On the Waterfront

Striking a Balance in Latin America and the Caribbean

This member of the Cofán indigenous community lives in one of Ecuador’s most senstive ecosystems in the Guamez Valley region.
This member of the Cofán indigenous community lives in one of Ecuador’s most senstive ecosystems in the Guamez Valley region.

The lush rainforests of the Amazon Basin; the high-altitude shores of lake Titicaca; the glacier-carved grasslands of the páramo: The unique and biodiverse geography of Latin America and the Caribbean provides a rich backdrop for the people and wildlife that claim this region as their home. Yet the challenge of improving the livelihoods and health of the human population while simultaneously working to protect, conserve, and restore endangered ecosystems and the water resources that support them is a daunting one. For USAID and its implementing partners in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), these goals are inextricably linked.

The LAC region includes five of the world’s 10 most biodiverse countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru – as well as the single most biologically diverse area in the world – the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains. It is also home to approximately 27 percent of the world’s mammals, 34 percent of its plants, 37 percent of its reptiles, 43 percent of its birds, and 47 percent of its amphibians. In fact, 40 percent of the plant life in the Caribbean is found nowhere else on earth. Therefore, approaching humanitarian concerns in the region with an eye for conservation is not only appropriate, it is necessary.

Threats to ecosystems and watersheds are severe and numerous, as deforestation, gold mining, land conversion for agriculture, infrastructure development, climate change, and other impacts pollute rivers and fragment habitats. Such activities not only pose a risk to nature, they threaten indigenous groups, urban dwellers, and industries – all of which depend upon the ecosystem services that intact and healthy wild lands and waters provide. A number of USAID projects in the LAC region have confronted these growing challenges head on, and by taking a holistic approach, have notched gains for conservation and quality of life alike.

Supporting Livelihoods at Lake Titicaca

The largest lake by volume in South America, Lake Titicaca is home to several native species of fish – important sources of protein for both the humans and the endemic birds that live around the lake. But on the lake’s Bolivian shores surrounding Cohana Bay, roughly 20,000 cattle also roam. While providing milk for small family farms, they produce 400 tons of manure daily, creating a significant source of water pollution in the lake.

To mitigate this impact and boost the economic stability of families living around the bay, USAID began the Manejo de la Contaminación en el Eje Hidrográfico El Alto-Lago Titicaca program, referred to as PROLAGO in the English translation, in 2009. PROLAGO has provided cost-sharing and technical support to farmers to build stables – more than 150 so far – where cows can stay at night. The benefits of the sheds are many: the cows stay warm and increase milk production, they stay away from the lake shores and inlet streams, and their manure is concentrated and can be easily collected.

The collected manure becomes fodder for vermicomposting, a process which uses worms to compost the waste into organic, material-rich humus. USAID has helped connect farmers to markets for this soil-enriching agent, including lowland coffee farms and municipal gardens in La Paz. Some families are also using manure to fuel biodigestors, another “recycling” system, in which microbes process manure into a high-quality fertilizer and produce methane gas for cooking as a byproduct. “A once worthless resource is now a coveted resource,” said Bruce Bayle, USAID/Washington environmental specialist.

PROLAGO is estimated to have prevented 1,000 tons of manure from entering Lake Titicaca each year, while also providing families with an additional, more dependable source of income. USAID is tracking the environmental impact of this reduction with 23 water monitoring stations that begin high up in the watershed – at 13,500 feet in the city of El Alto – and end within the lake itself.

Another aspect of the PROLAGO program has its focus on industry rather than agriculture, yet shares the goal of creating harmony by protecting water resources and simultaneously supporting the local economy. A major industry in El Alto is leather tanning, a toxic process, which uses chromium as a curing agent to make the leather supple. “The program correctly decided if we’re going to get some impact in El Alto, we don’t need to work with little guys, we need to work with biggest guys in each sector,” said Mr. Bayle. Thus, PROLAGO targeted the city’s largest tannery.

Building on an earlier USAID effort called the Cleaner Production Program, the PROLAGO team helped the tannery implement relatively simple changes. A substantial change was introducing an improved mix of tanning chemicals, which significantly lowers the amount of toxins such as chromium, that wind up in wastewater, typically dumped in a nearby stream. As an added financial benefit, tanneries also save money by using less of the expensive chemicals.

Conservation Across the Amazon

Taking an even broader approach to meeting the collective needs of the environment and LAC’s human population, one of USAID’s largest environmental programs in the region is the Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon (ICAA). With $37 million from USAID and $10 million from partnering organizations, ICAA launched in 2006 as a five-year program to foster sustainability in the region, while simultaneously improving local livelihoods. Centered on various communities in the Amazon Basin, the river and its related ecosystems serve as a touchstone for the program, even though most projects have terrestrial-focused goals.

