Interview with Alejandro Álvarez and Luis Murillo, Coordination Unit for Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in southern Mesoamerica

Interviewed by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance

“Supporting conservation for five years is a band-aid; practicing conservation and making it sustainable over time is the big challenge.”

Luis Murillo and Alejandro Álvarez, technical staff of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund’s Coordination Unit in southern Mesoamerica, talk about CEPF’s experiences after five years of investment in the region. Housed within Conservation International, the Coordination Unit provides strategic and administrative support to CEPF, its partners, and beneficiaries so that all may attain the fund’s conservation goals in the southern Mesoamerica hotspot — Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. They believe the Fund’s success is due to the support given to grantees by the Coordination Unit, as well as a high level of communication with all of the Fund’s partners. A major lesson learned is that it is difficult for small grassroots groups to derive direct benefits from conservation, when conservation actions rely a great deal on them; supporting conservation for a period of five years is more of a band-aid. Therefore, they believe inspiring conservation and making it sustainable in the long-term is our biggest challenge.

Question: What are CEPF’s main achievements in southern Mesoamerica during the past five years?

Álvarez: The creation of new alliances, and the strengthening of existing ones. In Nicaragua, all of the organizations were working in the same geographic area with projects that had similar components, but they were not aware of one another. Today, alliances are working to establish projects, raise funds, execute new actions, and also to optimize funds — for example, similar components of different projects can be executed jointly. The coalitions, such as the Coalition of Organizations Working for the Conservation of the Southeast Biosphere of Nicaragua, have political impact by organizing demonstrations against threats from government strategies, such as the dry canal in Nicaragua, the planting of African oil palm in buffer zones and within the protected areas for biofuel, or the construction of a highway that would link Bluefields with Nueva Guinea by passing through protected areas.

Luis Murillo -- photo by CEPF

Luis Murillo

Murillo: Conservation is not something a single organization can do and the alliances are the clearest example of a group of organizations with common objectives that can have some power to convince decision-makers. An example is the Alianza para el Desarrollo Ambiental de Tierras Altas (ADATA) in Panama, which halted the construction of a highway that would run through Volcán Barú National Park and La Amistad International Park; they stopped the government which had already approved construction.

The work of the Coordination Unit was to foster these alliances, strengthen them, partner with them, and even train them, because some existed in name only, or only on paper. The alliances became able to execute conservation projects with the funds given them by CEPF.

Q: Do you believe that one of CEPF’s successes was having a Coordination Unit?

Álvarez: Absolutely. In our case, the policies and strategies of Manuel Ramírez, as director of the Coordination Unit, were what helped it function. There was a consolidated and experienced technical team and the different countries were familiar with the policies of the Coordination Unit. The team worked directly and constantly in the field; this gave the groups a sense of security.

Murillo: It was fundamental. One clear example of this was in Nicaragua where the Coordination Unit gave groups a great deal of confidence; I dare say that without the unit, around 80 percent of the groups would not have had proposals approved or achieved any success. On the other hand, the Coordination Unit was — from the beginning — the eyes and ears of CEPF. Not all donors have a clear and permanent presence with their grantees; we make monthly visits to most of them.

Q: What are the main challenges for the future?

Murillo: To guarantee that conservation work continues, and specific actions are executed in the corridors. There must be follow-up or leadership, which shouldn’t necessarily be Conservation International or CEPF’s Coordination Unit; for example, in Maquenque we have the Tropical Science Center; in the Osa Peninsula, INBio and the Technical Coalition; in Panama, ADATA took on this leadership. Supporting conservation for five years is a band-aid; practicing conservation and making it sustainable over time is the big challenge.

Q: Do you believe that the NGOs can continue collaborating with one another?

Murillo: Initially, yes. The question is, over time, can they obtain other tools to make their work more effective and not lose ground? Follow-up and leadership will have to be assumed by others. They will continue, but we cannot guarantee the future.

Photo by CEPFÁlvarez: These are risks that were envisioned from the start. In Nicaragua, I can say that they are already working alone; they already have an internal communication system and already have an organization that is leading the work.

Murillo: There were groups already working for conservation on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica before CEPF began to invest in that region. For its part, ADATA has also demonstrated its capacity to work independently of CEPF.

Álvarez: Our objective was to create the platform; follow-up on actions executed and taking advantage of the opportunity they have been given depends on the capacity of the groups.

Q: Was there one corridor that made more progress than the others?

Álvarez: Everything depended on the executive capacity of each corridor. For example, executive capacity in Panama is much stronger than in Nicaragua. On the other hand, Nicaragua is a new corridor that has just begun to work with CEPF, so if we compare it with Costa Rica or Panama, the level of execution is lower.

