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ECOANDES: once a research program in Colombia, now a conservation project in Peru and Ecuador

(23 September 2019)

Recently, I arrived at a moment in my personal career that seemed like completing a cycle. My first paid job as a biologist (because before becoming a biologist, I had jobs as farmhand, software-copier and waste-paper recycler) was to study the impact of burning and grazing on Colombian páramo ecosystems. This was part of a multi-year research program led by Dutch and Colombian research institutes, named ECOANDES. This program, initiated and supervised by eminent professors like Thomas van der Hammen and Antoine Cleef, was a milestone in the history of Andean ecology because it was the first of its kind to do a complete, multi-disciplinary assessment of entire mountain transects. Herewith, it contributed to a complete understanding of ecological processes at different scales in tropical landscapes. Its specific focus on high mountain ecosystems helped to draw academic and political attention to the páramo; even back in the 1980, when this ecosystem was still (literally and figuratively) covered in clouds.

Twenty-five years later, the Consortium for Sustainable Development in the Andean Ecoregion (Condesan) developed a project to study and conserve Andean ecosystems. This four-year project, financed by the GEF and UN Environment and executed in collaboration with the environmental authorities in Peru and Ecuador was also named ECOANDES. Coincidental or not, it seemed appropriate to call this project after the pioneer research program from the 1970’s and 80’s, because it aimed to take a next step in high mountain ecological research. The 21st Century ECOANDES focused at determining carbon stocks to show the role of ecosystems in climate change mitigation; it developed and applied large-scale restoration tools and it provided knowledge to improve agricultural land-use (among many other activities).

Probably not because I used to work for the original ECOANDES, but more likely because later in my career I have also been part of Condesan (during its Proyecto Páramo Andino), I was invited by UN Environment to evaluate the ECOANDES project. And I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the research, the quantity of interesting products and the impact the project had in the field. It certainly honored the name ‘ECOANDES’ because this project also turned out to be another milestone in the hisrory of Andean ecology by setting standard for ecosystem restoration, carbon monitoring and the creation of conservation and sustainable use areas.

A great but challenging initiative to mitigate climate change in forest landscapes

(13 June 2019)

Between the end of 2018 an well into 2019, I was contracted by DAI to lead the first program evaluation of the World Bank BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL). This is a global program aiming at providing results-based payments for countries in the global south that reduce Green House Gas emissions at the landscape level. This implies that activities that are supported include forest and ecosystem conservation to maintain carbon stocks as well as sustainable agriculture to enhance them. The ISFL includes a jurisdictional approach which means among others that emission reductions are calculated for an entire province or region within a country. The BioCarbon Fund plans to invest 380 million US$ over the next 15 years for this Initiative, which potentially is a highly impactful support for countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The funds for the Initiative are provided by Norway, Germany, UK and USA

We evaluated the first five years of the ISFL, which is now active in five countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mexico and Zambia). This start-up period was dedicated to designing institutional arrangements, establishing base-lines and reference scenarios and involving stakeholders at national and local level. I had the luck to visit Zambia and Colombia to get a first-hand view of the ISFL’s implementation. We found that the ISFL is really an innovative program; a kind of logical next step beyond REDD+ (which focuses on forest conservation only). Although the Initiative made considerable progress at all levels, the partners at global and national level  also found that this integrated approach for reducing GHG emissions and enhancing carbon stocks is a complex matter. There are still many challenges ranging from getting the science right and creating an enabling policy environment to ensuring the adequate and fair involvement of stakeholders ( local communities, women, jurisdictional governments, private sector, etc). It will be very interesting to see how this promising Initiative develops in the future. 

Landscape management for wildlife conservation

(22 February 2019)

During December and January, I collaborated with UNDP for the evaluation of the GEF project “landscapes and wildlife”, which is executed by the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The project was innovative because it is essentially the first GEF project in the continent that fully focuses on wildlife conservation. Moreover, this conservation is done through landscape management: instead of targeting any individual species or specific areas, the project works with an integrated landscape management approach, that includes protected and non-protected areas as well as agricultural zones. The project wants to collaborate with farmer communities and forest dwellers so that the entire territory will become a safe habitat for emblematic and vulnerable species such as the Andean condor, spectacled bear, jaguar and manatee.

In general, the project was very successful with many positive outcomes such as the establishment of three new conservation and sustainable use areas (ACUS) and the declaration of the largest Ramsar wetland in the country. Collaboration with local communities generated positive experiences through their projects to raise small animals as a protein source aiming at reducing their interaction with natural wildlife.

I was  most impressed with the paradigm-change around the management of human-wildlife conflicts. Close to protected areas and with increasing management effectiveness, the abundance of wildlife that interacts with agriculture is increasing. Particularly in the Andes, there are many cases of Andean bears that have feasted on maize fields or attached young cattle. The traditional way to manage these conflicts is to consider the wildlife as the problem and to take measures to capture, transfer or even eliminate the ‘problematic’ animal. The current project, however, applied a fully different approach that focused on the humans instead of wildlife. It tried to avoid human-wildlife interactions through better agricultural practice. These were quite simple measures such as drinking points so that cattle did not have to walk a long way to find water from the river (and then can be attacked by bear) or improved spatial planning of maize fields to complicate access for bears. With this, conflicts were practically reduced to zero. This has given me an important lesson: conservation can be very easy if we learn to co-exist with nature instead of seeing it as a problem.