border,” Bruner said.

Securing a Long-Term Future

Even if both the wildlife and the local communities are flourishing, endowing a trust fund that will cover the long-term costs of the reserve once the initial set-up grants have been exhausted is estimated to cost $2 million. Few institutional donors are likely to fund recurrent costs of conservation, but creating an endowment fund is one way of translating the value of this unique area into long-term, material benefits for the communities who live there, enabling them to act as its stewards for generations to come.

Despite the inherent challenges, progress is already being made. The United States Agency for International Development’s Conservation of Managed Indigenous Areas project is supporting the creation of the endowment – selecting the right institution in which it will sit and creating an executive board, for example – while funding for the endowment itself is being sought elsewhere.

To support sustainability, GTZ, CI, and EcoCiencia are also working with the communities to strengthen institutions, improve transparency, and secure land rights.

According to Luis Suarez, CI-Ecuador’s executive director, success will be beneficial at many levels:

“This project is an excellent example of a collaboration between indigenous communities and national and international organizations,” he said. “It contributes to the Chachi people’s sustainable development of their land, and at the same time, helps protect an area of critical conservation importance. Successful implementation here will help pilot a model for collaboration that could be valuable around the world.”

For more information:

Fundación Ecuatoriana de Estudios Ecológicos (EcoCiencia)

Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ)

Conservation International's Center for Biodiversity Conservation in the Andes

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© CI
The three communities of the Gran Reserva Chachi decided where the strict conservation zones and the buffer zones would lie.

© Christian Terán
Partners in midstream: CI's Aaron Bruner working in the field with Víctor Ortiz from El Encanto to delineate the reserve boundaries.

© Christian Terán
Piped water is rare in the area but thanks to projects funded by the conservation incentive agreement, the women of Capuli no longer have to draw water from the river, giving them time to work on other projects.

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