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CLALS | Health, Environment & Society

Mangrove in Ecuador

Magnus Brath | Flickr | Creative Commons

For centuries Afro-descended communities made their living in Ecuador’s Chocó forest, located in one of the top ten biodiversity hotspots in the world. But in the 1990s, new road construction increased the vulnerability of communal lands to the sometimes violent effects of logging, shrimp farming and intensive palm oil cultivation. These developments had a profound impact upon the everyday economic well-being of community members, yet some have persevered and continue to aspire to earn a living through agriculture.

This project aimed to further enhance the structures of communal governance in San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas, Ecuador, as a means to strengthen sustainable livelihoods for community members. In so doing, it supported the initiatives of villagers working on communally-held land to earn a living in areas where they have historically resided but that now offer few employment opportunities and face considerable external pressures. Employing a participatory-based approach, the project worked directly with village leadership and governance committees to strengthen them, to address community divisions, to reverse the sale of community-based territory, and to enable agriculturally-based solutions.

Developed in close consultation with Afro-Ecuadorian communities themselves, and drawing on more than six years of participatory action research – including the work of AU international development graduate students – this project combined surveys, interviews, focus groups, and mapping techniques, to develop needs assessments and viable strategies to address communal village needs, giving particular attention to the potential of cacao cultivation. In addition to strengthening community capacity building, it offered training and micro-credit options to community members to support their sustainable goals.

A second dimension of Prof. Peter Redvers-Lee’s work aimed to reverse the degradation of the region’s large mangrove forests by restoring favorable ecological conditions through the reintroduction of species in the mangroves and associated waterways – primarily crocodiles, turtles, and crabs – on which these Afro-Ecuadorian families have traditionally relied. Reintroduction of these species would improve ecological conditions for the mangroves, a key part of one of the world’s designated biodiversity hotspots, but one now threatened by overfishing, population growth, the introduction of shrimp farms, palm oil cultivation, and violence spillover from the nearby Colombian border.

The project was directly linked to efforts to promote a collective Afro-Ecuadorian cultural identity, to enhance political and social capacity building, and to provide alternatives for communities to pursue sustainable livelihoods through aquaculture subsistence. With the goal of preservation and reclamation of the mangroves, this project also had the potential to enable Afro-Ecuadorian communities to reassert their role as stewards of critically important watersheds, and to address ongoing declines in fish stocks and other ecologically important species.

During a 2012 research trip, Prof. Redvers-Lee carried out focus groups and interviews with farmers about their livelihood strategies. He also conducted counts of fishing catches, daily returns for mussel collectors, and mapped disembarkation and collection points of traditional fisherwomen. Finally, he met with local and national NGOs and with government officials involved in conservation, tourism, agriculture, and fisheries, as well as with village and local leaders to discuss community needs.