Ecuador is known for its highly productive forests, particularly those in the northern part of the coastal Esmeraldas province, in the Amazonian Napo and Sucumbíos provinces, and in the Andes Mountains, where there are extensive forest plantations. However, the country has suffered deforestation at rates of 300,000 to 370,000 acres (120,000 to 150,000 hectares) per year due to illegal logging, selective logging — felling hardwood tree species that have the highest market value — commercial agriculture, and development.
To help improve forest ecosystem conservation in Ecuador, the Rainforest Alliance became part of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Sustainable Coasts and Forests project. We are providing technical assistance and training to local communities and encouraging the sustainable management of forests, watersheds, and other natural resources.
Together with the international development consulting firm Chemonics, the Rainforest Alliance is focusing its efforts in the Chachi Reserve and the Galera San Francisco Marine Reserve in the Esmeraldas province, and the Río Ayampe basin in the coastal provinces of Manabí and Santa Elena.
We talked with Christian Terán, the Rainforest Alliance’s forestry coordinator in Ecuador.
Question: What are the Rainforest Alliance’s goals in the Sustainable Coasts and Forests project?
Terán: The project aims to conserve critical habitats and improve the quality of life of the people who use and have access to these resources, focusing on strategic areas that are important for biodiversity and have been identified as priorities by the Ministry of the Environment.
The main concern for people living in the project area is fulfilling their basic needs: food, health, and education. To do this, they must have resources, and in these areas, their main resource is the forest. This is where the Rainforest Alliance is lending its expertise to the project, by helping local people sustainably manage their forest, developing community agroforestry programs that foster landscape restoration and management, and building integrated watershed management plans. We are also working at the market level by developing profitable business plans, helping local communities develop organizational structures, and linking sustainable forest operations with international markets.
The project is also working with the Ministry of the Environment to establish a forest management plan for the Ayampe basin that controls illegal logging.
Q: Are indigenous communities involved in this project?
Terán: For the last eight months, we have been working with the indigenous Federation of Chachi Centers of Ecuador (FECCHE) and two indigenous communities, Capulí and Hoja Blanca. Together, we are preparing an environmental management plan with a view toward land use, conservation priorities, and land management goals — this will support sustainable forest management activities and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
The Chachi live in the Chocó, an area identified as a global biodiversity hotspot. But here, the timber industry extracts approximately 60 percent of its annual production of wood that is processed to become the plywood and lumber used to create furniture and flooring. Moreover, there is a lot of illegal activity, so there is the potential to effect a lot of positive change through sustainable forest management.
Q: How are you empowering local communities to manage their forest resources?
Terán: We are working directly with local residents to help them sustainably manage their resources. The Rainforest Alliance is serving as a facilitator in this process, so that local officials can direct the management of their territorial lands. We analyze the challenges and the potential, and we help to identify the ways in which they can organize themselves. How do we do it? Through participatory workshops and meetings with leaders and local organizations where all stakeholders discuss and develop feasible, realistic management plans.
Once the plan is prepared, there is parallel advising on sustainable forest management. For example, the Chachis are working with a group of companies interested in buying legal lumber that is certified, so we advise the company, the communities, and FECCHE so that it is a win-win relationship. The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) also has a key role here and has been working in the area for several years.
Q: You mentioned that the project has a watershed management component.
Terán: Protecting water sources in this area is essential because the population here has no drinking water during the dry season. We are working in the watershed of the Galera San Francisco Marine Reserve in Esmeraldas, to manage the landscape through territorial sub-watersheds and micro-watersheds, whose unifying theme is water. The challenge here is to reduce threats from accelerated sedimentation and soil erosion that directly affect marine fauna. We are also doing this in the Ayampe basin in the Manabí province.
We are also advising them on caring for and reforesting the banks of rivers and main estuaries for risk management, using species that help control river flooding and surges.
Q: How is the project working with farmers?
Terán: We are developing agroforestry demonstration projects where we apply community models consisting of mixed crop systems, including trees on farms as an additional, long-term economic component. For example, we have planted valuable tree species within the traditional cacao and plantain crops, and the farmers understand that they are receiving benefits in the form of diversifying their farm’s production, reducing pests and diseases, receiving future income from the sale of the wood, and improving their cacao production thanks to the shade created from the newly planted trees.
We have helped farmers set up nurseries where they grow productive tree species, such as cacao, fruit trees, citrus, and species that serve as nitrogen fixers, lumber, and shrubbery, to help form different strata in the composition and structure of the landscape. This is how farmers are developing income alternatives while also reforesting their land.
Q: Are you helping these communities gain third-party certification for their forest products?
Terán: We are beginning at a very basic level by providing training and creating a suitable environment for communities to obtain forest certification in the future. We are seeking complementary land use systems and fostering the development of forest and non-timber forest products that can eventually be certified.
There is a lot to do in this nation, and with an innovative approach based on our experiences from working in other places with similar conditions, the Rainforest Alliance can contribute to the well-being and development of local people who are the true custodians of our natural treasures, as well as to the conservation of our forests.