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Safeguarding Youth-Driven Conservation through Community Empowerment

Developing alternative food markets with indigenous and local communities relieves pressures on youth-driven conservation in the Chocó.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Reserva: The Youth Land Trust

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Youth Organisation (between 18 - 30 years old)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Multi-stakeholder team partner organization: Fundación EcoMinga - Small NGO, Ecuador In an advising capacity: Cornell University - Other CIAT - Researcher Institution

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Just beginning now

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Washington, DC

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Carchi Province, Ecuador, and key food market cities including Ipiales (Colombia), Santo Domingo, and Ibarra

What country is your selected Place located in?

Ecuador, Colombia

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Reserva: The Youth Land Trust is a globally active organization dedicated to empowering youth through land conservation, education, and storytelling. In 2019, we launched with an initiative to create the world’s first entirely youth-funded nature reserve, led by an international Youth Council and in partnership with Rainforest Trust and Fundación EcoMinga.

We chose this Place because of its relationship to our reserve site, which we selected on advisement from our partner Rainforest Trust as a site of immense ecological value. This area in the Ecuadorian Chocó foothill and cloud forest, on the Western slope of the Andes mountains, is home to critically endangered spider monkeys, toads, eagles, orchids, and countless rare and endemic animal and plant species threatened by widespread deforestation in the region.

Several of Reserva’s Youth Council members are deeply engaged in the wellbeing and scientific study of the area, including the site we are working to protect. These forests are a source of scientific breakthrough for Marco, 27, who has discovered several new species of orchid on his long research walks; they are a source of purpose and inspiration for Daniel, 20, who grew up in Gualchancito without water or electricity, and has become one of the best birders in the province, now working as a park guard on our site; and it is a source of great concern for all of us who have seen firsthand the charred patches of agricultural deforestation dotting the region, and understand how the region’s food system could transform the landscape we have sworn to help protect.

We understand that conservation doesn’t stop at the purchase of a plot. “Acres saved” can not be truly saved unless the pressures that first put those acres under threat are fully understood and mitigated. The greatest threat to our Place is an insufficient food system that, if reenvisioned, could not only halt deforestation, but contribute to the region’s long term ecological and human resilience.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Bordering Colombia, the Carchi and Imbabura provinces sit in the Andean Chocó, a region known for its incredible biodiversity and recent scientific boom of species discoveries. The region is an important corridor for iconic species including Jaguar, Puma, and Spectacled Bear, as well as rare species like the endangered Black-and-Chestnut Eagle and the critically endangered Brown-headed Spider Monkey. 

However, pressures from development have left the Chocó’s ecological treasures behind; just 2% of the lowland tropical rainforest in Ecuador remains intact, and while the foothills and cloud forest estimates are higher—likely between 10% and 30%—deforestation is steady and increasing throughout all elevations. While the region pursues economic development, the available value chains ultimately require large-scale deforestation: gold mining, logging, cattle ranching and monoculture, including palm oil and naranjilla. Local Ecuadorian communities are often involved as low skill workers in these businesses run by international corporations or work as independent, ranchers and smallholder farmers.

The population comprises mostly Spanish-speaking non-indigenous people, and the semi-nomadic Awá indigenous tribe, which inhabits areas in southern Colombia and northern Ecuador. There is an Awá reserve in Carchi, northwest of Reserva’s site. Traditionally hunter gatherers, the Awá also find seasonal employment as low skill workers, cultivate some crops, including maize, plantains, and sugarcane, and keep pigs and chickens. There are refugees in Imbabura (~4,200 in 2010) and Carchi (~5,000 + in 2010) due to armed conflict in Colombia (UNHCR, 2010).

According to census data, in Carchi province, farmers and skilled workers are the second largest workforce category for men, 22%, following low skill occupation (ie. domestic workers, miners, agricultural laborers), 28%. 50% of women primarily work in low skill occupations, 25%, or as service workers and vendors, 25%. 10% of women work in agriculture. In Imbabura, agriculture falls to third place in men at (13%), the top occupation being higher skill jobs as officials, operators and artisans (23%). In women, only 7% work in agriculture and the top occupations are similar to Carchi (INEC, 2010).

