By Torsten Krause, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies
Tropical deforestation and forest degradation has made its way into international news headlines and political agendas. The urgency and need to reduce forest loss is clearer than ever before, and many new initiatives are being proposed. Engaging with and tackling the economic drivers of deforestation and degradation by providing money to those who conserve forests has become a prominent approach with international acclaim.
In Ecuador, a country with one of the highest deforestation rates in South America, the government introduced the Socio Bosque Program in 2008, which offers financial incentives to landowners for conserving native ecosystems. The Program now covers more than 1.2 million hectares (~3 million acres) of privately or collectively owned lands throughout the country, most of which is located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, owned by indigenous communities and covered by tropical rainforests.
But, as many well-meant conservation ideas, this system leaves much to be desired. The main focus of forest conservation — which is nowadays often connected to climate change mitigation and the carbon storing functions of forests — is to preserve tree cover. Thus, the success of Socio Bosque is largely measured by area and to what extent the native vegetation in conservation areas is maintained. Animal species diversity and abundance are largely neglected.
This leads not only to an incomplete and (over the long term) inaccurate sense of conservation success, but also threatens forest ecosystems at large. In the Amazon area, many people rely largely on subsistence hunting and fishing for food. And although commercial hunting is illegal in Ecuador, a lack of control still allows for a thriving black market for bushmeat (carne de monte in Spanish). Therefore, it is no surprise that many forest areas, particularly those that are easily accessible or close to urban centers, are hunted empty of the most sought after game species like tapir, collared and the white-lipped peccary and large primates (wooly, spider and howler monkeys). This phenomenon — where a forest is seemingly healthy and well conserved but devoid of large animals — is called empty forest syndrome (a term coined in the 1990’s by Redford).
The gradual disappearance of tropical animal species due to overhunting and habitat loss represents a major risk, not only for biodiversity conservation, but for forest regeneration, tree abundance and tree diversity. Food security and nutrient availability may also be affected because many of the favored game animals (tapir, primates, large birds, etc.) act as seed dispersers necessary to maintaining tropical tree diversity.
During several weeks of fieldwork in indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, we asked community members if they observed changes in animal species abundance, whether they have changed their hunting behavior and if there are restrictions and internal rules with regards to what species can be hunted and where. In addition to the existing forest monitoring that communities carry out in the conservation areas, we investigated whether participatory monitoring of animal species could be a viable option to assess species diversity and abundance over the long run. To our surprise, many communities already had internal hunting restrictions, because people realized that their favored game animals were disappearing. These internal rules at the local level go well beyond what is demanded by the Socio Bosque Program.
The goal of our research was to find out to what extent animal species conservation is accounted for in the Socio Bosque Program, and if participatory forest monitoring that includes vegetation cover and animal species is a viable option to secure long term successes in forest conservation. Our findings support the idea that the inclusion of local people is necessary for successful conservation, not only because they are the rightful owners of the territories, but because they know the conservation areas best. However, more direct efforts and capacity-building are needed to enhance the possibility for local people’s direct and full participation in forest and species monitoring.
Without local people’s involvement in monitoring, the long term effectiveness of conservation is questionable. Although we do not lobby for prohibiting subsistence hunting, commercialization of hunting and over-hunting for subsistence needs to be urgently addressed.
Photos: Torsten Krause