How Ecuador is Reducing Poverty by Conserving Native Forests

© Joshua Bousel/Flickr Creative Commons

Editor's note: Each year on March 21st, the U.N.’s International Day of Forests celebrates the value of Earth’s forest ecosystems, on which nearly one in four people depend on in some way for their livelihoods.

Here in my home country of Ecuador, the national government’s Socio Bosque (Forest Partners) program has made great strides over the past few years in conserving forests and improving the lives of local communities. This week, I’m excited to host Peter Stonier and John Martin from CI’s visual storytelling team, who have come all the way from Washington, D.C. to document what I consider one of the most successful — yet underpublicized — forest conservation initiatives.  

Keeping forests standing doesn’t just ensure local livelihoods; it also impacts people near and far through the innumerable services forests provide, such as reducing carbon emissions, protecting wildlife and filtering vital freshwater sources.

Socio Bosque was launched in 2008 by Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment. This national program was established to ultimately conserve 4 million hectares (almost 9.9 million acres) of native forests, páramo and other native ecosystems, reduce deforestation rates and improve the living conditions of 1 million people.

Within this program, individual landowners and indigenous communities have access to direct economic incentives based on the number of hectares they conserve. This ensures that people have more to gain from protecting their forest than cutting them down. CI Ecuador was an important partner in the design of the program, drawing from our experience establishing conservation agreements with Chachi indigenous communities in northwestern Ecuador.

As of December 2014, Socio Bosque has signed 2,748 agreements, protected more than 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) and provided direct benefits for 173,233 people. A trust fund has been established to channel complementary funding sources, and conservation areas are regularly monitored to verify the environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the conservation agreements.

Among the many people benefitting from Socio Bosque are members of the A´I Cofán community, an indigenous people that has resided in the Amazon rainforest for generations. So far, three A´I Cofán communities have conserved more than 77,000 hectares (190,000 acres) of tropical forests through their participation in Socio Bosque. They have been using their funds to buy educational materials and medical supplies, help the elderly, improve fish farming production and develop environmental education programs. The communities are now able to train and maintain local forest rangers to protect their land from outsiders wishing to exploit their trees and other forest resources.

One of the many places Peter, John and I have visited this week was the  A´I Cofán village of Dureno, where we interviewed community leaders to document what life is like for a group of people so dependent on tropical forests.

Socio Bosque has already influenced similar programs in Peru and Bolivia. I hope that the visual storytelling team’s final product from this trip (a short film) will inspire other initiatives in additional countries — as well as convince more communities here in Ecuador to join in.

Luis Suarez is the vice president of CI Ecuador. To get more updates from the visual storytelling team’s Ecuador trip, follow CI on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.