Traditional farming in the region was small-scale, cultivating highly nutritious Andean pulses, grains—particularly quinoa and lupin, roots and tubers such as potato. Today, while yucca and plantain are grown for local consumption, farmers are shifting land use for income generation, regularly clearing forests to grow naranjilla, a citrus fruit which tastes like a blend of lime and rhubarb. Naranjilla is sold informally in several city markets including Tulcán, Ibarra, and Ipiales (in Colombia). Locals may also raise cattle to sell in markets in Santo Domingo.

The shift towards commercial farming and income generating jobs has also resulted in a shift in diets from nutritious traditional Andean staples to processed foods obtained from city markets.


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Conservation efforts must recognize that sustainable avenues for promoting community wellbeing are crucial to reducing pressures on the Chocó forest. International mining companies, logging companies and palm oil businesses are able to provide low-skill jobs and buy lands, providing income to local community members at higher rates than farming or ranching.  

Smallholder farmers regularly clear forests, planting naranjilla around the fallen, nutrient-rich, decomposing vegetation. Most farmers seem to rent land although further information on land ownership is needed. Farmers can harvest about 100-150 fruits every 10-12 months—only for about 3-4 years. In urban markets, about 100 fruits sell for 12 to 25 USD. While this is a relatively low-income generating crop, even with heavy pesticide use, this crop is feasible to grow. Beyond pesticides, there is limited initial investment required. With little capital investment to put forth, access to higher priced crops and the technology to produce crops and create value-added products is limited. Naranjilla continues to be the most viable crop, despite its human and ecosystem health risks. Only two people are needed to manage five hectares of naranjilla. No further value addition is required post-production.  

The shift toward commercial farming in the region has negative long term implications for biological conservation and community health. As smallholder farmers increasingly allocate land use for income generation, a larger portion of their diets are purchased in markets located outside of their communities. These foods are often processed with higher caloric values and have longer shelf-lives, but are less nutritious. While these food markets are more accessible today than even 14 years ago, owing to roads constructed for resource exploitation, access can still be volatile. In 2019, while our team was supporting scientific research in the region, civil unrest resulted in the loss of access to food markets. Local communities only had access to the yucca and plantains that they continue to grow for self-consumption, highlighting the region’s inadequate food system.

Whereas monocropping is predominant in farming practices today, traditional crops, particularly among indigenous communities, were extremely biodiverse. Not only did this serve to absorb any shocks in the loss of select crops due to disease, it also allowed for diet diversity. The lack of incorporating traditional farming practices has only exacerbated issues of diet and environment.

In 2050, current deforestation trends will undoubtedly expand throughout both the lowland tropical rainforest and the higher elevation foothill and cloud forests. While policies to limit environmental degradation exist such as Ecuador’s “Protected Area” and “Socio Bosque” (regions identified for incentivized conservation efforts), these policies may be insufficient to protect what remains.

Political turmoil in Southern Colombia, as well as economic and political issues in Ecuador will increasingly impact our rural communities as they integrate into urban markets. With the influx of refugees from Colombia, the Chocó forest has increased human pressures.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our team leverages often-overlooked passion and dedication of the global youth to bring global awareness to the importance of conserving the Chocó’s forests and empowering its people. Reducing pressures on the land is crucial to wholistic conservation, as pressures cannot be alleviated without addressing local communities’ socio-economic dependence on land development.

Our vision is to develop a robust alternative food value chain to provide equitable access to sustainable livelihoods, livable incomes, and consistent diverse diets and nutrition. In order to compete with existing economic opportunities, our vision needs to accomplish three primary goals: Develop sustainable production of a high market-price crop sufficient to provide livable incomes; educate communities on nutritional diet; and increase local community commitment to protecting the region’s biodiversity. While the latter work is currently being carried out by our team at the local and global scale, the first two goals require multiple stakeholder support.

