On September 17, a dream became a reality in Ecuador. Marcela Aguiñaga, the Minister of the Environment, announced a pioneering national forest conservation program that will benefit landowners and indigenous communities willing to conserve their forests.
The plan, Programa Socio Bosque (‘Forest Partner,” in English), is aiming high, planning to conserve over five million hectares (12.4 million acres) of forest, avoid 13.5 million tons of carbon emissions per year and provide additional income to more than two million poor in Ecuador.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in South America, Ecuador is one of the 12 megadiverse countries in the world, harboring an amazing biodiversity – including forests that provide vital environmental services. For example, Quito gets half of its water from the unique ecosystem atop some of the tallest mountains in the Andes.
Unfortunately, this biodiversity is vanishing very quickly. With one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, Ecuador is losing 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of forest every year due to illegal logging and deforestation for agricultural expansion.
Although most of the forests of the country are public lands, an important percentage of what is left is in the hands of indigenous people and farmers, among the country’s poorest citizens. These residents hold the power to protect these forests, and to save the great variety of species living there.
To answer the threat, the government of Ecuador has boldly proposed a national program that recognizes the vital role of local indigenous communities and farmers in protecting these forested areas.
The launching of the Programa Socio Bosque represents a national movement to provide income to local farmers and indigenous communities in exchange for their commitment to protect key areas of forest in places where at least 50 percent of the population is below the poverty line and where important ecosystems are not currently included in the National Protected Area System.
Incentives will be provided by the government when farmers and indigenous communities commit to protect their forests. Payments per hectare depend on the size of the area put under conservation with a maximum of $30 per hectare for small areas.
Priority is given to areas with high deforestation threat, high ecosystem services value and high poverty levels. “Funds provided by this program will directly reach indigenous communities and farmers – bridging the gap between conservation and poverty,” said Manuel Bravo, Undersecretary of Natural Capital in the Ministry of the Environment.
Piloting toward Success
The Ministry of the Environment, led by Dr. Aguiñaga, is in charge of the implementation of the program. At the September launch, she said the program “is an incentive for farmers and indigenous communities who want to voluntarily protect their forests and highlands.”
A pilot program is planned targeting threatened coastal humid forests in the Chocó Region – Esmeraldas Province (Chocó Manabí Conservation Corridor) and the forests of the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Amazon (Abiseo-Condor-Kutukú Conservation Corridor) – both key areas for conservation in Ecuador.
By the fall of 2009, the results of the pilot will guide the implementation of the national program. Monitoring by the National Forestry System and the Remote Sensing Information Center will measure that forests are being conserved and this information will be used to compensate landowners who have qualified their forests for conservation.
This groundbreaking initiative will avoid deforestation, and as such it will have the opportunity to benefit from the growing global carbon market and qualify it as the first national REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) program.
“The Programa Socio Bosque positions the country as a pioneer at the international level with an emission reduction plan based on avoided deforestation,” said Minister Aguiñaga.
The government of Ecuador has already committed significant funding annually from their national budget for the implementation and foresees increasing the fund yearly by selling the carbon sequestered due to avoided deforestation.
Through its program in Ecuador and the Conservation Stewards Program, Conservation International (CI) has provided technical and financial support to the initial design and implementation of the Programa Socio Bosque. In partnership and close coordination with the Ministry of the Environment, CI-Ecuador sees the Programa Socio Bosque as a great opportunity to conserve biodiversity and reduce the impact of climate change while benefiting poor local communities in rural Ecuador.