Adaptive governance of forest-dependent livelihoods in Ecuador

This case story describes the focus of the research project People and Forests: Adaptive Governance in Social-ecological Systems in Ecuador, that aimed to analyze 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.

Community village in protected area, Ecuador. Photo and copyright: Claudia Konrad.

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 (Ministerio del Ambiente Ecuador 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 twenty 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 7 per cent of the conservation contracts that were signed nationwide between October 2008 and January 2013 include collective land tenure. However, this small number covers 88 per cent of the total area under contract. As a consequence, collective landowners are an important target group of the program.

Villagers in forest village in Ecuador. Photo and copyright: Cristian Revelo.

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 and 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

  1. the interplay between the program design and local realities regarding land tenure regimes,
  2. the structures of cooperation networks and the facilitation or constraint of the flow of resources across scales, and
  3. the extent to which the program contributes to the robustness of forest-dependent livelihoods by providing innovative and additional sources of income.

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.

Boat transport between villages in Ecuador. Photo and copyright: Cristian Revelo.

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 USD 16 and USD 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.

You can download the bibliography of this case study in pdf via this link.

Authored by: Claudia Konrad, freelance trainer for Global Education & Empowerment, University Lecturer Graduate School Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.