Murillo: This can be looked at differently — Nicaragua achieved more because it had greater potential to create new areas, whereas in Costa Rica it was not possible to create new areas except for Maquenque, which was the last place available. Panama is the same, work was done on the declaration of the Damani wetlands, but this is not a new area. Nicaragua made a lot of progress on the basics, while Panama and Costa Rica worked more on strengthening existing work and follow-up. There was equilibrium in execution between the different corridors.

Q: Are there corridors that need to be given greater priority in the future?

Álvarez: Nicaragua is seen as a priority corridor, and should be expanded from Wawashán in northern Nicaragua to the San Juan River.

Murillo: In terms of the CEPF, we cannot leave any corridor out — all are important and high priority.

Q: Did CEPF promote initiatives that generate economic resources while also conserving biodiversity?

Álvarez: One important economic alternative was the involvement of women in conservation projects, such as the creation and maintenance of nurseries for reforestation, environmental education programs, and ecotourism projects. This builds local capacity that is generating more income for families.

Alejandro Alvarez -- photo by CEPFMurillo: In Panama, ecotourism was created — the clearest example is that of the Organización para el Desarrollo Sostenible Ecoturístico Naso (ODESEN) and the Weckso Lodge, a group that was once completely dependent and only able to give poor attention to 2.5 visitors per month. It can now receive 60 people and organize activities for large groups, such as seminars in the forest. Another activity was vegetable garden production in the Panama highlands; coffee-growing was also promoted along with organic production and nurseries. Many people were trained to produce native tree species. Fundación Neotrópica worked on small vegetable garden production that could eventually be sold to hotels in the Osa Peninsula — in some cases, sales negotiations are already underway.

Q: Is sustainability being achieved? Is poverty being reduced?

Murillo: CEPF measures successes at the project level, as impact occurs over the long-term. For example, when those who are producing environmentally-friendly coffee, vegetables, or organic products can successfully market and sell their products to conservation-minded customers and receive a better price.

Álvarez: When the people trained in ecotourism projects can, on their own, execute actions that generate their own income. During the time the projects are executed, it is very difficult to obtain these kinds of results; it will take — I believe — a few years more to be able to have a real impact on a large scale.

Murillo: Odessen is a clear example of an ecotourism project that is now sustainable.

Q: Was there active participation in the implementation of protected area management plans?

Álvarez: A plan was prepared for the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve that was the first management plan in Nicaragua to have massive participation from civil society, organizations, and governmental entities. It is the first plan for which execution was begun following approval. Of the four management plans that have been prepared for southeastern Nicaragua (Cerro Silva, Wawashan, Punta Gorda, and Indio Maíz), the Indio Maíz plan — funded by CEPF — is the only one that has had continuity. In three years, it was formulated, presented, approved, and launched. Another management plan was the one for the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge.

Murillo: Management plans already existed in Costa Rica and Panama, and in these countries, some modifications were implemented in a fully participatory manner. With the Coordination Unit in direct contact with the groups, they had the opportunity to provide inputs to the management plans. Another major challenge is being able to provide financial support so that the management plans can be implemented.

Q: What were the main lessons learned during the past five years?

Murillo: Communication was key to the success of the initiatives, and this was achieved thanks to the Coordination Unit. We did not previously know this, and learned it along the way. The more we talked, the more we shared with the people, the more confidence they had in us, and the project became more successful. Donors generally maintain little communication with their grantees. When there is communication, there is a big opportunity to make corrections. There should be a trusted person to foster this communication, so that the actions to be executed are appropriate and corrective measures can be taken in a timely fashion.

Resources and efforts should be placed in initiatives that the groups deem appropriate. They must perceive that the money is theirs and that they are being strengthened, and the grant is not merely a means of survival. There are many examples of this: the Asociación de Amigos y Vecinos de la Costa y la Naturaleza (AANVECONA), the Modelo de Comunidad Ecológica Los Valles, and the Fundación Agroecológica Cotobruseña — these are all small groups with a strong work ethic, but before CEPF they had never received funding for projects. We learned that efforts had to be made to strengthen them and trust them, and all the projects turned out to be much more successful than we expected. The AANVECONA project began small, it continued making negotiations, and now it is a great project that has won awards in Panama for manatee conservation; it also demonstrated exquisite fund management.

Álvarez: Another lesson was that it is important to deliver funds directly to the organization for them to invest it directly in their project. The Coordination Unit constantly monitored all of the projects, from formulation to execution. Having the groups manage their funds gave them a sense of power. Budgets were always evaluated prior to project approval in a way that ensured a high percentage of the funds would be used to fulfill project objectives.

Murillo: Another major lesson was that time had to be invested in project formulation. This was not simply a donor requirement for providing funds, it was an training exercise and a guide for executing the project, and an important reference framework during the life of the project so that the organizations would be familiar with the procedures, the manuals, the guides, etc.