Our team is developing a vanilla value-chain in Carchi province, including value-addition infrastructure, promoting commercialization of vanilla in responsible markets. Currently, production, curing and commercialization of vanilla in Ecuador is limited. It is estimated that 4 tons are produced per year. Yet vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world due to the extensive cultivation process. Only half of the international market demand for vanilla is met.

Vanilla has the potential to provide income and reduce land pressures. More workers can be employed in a smaller area for the amount of labor required for manual pollination and given the higher price margin. Value-added products can be made employing people beyond the initial test sites in rural and urban settings. With behavioral campaigning, farmers will be encouraged to expend their increased incomes on more nutritional and diverse diets.

Starting a new food production chain requires significant collaboration across local communities, the government and private sector. Government policies such as Socio Bosque and private sector support will be needed to support initial capital (technology) investment, train local community members, and initiate producer collectives. Communities will also need support during the first 3 years before the first harvest. In order to assure communities, private sectors will ideally establish out-grower schemes, lowering the risk involved in trying out a pilot program.

This 2050 vision for vanilla will encourage governments and businesses to invest in communities in a way that reduces pressures on the Chocó. The future is not far off. While many communities are skeptical of collaboration with international food corporations, collectives like the Farmer Income Lab have increased corporate appreciation for the smallholder farmer. Governments are scaling efforts to conserve their ecosystems, encouraged by a global youth community.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

As restoration efforts in lowland tropical rainforest ecosystems take root, the introduction of a livelihood alternative has prevented runaway agricultural deforestation. Local communities of the Awá (who are often seasonal employees) and the nonindigenous, including Colombian refugees in Carchi and Imbabura, have all benefited from vanilla production and value-addition. The interdependence of the three communities in the production of vanilla, and the collectives formed as a result, have deepened social ties.

The development of a new network of public and private stakeholders has ensured the success of vanilla in regional and international markets. With the incentives offered by the government, capital, training and risk-absorption investments by the major food corporations, communities show increased skill development and improved livelihoods. The vanilla is marketed for its flavor and as an envoy for sustainable development.

With a new stable income, Imbabura and Carchi are more involved in protecting local biodiversity. With household training ecosystem health and nutrition in addition to their worker technical training, locals are working with our team and other conservation organizations to become stewards of their land. They are able to resist the push for destructive logging and mining. The increasing interest in nutrition has led to changes in diets. While vanilla does not provide local nutrition, empowered consumers are seeking more nutritional foods. Some Awá individuals from the vanilla collectives now offer sessions on their traditional farming practices, looking into sustainable ways to reintroduce agrobiodiverse cultivation.

The youth are leading conservation efforts. With access to better education as a result of higher community investments, they have become experts in marketing, agriculture and conservation efforts. Through our network, local youth are global ambassadors for creating community-integrated approaches to conservation.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Reserva: the Youth Land Trust is a globally active organization based out of Washington, D.C. Its mission is to create youth-funded nature reserves to protect biodiversity, fight climate change, and elevate the status of young people as environmental change-makers. Through its flagship project, Reserva aims to create the world’s first entirely youth-funded nature reserve—a breathtaking 1219- acre site in the Chocó rainforest of Ecuador, identified and reviewed by Reserva’s project partners, Rainforest Trust and Fundación Ecominga.

As Reserva focuses on building a global youth collective raising awareness of the importance of protecting biodiversity and acting to prevent further climate destruction through its youth empowerment, educational, and storytelling campaigns, we design a holistic conservation strategy around the social, economic, cultural and nutritional context of the targeted region.

