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What on Earth is a ‘conservation agreement’?

© Thomas Muller

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”

In this installment, we break down “conservation agreements,” an approach that helps conserve biodiversity while improving the quality of life for local communities.

So: What is a ‘conservation agreement’?

It’s a deal between a community and a group or person funding a conservation project (that could be a government, a non-profit, a foundation, a business or even an individual).

How does it work?

In exchange for making specific conservation commitments to protect their lands — such as keeping forests standing by not logging them — communities receive benefits from the funder, such as organic fertilizer and pruning tools to improve their coffee farms or training and wages for patrolling forests to stop illegal logging.

Why would you work directly with communities to do this?

Let’s bring in an expert to explain.

“Most of what remains of nature around the world — tropical forests, coastal mangroves, grasslands — is in the hands of indigenous peoples and collective landholders,” says Margarita Mora, managing director of the Conservation Stewards Program at Conservation International (CI). “These are the areas with the highest diversity of plants and animals in the world, as well as the areas with the highest cultural value to humanity. People living in these areas are effective stewards, but sometimes there is no economic alternative to using their natural resources in unsustainable ways. At the end of the day, they want better economic opportunities for their families. Our job is to make that happen while protecting nature – make protecting the environment a viable economic choice.”

How do you ensure that these deals are fair to the communities?

The terms of the conservation agreements are designed directly with the local communities, and it’s all voluntary. Communities and partner organizations first identify the pressures placed on the community’s natural resources – such as potential encroachment by a mining company or outsiders illegally cutting down mangroves – and together they define the actions to be carried out by the communities. The agreements lay out the actions and benefits, as well as how it will all be monitored and the consequences for all parties involved if they do not comply with the terms.

“We know that negotiation takes time,” says Zachary Wells, technical director of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, which oversees conservation agreements. “Communities sometimes don’t believe partner organizations will provide benefits in recognition of their conservation efforts. Trust between partner organizations and communities needs to be built over time.”

The negotiation process is explained in this video.

What happens if the community does not follow through on its commitments?

The agreements are canceled, simple as that.

Has this ever happened?

Yes. For example, in the Alto Mayo region of northwestern Peru, coffee growers committed to not cutting down trees to expand their farms, and in return, they asked for technical support to improve their coffee production and for better access to markets. Socio-economic and forest cover monitoring indicated who was and was not complying with the commitments. For the few coffee growers who continued to clear the forest, the agreements were canceled — a sign to everyone involved that the agreements are serious and binding. Now, deforestation has been reduced in the area, and coffee growers who sign agreements are getting better prices for their product.

“We have seen that usually during the first year of the agreements there will be community members that won’t comply with the agreement,” Mora explains. “By applying penalties defined in the agreement, community members realize that this is a serious relationship.”

What kinds of support do the communities receive?

Benefits typically include investments​ in social services like health and education as well as investments in livelihoods, often in the agricultural or fisheries sectors. Benefits can also include direct payments and wages.

For example, in Bolivia, indigenous communities have agreed to not cut down trees in exchange for help building an ecotourism business. In China, CI’s partner Shan Shui Conservation Center trained a community in bee- and poultry-keeping to replace activities that threaten the forest. And in one agreement in South Africa, farmers commit to sustainable approaches to grazing, water management, stock numbers and predator control. In return, they get higher prices for their stock, trainings on restoration techniques and business management, and better access to breeding and veterinary support.

Where did this idea come from?

In 2002, Conservation International negotiated an agreement in which the government of Guyana gave CI a 30-year concession for the protection of 80,000 hectares (197,684 acres) that were going to be logged. The idea was replicated in Peru, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it was an attractive deal to the governments — who were compensated for the opportunity cost of developing the land — and a cost-effective way to conserve nature.

Once these deals with national governments were shown to work, CI turned its sights to working directly with communities.

“The CI team at the time thought that if this type of negotiated agreements were of interest to governments, CI could also negotiate agreements with people to conserve community lands,” Wells explains.

What have these conservation agreements achieved overall?

There are 4,000 agreements in place in 19 countries around the world, benefiting 30,000 people and protecting 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres), an area a bit smaller than the state of New Jersey. Of these agreements, 70 percent are funded and managed directly by government programs, and 30 percent are implemented by CI and partner organizations.

From the more than 1,200 agreements implemented by CI and partners, 90 percent are focused on the protection of forest. An evaluation of deforestation of areas where conservation agreements have been implemented for more than five years show that there is three times less deforestation than in sites without conservation agreements.

What is the end goal of these agreements?

The common goal is for communities to benefit from the protection of 13 million hectares (32 million acres), or an area the size of England, by 2020.

“We have cracked the code,” Mora says. “These models work. When communities have alternatives, they choose nature.”

Cassandra Kane is the communications manager for CI’s Conservation Finance Division.

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