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An almost invisible trail snakes through thick buzzing forest leading to a chakra, an ancestral food garden in the Kichwa Cuya community located in Ecuador’s largest province, Pastaza. The Kichwa, like other Indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon, use the cleared space in the forest to cultivate yuca, plantain, peanuts, beans and other Amazonian crops and medicinal plants. Closer to their homes are polycultures of achiote and chilis, ready for the preparation of the local staple stew, uchumanga.
Chakras are an agroforestry method with a limited impact on surrounding ecosystems and have formed the backbone of food systems for Indigenous nations in the Amazon for millennia.
“[When] speaking of ecology and conservation, we also have to guarantee food security,” says Efren Nango, education officer of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon (CONFENIAE). About 86% of Pastaza is covered in tropical forest, a living garden for seven of the country’s eleven Amazonian Indigenous nations.
“Without cutting down many trees we can have a variety of crops,” Nango says.
Now, chakras are being recognized and supported as an integral part of Pastaza province’s sustainable development policy. A plan that officially launched last year is part of a shift over the past decade in how the provincial government is approaching conservation and Indigenous ancestral practices.
For the first time in Ecuador, Pastaza’s provincial government is working with Indigenous communities to create the province’s development and territorial management plan, known as the POT, which will include all seven Indigenous nations’ Planes de Vida — “plans of life,” the community development plans based on Indigenous knowledge and culture.
“The Ecuadoran state always came with an extractivist vision,” Nango says. “If you wanted to stimulate the economy and generate employment, they would say you always had to extract oil or have mines because that’s where the money is.”
Although Pastaza has oil reserves, says David Yedra, director of Pastaza province’s environmental management department, the government took the decision in March 2011 to begin pursuing a conservation-focused development path.
In the neighboring Amazonian provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, oil production and pollution have impacted surrounding ecosystems and Indigenous communities. One of the biggest and most damning cases, known as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” resulted in Chevron being ordered to pay out $9.5 billion in environmental damages to 30,000 plaintiffs. The company refused to pay and instead launched a strategic lawsuit, known as a SLAPP, against human rights lawyer Steven Donziger who helped with the litigation against the oil giant in the U.S. Today, Donziger has been under house arrest for more than 970 days.
Most of Ecuador’s crude oil deposits are in the country’s Amazon. At the national level, they’re seen as a major source of revenue for economic development and foreign debt repayment. Yet, 70% of Ecuador’s Amazon is designated as Indigenous territory. According to Nango, all leaders of the country’s 11 Indigenous nations, represented by CONFENIAE, stand against extractive activities in their territories.
In a historic court ruling in February, this position received judicial weight when judges declared that Indigenous communities should have more autonomy over their territory and a final say in extractive projects affecting their lands.
According to Felipe Serrano, the Ecuador country director at Nature and Culture International (NCI), the visions and aspirations of Indigenous peoples have historically not been fully included in the planning and management of local governments.
“There has been a divorce between regional governments, local governments and [Indigenous] nationalities,” Serrano tells Mongabay.
A new kind of territorial planning
In May 2021, the Pastaza provincial government and Indigenous nations drew up a $52 million plan as part of a REDD+ program to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Set to run for five years, the plan will use ancestral agroecological practices as the basis for stimulating the bioeconomy in Indigenous territories, as well as forest and water source conservation and restoration.
To date, the Pastaza government has received $1.35 million from the Governors’ Climate and Forests (GCF) Task Force, which will be directed in two parts.
The first strategy will design and implement chakras to bolster food security and sovereignty for 128 families. This year, the strategy will be piloted in five communities and will be expanded to more communities in 2023.
Currently market research and a full value-chain analysis is being performed to identify “star products,” such as vanilla and achiote. These are commercially valuable in each community’s chakras. Potential final buyers will be identified based on the product and its processing needs.
The second strategy entails incentives and agreements to restore and conserve more than 1,600 hectares (nearly 4,000 acres) of land and water sources used for human consumption. According to Jaime Toro Guajala, the NCI coordinator for Pastaza province, this is similar to the model employed in central Ecuador, which restored 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of land and put an additional 337,000 hectares (833,000 acres) under conservation.
Participants will not be paid in cash, but the government plans to support the implementation of the project according to the number of hectares they put under conservation. Further details on how this will incentivize communities have not been shared with Mongabay.
Fernando Briones, senior program officer at the GCF Task Force, told Mongabay that the biggest challenge was having continuity in public policies after changes in local government administrations. Pastaza’s prefect, Jaime Guevara, who is serving his third term in office, says implementing both these provincial plans would bring the province’s 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of tropical forest under conservation. In March, the provinces of Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago, also in the Ecuadoran Amazon, were also accepted into the GCF Task Force, the latter with observer status.
Guevara says this would create a combined 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of forest for conservation. Ideally, he says, Ecuador’s other three Amazonian departments can follow suit.
“But it shouldn’t stop there. [It] has to spread to Colombia, to Peru, to our neighboring countries,” Guevara says. “In essence, for us, the issue of conservation is an opportunity in which the countries that have done damage should contribute to those of us who are conserving the heritage for present and future generations.”
The politics of working together
Carmen Josse, executive director of EcoCiencia, a scientific research institute operating in Ecuador and supporting CONFENIAE projects, says that while the amount of funding is still too small to drive massive change, it can at least create a dialogue and allow for the creation of a different vision of development.
Part of this dialogue includes a new roundtable between state authorities and conservation NGOs working in the province and with Indigenous organizations, such as NCI and WWF.
Cristina García, WWF’s Ecuador climate change leader, told Mongabay that some of CONFENIAE’s biggest criticisms of REDD+ projects are their top-down approach and focus on promoting a selection of global staple commodities. These commodities include coffee and cacao rather than local small-scale foods preferred by communities, such as achiote and vanilla, which are integral to many chakras.
Another issue and source of criticism within many Indigenous circles and organizations is that they do not receive or manage a share of conservation-based financial resources. The $1.35 million in funds from the GCF Task force will be managed solely by the provincial government.
A similar situation is seen in Ecuador’s national REDD+ program, Forests for Living Well, which includes Indigenous development plans and beliefs. After reducing deforestation by 48.6% between 2008 and 2014, the state program received $18.5 million from the Green Climate Fund and allocated $2.5 million to CONFENIAE agroforestry and restoration plans in Ecuador’s six Amazonian provinces. That program begins in April and will run for three years.
However, CONFENIAE is not yet managing these funds. Karina Barrera, climate change undersecretary in Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, told Mongabay that the confederation may be managing its own funds within four years. Until then, the funds will be administered by WWF under the coordination of CONFENIAE.
“What we are looking for is … to integrate the vision and the needs of the people who live in the forests,” Barrera says.
According to Nango from CONFENIAE, initiatives to consider the Indigenous nations who have defended the environment for millennia at least presents a good start. Both CONFENIAE and the Pastaza government say they hope the successes of the pilot projects will bring more funding to meet conservation and development targets.
“If we manage to create a different, sustainable province … it would be an example for the other provinces,” Nango says. “Not only in the Amazon region, but also the country, and Latin America.”
However, this new green development path is still battling against the status quo.
In July and August last year, the government of Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso passed two decrees to boost investments in oil and mining. Nango says CONFENIAE remains vigilant due to past experiences of the Ecuadoran state offering inclusive development plans that come hand in hand with oil or mining concessions as part of agreements.
“We extend our hand, but in the other hand, there is always a spear,” Nango says. “It means that we are open to engaging but at the same time being careful not to fall into a scheme of the government.”