It was the mid-2000s, and Ecuador had some tough choices to make.
The country’s economy — fueled by oil and agricultural exports — was growing, but poverty persisted. Meanwhile, its mega-diverse rainforests were rapidly being lost, endangering rural livelihoods and biodiversity while contributing to climate change.
What to do?
Ecuador could go “all in” on oil and agriculture expansion to fund social programs for reducing poverty — and hope to buy a technical solution to its deforestation problem later. Or it could try a top-down effort to halt deforestation — a fiendishly difficult task in the best of circumstances — but risk neglecting the cultural and economic importance of forests in the daily lives of Ecuador’s poorest.
At the risk of oversimplification, policymakers in this South American country faced an age-old conflict: Fight poverty or protect the environment. But a novel initiative there is beginning to show that you can do both — and even take a bite out of climate change as well.
It pays to save
Since 2008, Socio Bosque, a program developed by the Ecuadorian government with the technical support of Conservation International (CI), has been providing direct economic incentives for landowners and rural communities who voluntarily commit to protecting their forests.
In short: Agree not to cut down forests on your land, and you receive financial support from the government.
Socio Bosque — loosely translated as “Forest Partners” — was born from a CI pilot project aimed at protecting forests in Ecuador, which at the time had the highest deforestation rate in South America.
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“Forested land was being lost primarily to agricultural expansion, illegal logging and land appropriated by illegal mining operations,” said Luis Suárez, Ecuador country director and vice president at Conservation International.
Stopping illegal deforestation by small-scale actors is exceedingly difficult, especially if it overlooks simple economics: People will cut down trees as long as it is in their economic interest. What CI researchers did was to help change the economic equation.
“The only way to protect forests is if it generates some sort of benefit for the people who own them,” said Free de Koning, a former CI researcher now with the World Resources Institute who worked on Socio Bosque during its inception.
This concept is known broadly as “payment for ecosystem services” (PES) — an incentive to landholders for conserving their land in its current state to preserve the “services” (such as water regulation, carbon sequestration or biodiversity conservation) that the land provides.
While PES initiatives have sprouted around the world, Socio Bosque has been among the most successful, researchers say, thanks to a combination of simplicity and political will.
Photo gallery: A look inside one village benefiting from Socio Bosque
Keep it simple
Through Socio Bosque, the Ecuadorean government directly provides an economic incentive to landowners — whether individuals or communities — on a sliding scale according to the size of their land. Landholders receive US$ 30 per hectare per year up to 50 hectares, US$ 20 for the next 50 hectares and then US$ 10 for any additional hectares — a welcome sum in a country where 22% live below the poverty line.
To participate, landholders must prove they own the land — the government has helped determine land tenure in cases where it is not clear — and agree to regular monitoring to ensure that the land is being conserved. The agreements have a 20-year term, with payments conditional on compliance. Lastly, landowners must spell out what they intend to do with the payments they receive; land-owning communities typically invest their payments in education, health care, control and surveillance, ecotourism or agroforestry.
The program’s simplicity — direct disbursements, transparency and speed — is its strength.
This simplicity, crucial to the program’s potential for being implemented elsewhere, grew purposefully from intensive collaboration between CI and members of the Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment. Suárez spoke of work meetings that lasted late into the night, CI and ministry staff toiling together — “a true collaborative effort,” Suárez said — to turn a small pilot project into a national policy.
Ecuador was already well-placed to take action, having made curbing deforestation part of its stated national goals. But Socio Bosque was never just about curbing deforestation, according to WRI’s de Koning.
“When Ecuador approached us in 2008, they said that the program must have an impact on poverty alleviation,” he said. “That’s the most innovative part of Socio Bosque.”
The results so far: 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, with an annual investment of US$ 10 million in economic incentives. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s poverty rate continues to decline, down by nearly 37% since 2008, according to the World Bank.
Global issues, local realities
Many PES programs are unique to the areas they are implemented in, owing to a mix of different ecosystems, provincial politics and local realities. Even the largest of them, REDD+ — short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, a global proposal to curb carbon emissions through payments for avoided deforestation — has had mixed success in practice partly because of uncertain financing.
While the world waits for further progress on REDD+ financing — a vital issue in this year’s climate negotiations in Paris in December — Socio Bosque has already shown it can work elsewhere. Modified versions of Socio Bosque are up and running in Peru and Bolivia, while countries in Central America and Africa have also shown interest in Ecuador’s model, Suárez said.
The addition in 2014 of a private-sector partner in General Motors Ecuador reflects the maturity of Socio Bosque — and offers hope for REDD+, which will require greater private-sector involvement. Through Socio Bosque, the automaker compensates emissions from the Chevrolet Sail model it sells in the country. (GM has nearly half the share of Ecuador’s automobile market).
Heading for the coast?
Now, Socio Bosque is heading to the coast. A sister initiative known as Socio Manglar — “Mangrove Partners” — aims to protect Ecuador’s coastal mangrove forests — much of which have been decimated by the growth in farming of shrimp, a major export — through direct economic incentives.
Why do mangroves merit special treatment?
For one, mangroves are a nature-based asset in the fight against climate change — combating its causes (an acre of mangrove forest can absorb more than twice the amount of carbon as terrestrial forest) as well as its effects (mangroves protect coastlines against tidal surges exacerbated by sea-level rise).
For another, mangroves pose a unique policy challenge: Unlike Ecuador’s interior forests, its mangroves cannot be privately owned. Socio Manglar therefore focuses not on who owns the mangroves, but who uses them.
“In this case, Ecuador developed conservation concessions for local users of mangroves and is helping to organize local fishing organizations so that they can take part in Socio Manglar,” Suárez said. By assisting communities to form associations composed of the users of the goods that mangroves provide — chiefly fish, crabs and clams popular in Ecuadorean cuisine — the government and CI are helping to assure that the program’s benefits accrue to the people who earn them. More than half of Ecuador’s existing mangroves will be protected through Socio Manglar, Suárez said.
Whether Ecuador’s plan can work worldwide remains to be seen; in any case, its model has inspired other countries to change their sustainability equations by placing a value on the benefits that nature provides.
Ultimately, what’s good for forests is good for people.
Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director.