With 20 organizational partners, ICAA developed five consortia, each dealing with different transboundary regions and issues. One consortium, led by the Rainforest Alliance, includes activities in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, and offers technical guidance to coffee farmers to utilize more sustainable techniques in processing their beans. On one farm, implementing the new strategies reduced water consumption from 10 liters per kilogram of coffee beans to just one liter per kilogram.

Meanwhile, other ICAA consortia give communities that would otherwise not have a voice in political debates the capacity to contribute and influence decisions affecting the natural resources they depend on. By teaching Spanish and offering communications and computer training to the Cofán indigenous group, for instance, a consortium organized by The Nature Conservancy allows the Cofán to engage on a national level in discussions involving land claims and infrastructure development. Similar efforts supported by a University of Florida-led consortium paid off in Peru, when members of another indigenous group noticed a decline in water quality and fish perishing in unusual patterns in the Tipishca and Abujao rivers. Using their community’s new avenues for communication, they were able to contact the regional government, which responded by enforcing regulations that governed non-renewable resource extraction in the nearby area. ICAA’s next phase, ICAA II, is currently in the planning stages and will offer new opportunities to take on environmental challenges in the Amazon region.

Community Support for a Watershed

Like ICAA, another USAID-supported effort has channeled the desire of local populations for sustainability into real conservation action. As rural people have migrated into Ecuador’s capital of Quito, the population has swelled – and so has the population’s thirst. The current monthly use of water in the city of two million is enough to fill 15,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Meanwhile, protected areas in the upland páramo – high-elevation grasslands that provide roughly 70 percent of Quito’s water – were in need of restoration and greater levels of oversight. According to Paola Zavala, mission environment officer with USAID in Quito, “There was a concern that demand for water was going to be higher and higher and that there was going to be a scarcity of water.”

To address that concern, USAID helped rally support to create FONAG, or the Quito Water Conservation Fund, using one percent of the city’s municipal water revenue. From 2000 to 2004, while the fund built capital, USAID helped subsidize conservation activities, such as training park guards, sharing information on sustainable land management with private landowners, and conducting habitat restoration work in the páramo’s protected areas. For the urbanites, farmers, and businesses of Quito, “It was a perfect link between conservation and water and getting the users involved to establish something that will last for a long period of time,” said Ms. Zavala.

When the fund was converted to dollars from the local currency in 2000, it totaled just $21,000. Today FONAG totals nearly $9 million and supports programs ranging from environmental education for students to monitoring water metrics and biodiversity.

Since finding success with FONAG, USAID has helped launch five more water funds in other areas of Ecuador, and the program has also provided guidance for water funds in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. “We have to make sure that these have sustainable financing and good structure so they can overcome political changes and have the technical expertise to keep going,” said Ms. Zavala.

Protecting a Treasured Coast

Another Ecuador-based effort, Sustainable Forests and Coasts, is a five-year program initiated in 2009, which has married the twin aims of supporting communities while conserving critical natural resources. In one element of the program, USAID has worked with Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment (MAE) and communities in the Gulf of Guayaquil to protect mangrove forests – a unique ecosystem type that serves as a natural protective barrier against flooding and other extreme weather events. Many communities in the gulf rely on income from crabbing, so any solution had to permit them to continue this harvest while also preserving the mangroves.

The MAE awarded communities the right to crab at sustainable levels in certain areas, but only if the people took action to protect the mangroves. To help communities save this important resource, USAID assisted in the development of a monitoring system. Using marine radio frequencies, residents can now alert authorities to any illegal activities. To date, the surveillance system has been implemented on 7,558 acres of mangrove forests. Other aspects of the Sustainable Forests and Coasts project include replanting shoreline vegetation and training land managers in best practices that protect habitats and watersheds. It is estimated that by the middle of 2012, these projects will have improved management over more than 135,000 hectares of Ecuador’s marine areas.

With such programs, “You can have your cake and eat it too,” said Victor Bullen, bureau environmental officer with USAID/LAC. “You can improve water quality and access while also improving it for the ecosystem.” In the LAC, it’s clear that biodiversity conservation and humanitarian aid can go hand-inhand—and must, if healthy ecosystems and peaceful communities are to coexist in a changing world.

K. Unger Baillie

More Information:

USAID Where We Work: LAC

Last updated: September 20, 2013

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