The world’s most disadvantaged communities are most vulnerable to climate change. For example, climate change is expected to negatively impact crop yields, especially in the hungriest regions of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa (IFPRI). While indigenous peoples have contributed the least to world greenhouse gas emissions, they suffer some of the worst impacts. Indigenous people worldwide have suffered drought conditions and desertification, disrupting subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering livelihoods; increases in vector-borne and water-borne diseases associated with rising temperatures; more frequent and greater storms that erode coastal lands; and much more.

Many of these communities are facing a double burden. In addition to the effects of climate change, indigenous communities across the globe are also being threatened by poorly-assessed mitigation strategies. Many conservation strategies promoted by public governments and companies have forced indigenous communities out of their traditional lands or have barred them from following their traditional forest-dependent livelihoods, without offering viable alternatives.

As Reserva seeks to create a global impact against climate change, we must acknowledge our responsibilities not only to our Earth, but to all the communities that inhabit it. We also recognize that effective and sustainable protection of reserves requires the commitment of local communities toward environmental stewardship.

Without the active participation of the communities in designing a future for the reserves, Reserva will be unable to sustainably protect biodiversity of the region and ensure this mission is not at odds with the people that have traditionally inhabited the land. Therefore, the purpose of this vision is to ensure that Reserva’s project serves as testament to the belief that with intentionality, protecting the environment can complement, and what’s more, can lead to the improvement of livelihoods and the wellbeing of its communities.

In speaking with our regional stakeholders, we identified that current livelihoods in the region pose significant threats to our reserve locations and the surrounding areas. Logging, mining, agricultural and oil development that has resulted in the loss of 98% of the tropical Chocó rainforest in Ecuador is poised to cause similar devastation in the foothill and cloud forests of Ecuador. Independent livelihoods of ranching and smallholder commercial farming of naranjilla also contribute to deforestation. The rates of deforestation are also likely to increase given the influx of refugees from Colombia, which may also result in conflict between communities and refugees. This will result in a tremendous loss in biodiversity.

We believe that a key solution is to develop an alternative livelihood that can compete with the income generated through that of jobs found in logging, mining, oil, as well as current ranching and farming practices. Our vision is to develop a vanilla production and value-addition chain that intentionally identifies stakeholders across the value chain that committed to the communities and the region. By leveraging existing political infrastructure for conservation, the rapport of local NGOs such as EcoMinga, the fiscal and infrastructural commitment of international food and agriculture industries and organizations that have an expressed interest in promoting the wellbeing of smallholder farmer across the globe (such as those of the Farmer Income Lab), we can cross the steep initial investment curve for establishing a vanilla production chain.

Parallel to offering technical training in vanilla production, value addition and marketing, our vision includes household nutrition and conservation education that we hope will promote families to purchase more nutritional foods and to become environmental stewards. We hope the youth of these communities will recognize our dedication not only to protecting their homes as biodiversity hotspots but also our commitment to ensuring that they have equitable access to goods and services in the region and that their communities flourish. We want the next generation of the communities of our target conservation areas view conservation not as an enemy to their wellbeing but as a means of empowerment. We will continue to work closely with our local stakeholders and the youth of the region to tinker out our vision, so that it becomes truly *our* vision.

We recognize that our vision is bold in the intentions that it holds. Growing vanilla is ambitious for communities with limited income for initial investment in the mesh infrastructure required in vanilla production and the infrastructure required for value addition. Without the collective commitment of the Ecuadorian government and perhaps the Colombian government, and the investment of global agriculture and food production industries to provide initial funding, develop technical training programs, and credit/ loan schemes, to absorb potential risks through outgrower schemes, building livelihoods based on vanilla could be difficult. Furthermore, many locals are wary of corporations, having listened to accounts of the exploitative nature of mid-sized corporations in the lowlands. Without breaking down potential community mistrust of corporations through thoughtful community meetings mediated by stakeholders with strong local rapport such as EcoMinga, the vanilla project can fail before it starts.

However, it is equally crucial for us to envision something as bold as to expect multisectoral and multi-level cooperation. Climate change is a global crisis. It requires a global response, rooted in the empowerment of local communities and local ecosystems.

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