QUITO – Blaming deforestation on the inhabitants of woodland areas has become as common as linking that scourge to poverty, but in its effort to curtail the felling of trees and its consequences Ecuador views human beings as part of the solution rather than the problem.
Max Lascano, director of the Ecuadorian government’s Socio Bosque (Forest Partners) project, expressed that belief in an interview with Efe about the initiative, which since 2008 has ensured the preservation of more than 500,000 hectares (1.23 million acres) of woodland for the next 20 years.
Aware that punitive measures are not always effective, Ecuador decided on the “revolutionary” idea of making landowners partners in the government’s effort to stop deforestation, Lascano said.
The government has signed a total of 631 agreements with some 60,000 people, including both private landowners and members of indigenous communities, providing an annual economic incentive of up to $30 per hectare of woodland to those who voluntarily decide to protect the native forest they own.
To identify the most vulnerable areas, authorities analyzed both the threat level to forests and the incidence of poverty.
Among the main threats detected were changes in soil use, monoculture activities, oil palm cultivation, illegal logging and the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
The smallest of the partners to join the initiative did so as a largely symbolic gesture, while the largest thus far – the Zaparo indigenous community – agreed to conserve 89,000 hectares for an annual monetary payment of $70,000, which is being invested in development programs.
“People aren’t the problem; they’re the solution. What we’re doing is enlisting them so they help us to conserve (the forest),” Lascano said, adding that the government estimates it will have invested some $8 million in the Socio Bosque program between 2008 and the end of this year.
The initiative also promotes investment in projects to alleviate poverty and makes landowners active defenders of their natural assets and co-participants in the country’s development.
Ecuador is one of the world’s 17 “mega-diverse” countries, holding between 5 percent and 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, according to the Environment Ministry, and it currently has 10 million hectares of forest cover, including different types of woodlands and ecosystems found at a wide range of altitudes.
Although Lascano believes the current rate of deforestation of 198,000 hectares annually is less than before, he still considers it a major cause for concern.
“Ecuador is being left without forest. If we continue like this, some estimates indicate that in 2050 Ecuador won’t have any forest,” he said, adding that authorities must act “as quickly as possible.”
Among the goals of the Socio Bosque program are to preserve 4 million hectares of native forest and achieve significant reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions caused by deforestation.
The campaign is spread by word of mouth and contact with non-governmental organizations, local administrations and peasant federations, Lascano said.
In addition to domestic funding sources, Socio Bosque also seeks financing abroad since the program benefits “not only Ecuador but the entire (global) community,” Lascano said, noting that Germany has donated 10 million euros ($13.6 million) to the initiative.
“If everything turns out as it has thus far, as we expect, we’re going to reduce the rate of deforestation in Ecuador to levels never before imagined, and that will be Ecuador’s contribution to the world. We need support because it’s going to be difficult alone, since we’re battling powerful economic interests,” he said.
According to Lascano, an economist with a master’s degree in environmental management and planning, Socio Bosque is a “first cousin” of the Yasuni-ITT environmental initiative, which will enable the Andean nation to receive compensation from foreign countries and other donors in exchange for leaving an important oil deposit in the Amazon region underground indefinitely. EFE