How Ecuador is Reducing Poverty by Conserving Native Forests

 A´I Cofán family relaxing in home in Ecuadorian rainforest

The A´I Cofán people are among those benefitting from Ecuador’s Socio Bosque program. Since they are now compensated for conserving the rainforest, the A´I Cofán are able to enjoy modern convenience while holding on to their cultural heritage. (© Lucas Bustamante)

Each year on March 21st, the U.N.’s International Day of Forests celebrates the value of Earth’s forest ecosystems, on which nearly one in four people depend on in some way for their livelihoods.

Here in my home country of Ecuador, the national government’s Socio Bosque (Forest Partners) program has made great strides over the past few years in conserving forests and improving the lives of local communities. This week, I’m excited to host Peter Stonier and John Martin from CI’s visual storytelling team, who have come all the way from Washington, D.C. to document what I consider one of the most successful — yet underpublicized — forest conservation initiatives.  

Keeping forests standing doesn’t just ensure local livelihoods; it also impacts people near and far through the innumerable services forests provide, such as reducing carbon emissions, protecting wildlife and filtering vital freshwater sources.

cloud forest, Ecuador

Cloud forest protected as part of Ecuador’s Socio Bosque project. (© Conservation International/photo by Katrin Olson)

A'I Cofán shaman explains medicinal use of plants, Ecuador

Alejandro Criollo, the shaman of the A´I Cofán community of Dureno, explains which forest plants are used to treat different ailments. With the modern world only a short boat ride away, passing on ancient knowledge takes on a sense of urgency. Socio Bosque helps the A´I Cofán conserve their natural and cultural heritage. (© Lucas Bustamante)

Socio Bosque was launched in 2008 by Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment. This national program was established to ultimately conserve 4 million hectares (almost 9.9 million acres) of native forests, páramo and other native ecosystems, reduce deforestation rates and improve the living conditions of 1 million people.

Within this program, individual landowners and indigenous communities have access to direct economic incentives based on the number of hectares they conserve. This ensures that people have more to gain from protecting their forest than cutting them down. CI Ecuador was an important partner in the design of the program, drawing from our experience establishing conservation agreements with Chachi indigenous communities in northwestern Ecuador.

As of December 2014, Socio Bosque has signed 2,748 agreements, protected more than 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) and provided direct benefits for 173,233 people. A trust fund has been established to channel complementary funding sources, and conservation areas are regularly monitored to verify the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the conservation agreements.

Among the many people benefitting from Socio Bosque are members of the A´I Cofán community, an indigenous people that has resided in the Amazon rainforest for generations. So far, three A´I Cofán communities have conserved more than 77,000 hectares (190,000 acres) of tropical forests through their participation in Socio Bosque. They have been using their funds to buy educational materials and medical supplies, help the elderly, improve fish farming production and develop environmental education programs. The communities are now able to train and maintain local forest rangers to protect their land from outsiders wishing to exploit their trees and other forest resources.

One of the many places Peter, John and I have visited this week was the  A´I Cofán village of Dureno, where we interviewed community leaders to document what life is like for a group of people so dependent on tropical forests.

Here are some of the images we’ve captured so far.

 A´I Cofán community member holds smart phone while wearing traditional dress

Balancing the ancient and the new. The A´I Cofán wear traditional dress on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to maintain their cultural heritage. (© Lucas Bustamante)

A´I Cofán children playing soccer, Ecuador

Recess! The A´I Cofán use funds from Socio Bosque to subsidize school supplies and textbooks, so these kids can have a brighter future. (© Lucas Bustamante)

CI's visual storytelling team interviews  A´I Cofán community members in Echadorian rainforest

Coming soon: a film about the A´I Cofán, the rainforest and Socio Bosque. CI’s visual storytelling team and Lucho Suárez, vice president of CI Ecuador, interview two community leaders; Roberto Aguinda, president of the Ecuadorean A´I Cofán Organization (NOA´IKE), and Medardo Ortiz, treasurer of the Dureno community. (© Lucas Bustamante)

boats on Aguarico River, Ecuador

The A´I Cofán have been fishing in the Aguarico River for centuries. Socio Bosque economic incentives help guard their territories against illegal hunting and fishing. (© Lucas Bustamante)

A´I Cofán child in Ecuadorian rainforest

The more widely Socio Bosque is adopted, the more likely the rainforest where the A´I Cofán live will be standing for generations to come. (© Lucas Bustamante)

Socio Bosque has already influenced similar programs in Peru and Bolivia. I hope that the visual storytelling team’s final product from this trip (a short film) will inspire other initiatives in additional countries — as well as convince more communities here in Ecuador to join in.

Luis Suarez is the vice president of CI Ecuador. To get more updates from the visual storytelling team’s Ecuador trip, follow CI on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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