Q: The final CEPF report for the southern Mesoamerica hotspot says that the threats to biodiversity have been diminished in CEPF hotspots, and that the crisis we saw at the beginning of 2000 no longer exists. What are your thoughts on this?

Álvarez: In Nicaragua, the advance of the agricultural frontier was at a critical point from 2000 to 2005. Our projects there did not halt that advance, but it was identified as a risk and actions are being taken to slow it, but stopping it is not easy. Hunting was not initially contemplated as a threat, but now it is.

Murillo: Threats were diminished, but not completely eliminated. Other aspects such as hunting and human actions are affecting protected areas. Hunting is now more controlled but we cannot say it doesn’t exist; today there is more control, there are projects in execution, and alliances that continue working on this. CEPF made a great contribution in forming alliances, in promoting dialogue among the groups, and it empowered groups to lead actions.

Q: CEPF supplied much-needed funding for conservation in southern Mesoamerica. Now that CEPF funding in this hotspot has ended, how do you think the region will fare in terms of funding?

Álvarez: Southeastern Nicaragua was not traditionally considered a priority site for conservation projects. CEPF was the first organization to fund projects there — this generated expectations in the local organizations. Now CEPF is leaving and they are uncertain; however, the groups now have the capacity to formulate and execute projects, which will help them access other funds. At present, the political direction that Nicaragua will be taking is not clear and this will deter donor involvement there, or some donors will not have a fund work there until the political panorama is clearer.

Murillo: Conservation is not easy to sell, and it doesn’t pay. Some groups obtain payments for environmental services and carbon credits, but it is very hard for small groups to gain direct benefits from conservation, and conservation itself confers great responsibility. The absence of donors is always a problem. The difference is that now the groups have the means, the guidelines, and the training to be able to find funds. There is now interest in Nicaragua for conservation. Costa Rica has experience, and Panama has capacity. So things are not as alarming as they once were. CEPF will be gone, but there will be other donors. One weakness was not overlapping CEPF with other financial options. There will definitely be many needs, and this budget gap may affect many groups, but we hope that this will be short-lived.

Q: What would you have done differently? What might be the opportunities, in the event of renewed CEPF funding in the region?

Álvarez: Clarify the hotspot’s strategic directions, and analyze their viability and functionality. Often what an organization proposed did not match the strategic directions because they were not clear.

Murillo: The ecosystem profile created the fund’s strategy. If the profile had been more participatory at the regional level, then perhaps the strategic directions would have been different, or the budget allocation for each one might have been different. For me, an important strategic direction is sustainable production related to economic activities.

Álvarez: Conservation cannot occur where there is hunger. When you go to a region, you need a conservation alternative in one hand and an economic alternative in the other. It is not easy to propose conservation for a site when that area is the source of the people’s food. For example, how will you get people to stop hunting or cutting trees when they need income to feed their family?

Murillo: We incorporate social realities into conservation.

Álvarez: This is why it is important to plan the strategic directions accordingly. They were directed toward conservation and did not include the social component as a priority.

Murillo: It is important to reduce poverty, but the directions were conceived for conservation. In general, marginal groups such as indigenous peoples were assigned the responsibility of protection, but they do not have an income to compensate conservation actions.

Álvarez: I would look for projects executed by more than one organization with common interests and themes so that the projects would have greater scope, be more participatory, and have an opportunity for obtaining a larger amount of counterpart funding. This would help improve execution in a shorter period, and each NGO would contribute according to its individual strengths.

Murillo: I would seek more integrated economic and productive projects. In the future, we need to continue making and strengthening alliances. For example, there should be continued support to GERPROPILA and FAC, two groups that are very active in border regions. Communication — such as the work being done by the Rainforest Alliance — is vital; specific actions to promote communication need to be developed. Conservation is not per site; there must be a holistic vision.

Álvarez: More alliances between CEPF and other donors. The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DANIDA) is starting to provide support to southeastern Nicaragua, so it would be more productive if DANIDA and CEPF worked together. They will be working with the same organizations, but on different projects.

Murillo: Many of the field decisions should be made at the Coordination Unit level and not by CEPF in the US, because the Coordination Unit better understands the viability of the projects, including decisions about how much money, and how much trust in the local organizations’ staff is required. In other words, the Coordination Units need to have clear and fluid communication with the people in charge of fund allocation. The Coordination Unit made recommendations, but it did not make decisions and when you are working with these kinds of projects, it is often necessary to make decisions quickly.

Álvarez: Time was a great limitation. Sometimes a lot of time passed between the approval of a letter of intent and the initiation of a project, which affected the project itself. A lot of time was spent in making decisions.

Murillo: Needs and opportunities for continuation were identified. For example, environmental education needs time, these are not small projects. There are needs for biological studies on certain species, which are lacking for decision-makers. The virtue of CEPF was that during our five years of investment, we filled a gap and the most urgent needs.

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