Faced with continuing destruction in a region whose one-of-a-kind plant life astounds botanists, residents of the Chocó — the humid lowlands west of the Andes in Colombia and northern Ecuador — have come together to take conservation matters into their own hands by organizing the Northern Esmeraldas Region Conservation and Development Agenda for 2003-2008, popularly known as the Ecological Summit. The meeting of minds is the result of two years of lobbying, meetings, agreements, and disagreements between the region’s various groups and institutions, says Domingo Paredes, Technical Director for Ecuador for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a summit funder.
The Chocó’s forests are famous for their biodiversity — they hold some 9,000 plant species, about a quarter of which are found nowhere else on Earth. According to Conservation International, just in Ecuador’s relatively small portion of the Chocó, which covers the northern part of that country’s Esmeraldas province, there are 6,000 plant species, between 13% and 20% of which are endemic, 830 bird species, and 142 mammal species. Important portions of that biodiversity have been sequestered within five protected areas, the largest of which are the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and the Cayapas Mangrove Ecological Reserve, which has some of the world’s tallest mangrove trees, towering as high as 120 feet (40 meters).
Paredes notes that most of the Ecuadorian Chocó, which has a population of about 85,000, has already been converted to agricultural land — less than 5% of the region’s original forests remain intact — and much of its remaining wilderness is threatened by loggers, and the expansion of oil palm plantations and shrimp farms.
He says the summit brings people together to collaborate on a strategy to promote environmentally friendly models of development in the region. To guide policy changes that will promote sustainable development, the summit has established an inter-institutional committee that includes representatives from local groups, government institutions, non-governmental organizations and international aid agencies.
The summit is currently promoting strategies for land-use planning, payment for the environmental services provided by the Chocó’s forests, the creation of community reserves, and a regional plan for reforestation and mangrove recuperation.
Reaching consensus on such issues is no small task, especially considering the varied needs and interests of parties as different from one another as large agricultural companies and indigenous groups such as Afro-Ecuadorians, the Chachi, and the Awá.
According to Paredes, many indigenous groups and Afro-Ecuadorians sold their land to outsiders for small sums prior to the summit. Now those same groups are working to create community reserves. One example is an Afro-Ecuadorian community that decided to set aside 62,000 acres (25,000 hectares) of communal land for conservation.
The summit also seeks economic alternatives for a region where approximately 80% of the population lives below the poverty level. In addition to strategies for better natural resource use, it is promoting improvement of basic services such as potable water and responding to the population’s education needs, which includes strengthening traditional cultures. It is also working for improvement of the region’s roads and the creation of commercial networks and credit options for small-scale producers, such cacao farmers, fishermen, and artisans.
According to Eduardo Beltrán, Executive Secretary of the Coordinating Unit for Sustainable Forestry Development for the province of Esmeraldas, the Ecological Summit has generated a lot of interest in the region and resulted in agreements between various groups. Nevertheless, he believes there remains much to resolve. “The easy work is done. What is needed now is to follow through with such efforts as land-use planning and the legalization of ancestral territories,” he notes.
A land-use plan will make it possible for the groups involved to obtain reliable information about the condition of the region’s natural resources, will identify priority areas for conservation, and will help determine what economic and conservation activities are appropriate in the Chocó.
According to Beltrán, one of the summit’s objectives is to promote agricultural options such as reforestation with native species and agroforestry, which permits small farmers to plant fast-growing crops such as corn together with longer-growing crops, such as hardwood species.
For Paredes, the summit is a laboratory of sorts. “The task and challenge we face is to learn to be creative in how we promote alternatives to small- and medium-scale farmers, and good natural-resource management, while opposing high-tech investments that threaten biodiversity.”
One of the summit’s great achievements, in Beltrán’s opinion, is that it has given local people the authority to defend their natural resources. “Many outsiders who came to the region to exploit its natural resources thought the land had no owner,” he says, “but now they now realize that the civilian population has decision making powers.”
— Katiana Murillo
Contacts in Ecuador:
Conservation International Ecuador
Casilla postal 1717-1388
Coordinating Unity for Sustainable Forest Development in the Province of Esmeraldas
Casilla Postal 08-01-027
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