The highlands tucked between El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were once heavily degraded.
Tri-national cooperation, emphasizing conservation and land restoration, transformed this marginalized region into a platform for multi-stakeholder engagement in climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Degraded and marginalized. These words once adequately described the 7,500 km2 area intersecting the borders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that is now called the Trifinio territory. An expanse of sparsely populated hillsides divided by administrative boundaries, but unified in its common socio-ecological contexts. With shallow soils unsuitable for farming and scarce vegetation in the majority of the region, prior to the 1990s El Salvador, Guatemala nor Honduras invested robust financial resources to develop Trifinio lands within their respective boundaries. Despite the lack of arable land, its inhabitants carve out a living in the hillsides through subsistence farming.
Poverty here was, and continues to be, significantly higher than each of the individual countries. In 2000, more than half of the population was estimated to live in extreme poverty. A more recent study revealed a Human Development Index of 0.611, indicating that per capita income, adult education and life expectancy, on average, remain lower in Trifinio than in that of its hosting nations.
Motivations for sustainable development
Like many marginalized areas subject to land degradation, Trifinio retains its high ecological value. Three major Central American rivers conglomerate here, including the largest river in Central America, the Lempa. This river originates in Trifinio at the intersection of Honduras and Guatemala, but flows through bustling economic centers of El Salvador in its route to the Pacific coast. Additionally, the Montecristo Cloud Forest in the higher peaks of the highland provides habitat for a multitude of endangered and endemic species. Threats to the integrity of these key ecosystems carry dire implications for communities and cities living downstream, and thus it became a national priority of each country to considerably invest in Trifinio.
Upscaling conservation at the highest ranks of leadership
The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were not unwise to the dire need to address the many interrelated challenges facing Trifinio. After decades of violent conflict, peace negotiations in the late 80’s and early 90’s gave way to a tri-national treaty that mobilized and allocated resources to develop Trifinio as a territory emphasizing sustainable watershed management.
The tri-national agreement, titled the Trifinio Plan, laid the institutional framework for future collaborative management efforts. Since changes to Trifinio’s ecosystems impacted multiple stakeholders at local, national and international levels, the endeavor was an exercise in collaborative planning toward a shared vision for improved management. Coming out of this effort was the establishment of formal mechanisms for: mobilizing and directing funds to sustainable land use activities, and linking tri-national objectives with locally derived management plans.
These institutional objectives made some impressive strides in catalyzing the reforestation of converted lands, the introduction of infrastructure for water quality control, flood control and irrigation, and for linking actors at various levels of governance. However, because the Plan was implemented from the top-down, action was hindered by several challenges inherent to its centralized design. Among these were: burdensome bureaucratic processes; infrastructure and resources not adequately mobilized for the involvement of municipalities; and the lack of inclusion of local land owners and community members.
Moving from top-down and bottom-up to the sweet spot in the middle
The residents of Trifinio are particularly vulnerable to environmental risks. Long-standing trends in riverbank erosion and land conversion weaken the resilience of forested and aquatic ecosystems to mitigate the effects of climate change. Flooding, forest fires and landslides are managed to a certain degree, but still directly threaten the livelihoods of Trifinio’s communities. Furthermore, the integrity of the Lempa River is at risk, with studies predicting a 33-53% reduction in its hydropower generation capacity.
The missing component in the original Trifinio Development Plan was the ability to directly engage with the very people working and shaping the land. This shortcoming was addressed in 2014 with the assistance of the MesoAmerican Agroenvironmental Program (MAP) of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), referred to as CATIE-MAP. With over 25 years of experience in landscape-based approach to managing agricultural lands, agroforestry systems and watersheds, CATIE-MAP recommended the Trifinio Plan Secretariat, and national and local governments consider establishing Trifinio as a Climate-Smart Territory.
Like Integrated Landscape Management, the Climate-Smart Territory approach operates under the assumption that people depend on key natural resources and are therefore affected by the viability of ecosystems to provide these ecoservices. The management of these underpinning resources implies the involvement, and buy-in, of the local actors operating within a geographic area defined by these ecosystems.
The Climate-Smart Territory approach fosters the creation of a group of people with a common experience in their relationship to a landscape to encourage formal discussions on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts. Stakeholders define the boundaries of the territory according to their personal interactions with natural resources, and thus become stewards of their environment. This sense of place and responsibility encourages buy-in, and establishes their authority to contribute knowledge and recommendations for land use planning and policy development.
The advantage for participatory, inclusive planning processes in Trifinio is that the territory enjoys the financial and political support of actors at increasing levels of governance (municipal, national, tri-national and international). Organizing the region into a Climate-Smart Territory offers an opportunity for the government to capture the voice of the people who are most impacted by decisions made at higher levels of governance. The input of local people, who have traditional knowledge and an intimate knowledge of climate change impacts on the landscape, offers insights on how best to target and structure public and private investments, how to build capacity for conscientiously planning sustainable land use practices and how to support innovation surfacing on-the-ground.
Initial successes show promise for true integrated planning for Sustainable Development
In 2014, CATIE-MAP worked closely with the Trifinio Plan Secretariat and many key stakeholders in the formation of the 2014-2018 Trifinio Strategic Plan. The plan was passed in December 2014 and incorporated the CST approach.
Currently, CATIE-MAP and the same group of stakeholders work together to help advance the plan’s four priority areas:
- Regional integration and cross-border cooperation;
- Social development with a gender approach;
- Economic sustainability;
- Environment and climate change.
It continues to strengthen the capacity of local actors to understand the relationship between climate change, ecosystem services and human welfare and it fosters climate-smart agriculture such as sustainable agroforestry systems and individual and communal home gardens, which will not only improve productivity and food security but also bring mitigation and adaptation benefits such as provision of ecosystem services. To open market opportunities, CATIE-MAP works to strengthen producer organizations and associated value chains. It also develops research in partnership with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC) and Bioversity, including the evaluation of agricultural climate- smart practices and, with small landholders, participatory selection of improved varieties.A key challenge ahead is to develop participatory mechanisms to ensure implementation of the Trifinio Plan Strategy in a collaborative manner. CATIE-MAP is working on this effort by organizing Farmer Field Schools where farming families organize planning productive units. This offers a tool for local people to improve the management of their assets, such as natural, human, and social capital to increase their climatic resilience. The schools also uncover challenges farmers are facing that require the involvement of larger organizing bodies, such as municipal or national government. These revelations are linked to government through territorial stakeholder platforms.
Already in the first years, CATIE-MAP’s work in Trifinio has brought many improvements to the daily lives of thousands of families. Practical and easy-to-use innovations in the management of water, solid waste, soil and crop production empowers local people to contribute to larger conservation goals while accessing a more reliable, and nutritious, source of food. Furthermore, it gives a historically marginalized population critical leverage in the design of policies that defines their living conditions. Sustainable Development is an ongoing process in Trifinio that holds many lessons for the uptake of the 17 goals in other parts of the world.
Unless otherwise specified, the photos in this post were provided by CATIE-MAP.