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Adaptive Governance of Forest-dependent Livelihoods in Ecuador

Articles and Photographs: Claudia Konrad, M.A.; Researcher, Cluster on Transformation Research, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin; PhD Candidate, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Trier, Germany. Additional photographs: Cristian Revelo.
Country: Ecuador, Amazon Region
Type of resources involved: : Forest Resources

The research project analyzes the impact of a national forest protection program in Ecuador on forest-dependent livelihoods. As social-ecological conditions at the study site are subject to substantial changes, the empirical case study is based on the question, whether the program bears the potential to enhance adaptive governance.
Despite decades of conservation efforts, Latin America suffered the highest net annual loss of forests between 2000 and 2010 worldwide (FAO 2012, 2011). In South America, Ecuador shows one of the highest deforestation rates (MAE 2011). And the increasingly serious problem of forest loss and its implication for climate change raises the challenge of securing the livelihoods of forest-dependent people. In this context, the national forest protection program aims to reduce deforestation and poverty through direct incentive payments to forest owners, who decide to stop using timber resources and sign a contract with the Ministry of Environment for a period of 20 years. Most of the remaining forest areas that are not included in the National System of Protected Areas are located in the Amazon region and collectively owned by indigenous organizations. Only seven percent of the conservation contracts that were signed nationwide between October 2008 and January 2013 include collective land tenure. However, this small number covers 88 percent of the total area under contract. As a consequence, collective landowners are an important target group of the program.
Since forest-dependent livelihoods become increasingly vulnerable, change in response to a new situation becomes a premise for handling uncertainty and improve livelihood security. In this context, adaptability describes the capacity of actors in a system to learn and reorganize in response to changing conditions by testing and revising institutional arrangements (Berkes 2008; Walker/Salt 2006). According to research on common-pool resources and adaptive governance, the project is based on the assumption that the outcomes of the forest protection program are shaped by a) the interplay between the program design and local realities regarding land tenure regimes, b) the structures of cooperation networks and the facilitation or constraint of the flow of resources across scales, and c) the extend to which the program contributes to the robustness of forest-dependent livelihoods by providing innovative and additional sources of income.

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Photo credit: Cristian Revelo.


The first collection of data took place between August 2013 and March 2014 and was supported by the Ministry of Environment and four indigenous organizations participating in the program. The second fieldwork period is scheduled for July/August 2015. Preliminary results show that the program promotes some crucial aspects for adaptive governance but fails in adequately addressing other issues just as relevant for securing local livelihoods.
At the study site, land governance is often caught in a tangle of conflicting claims regarding land use and ownership. The case study shows that all four indigenous organizations are involved in land conflicts and participate strategically in the forest protection program in order to protect their land against national projects for oil extraction or invaders, who migrated from the Western coastal area to the Amazon region – often in search of employment in extractive industries. Participation in the forest protection program creates windows of opportunities for forest-owning organizations: They establish strategic relationships to the Ministry of Environment, which acts as a key partner in solving land conflicts by providing knowledge, capacity building, and financial resources, whereas the sovereignty and self-governance of the indigenous organizations is recognized. Due to the program, the organizations possess the financial resources required to access the legal advice and technical support necessary for conflict resolution. Hence, the forest protection program facilitates cross-scale networks of joint problem solving as well as access to a variety of resources and, thereby, contributes to improve land tenure security, which forms a key element for sustaining common-pool resources and related livelihoods.

impact story picture
Photo credit: Cristian Revelo.


But for the majority of indigenous groups in the Amazon region, land ownership is informal and not officially granted. As a consequence, the program is at risk of increasing social inequality by excluding the most marginalized groups from benefits, who cannot even assert formal rights regarding access to and control over productive resources. On the other hand, the program may promote land tenure security in the long term. It is one of the government’s flagship projects to reduce the national deforestation rate. But conservation contracts require clear ownership structures. Therefore, the granting of legal land titles has recently been pushed forward by national authorities.
Furthermore, the case study shows that the focus of the program is clearly on the conservation component, since the payment scheme is oriented towards hectares and not towards beneficiaries. This results in very different realities of participation: In 2014, annually per capita benefits of two participating organizations varied between US$ 16 and US$ 880 according to the amount of hectares under contract and the number of members. Although collective landowners invest in community projects instead of distributing the received payments in equal shares among members, the significant difference between per capita benefits shows that the program objective to reduce poverty and its contribution to the establishment of additional sources of income must be examined on a case-by-case basis. However, in many cases, the amount of payments does not provide an adequate compensation for not using timber resources. As a result, landowners decide to put forests under contract, which they do not use and rely on and that are, thus, not at high risk of deforestation or forest degradation. To conclude, it can be said that this dynamic demonstrates once more that environmental policies must conceptualize the social and ecological dimension of forest-dependent livelihoods in the context of one another and address them equally in order to meet their objectives and the realities of forest-dependent people.
Literature Cited
Berkes, F. (2008): Navigating Social-ecological Systems. Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2012): State of the World’s Forests 2012. Rome.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2011): State of the World’s Forests 2011. Rome.
Ministerio del Ambiente Ecuador (MAE) (2011): Estimación de la Tasa de Deforestación del Ecuador Continental. Quito.
Walker, B. H./Salt, D. (2006): Resilience Thinking. Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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