Interview with Rocio Cedeno, Project Officer for Environmental Projects in Ecuador, United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Interviewed by Katy Puga, Rainforest Alliance

“This is a very ambitious project that addresses threats such as deforestation, a limited capacity to manage resources, and above all, working with communities living in extreme poverty. The key to success will be the commitments of the participating organizations and the local communities, who are the real custodians of Ecuador’s natural resources.”

With just 98,990 square miles (256,370 km2), Ecuador is one of the 17 most biodiverse countries in the world, part of a group of countries that collectively hold more than 70 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Alone, Ecuador holds 10 percent of the world’s plant species, 8 percent of its animal species, and 18 percent of its birds.

Machalilla National Park - Photo by Melissa Normann/Rainforest AllianceThe country is divided into four distinct regions — the coast, mountains, the Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands. The unique biodiversity of each is protected through the country’s more than 40 protected areas, which comprise nearly 19 percent of the country’s total territory, and are recognized for their importance in conserving the world’s unique ecosystems.

Ecuador’s coast boasts beautiful beaches and dozens of unique islands. Just inland, swaths of tropical forests provide important habitats for a rich array of wildlife, including a number of endemic and threatened species. The region is also home to a variety of distinct cultural groups including mestizas, indígenas, montubias, and settlers that depend on coastal resources for their survival.

However, Ecuador’s coast has not escaped environmental challenges caused by deforestation, the expansion of monocultures, and cattle ranching, among others. To help safeguard natural resources along the Ecuadorian coast, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) developed the Sustainable Coasts and Forests project to conserve biodiversity and improve the quality of life for coastal communities. The project is led by Chemonics International, with participation from collaborating conservation organizations Rainforest Alliance, Conservación y Desarrollo (CYD), Fundación Altrópico, EcoBiotec del Ecuador, and Corporación de Gestión y Derecho Ambiental Ecolex.

Question: How did the Sustainable Coasts and Forests project come about?

Rocio Cedeno, USAID - Photo by Geovany VillegasCedeno: The project is a result of a comprehensive analysis of the conservation needs of the areas that the United States Agency for International Development had not previously invested in over the past 20 years. It expands upon USAID’s three current priorities of the Environmental Program for Ecuadorconserving indigenous territories in the Amazon region and northern border area, watershed conservation, and strengthening protected areas.

Q: What are the project’s main goals?

Cedeno: We have committed to support the conservation of protected areas, while also seeking to generate economic alternatives to improve the quality of life of people located in and around the selected areas. Mestizos, montubios, indigenous families, and other settlers all live in these areas in very precarious conditions. We are talking about people with incomes of $1.00 or less per day, so this initiative presents major challenges.

The project aims to strengthen the conservation of six key areas, improve the living conditions of local residents, and seek sustainable conservation actions in the project areas. We are promoting public-private partnerships to encourage the long-term sustainability of the United States government’s investment in the region with the full commitment of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, a key institution in the management and conservation of the country’s protected areas.

Q: Six priority areas were chosen for this project. What were the criteria for selecting these areas?

Cedeno: It was not easy to choose the areas — we really would have liked to support additional sites. We looked at Important Bird Areas, areas that are important to the Ministry of Environment, and other criteria that are in line with the project’s goals.

Q: What are some of the synergies between conservation and development in the project?

Cedeno: This project is working with communities that suffer from high levels of poverty, with some living in extreme poverty. For example, according to a socio-economic analysis we conducted, families in the Ayampe River basin are trying to survive on less than a dollar a day, while people in the Galera San Francisco area are living on a little more than a dollar per day. According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos del Ecuador, the minimum annual income needed to sustain a family of four is US$535.

The local communities living near protected areas depend on the resources these areas provide, so we have to seek sustainable economic alternatives to improve their quality of life. We need to give them the tools they need to properly manage their limited resources. In some cases, this means starting with issues such as land use planning to help people decide how to manage and best utilize their land. In other cases, we are training them to incorporate sustainable practices into their agricultural activities, or help them to manage their resources in a responsible manner.

Q: How are you helping to improve resource management?

Cedeno: The project is providing technical assistance and training in the field — here, the expertise of Conservación y Desarrollo is key.

It in addition strengthens the value chain of local residents’ economic activities and empowers them to better manage their resources. The project also helps members of communities who own forests to participate in the Forest Partners Program, an initiative of the Government of Ecuador that provides conservation incentives to protect native forests.

We are also providing training on legal issues, for example, the legalization of land titles and building the capacity of associations of crab fishers. We are also helping communities maintain custody and monitor the mangrove forests that were granted to them by the Ecuadorian government.

Q: How is the Ministry of Environment involved in the project?

Cedeno: Because the Ministry is responsible of the management, surveillance, and control of protected areas, it has a key role is facilitating the objectives of the Sustainable Coast and Forest project. Since the beginning, the Ministry of Environment has been an active participant. Its recommendations and opinions helped to shape the project. The Ministry also appointed an under-secretary of marine and coastal management to participate in the project.

Q: What results to expect to achieve during the project’s three-year duration?

Chachi Reserve - Photo by USAIDCedeno: We hope to have generated viable economic alternatives for local communities and to be able to say that at least 1,700 families have improved livelihoods and that 865,000 acres (350,000 hectares) of land are being managed in a more responsible way.

In the Chachi Reserve, which is managed by the Chachi people in Esmeraldas Province of northern Ecuador, two communities will participate in the Forest Partners program. In addition, with the help of Rainforest Alliance and Fundación Altrópico, we will help them improve the management of their territorial lands.

The Churute Mangrove Reserve, located in the Guayas Province, consists of more than 99,000 acres (40,000 hectares) and holds possibly the largest mangrove forest in the country. Here, Chemonics and EcoBiotec del Ecuador are working to strengthen the crab fishing industry by providing technical assistance in inventory and value chain management for the red crab industry. We are designing a monitoring and surveillance system, a center to process crab meat, developing business plans, and exploring market opportunities for this product.

In the coastal province of Manabí, we hope to have an integrated management plan for the Ayampe River watershed, a major source of fresh water for several communities and a key destination for bird watching. We are also working in the Galera San Francisco Marine Reserve, in the Esmeraldas Province, a reserve whose biological riches are similar to those of the Galapagos Islands. Here the project is working with communities to conduct reforestation activities, and implement sustainable agriculture practices on cacao and citrus farms and cattle ranches.

Churute Mangrove Reserve - Photo by USAIDThe El Salado Mangrove Wildlife Production Reserve, located in the northwestern Guayaquil Gulf estuary, mainly composed of salt marshes, contains a mangrove reserve that is a pilot site to evaluate the potential effects of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon on the environment and on productive activities. Using the results of these evaluations, communities will then be able to develop appropriate management plans that can be replicated in other areas.

Finally, in the Musine River watershed, the project is working with the local municipality to design an environmental management plan.

Q: What are the project’s key challenges?

Cedeno: This is a very ambitious project that addresses threats such as deforestation, a limited capacity to manage resources, and above all, working with vulnerable communities living in extreme poverty. The key to success will be the partnerships and commitments of the participating organizations, including national and local government entities, USAID, and implementation partners, and especially the local communities, which ultimately are the real custodians of Ecuador’s natural resources.

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