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FEATURE: Reciprocal watershed agreements: alternative to traditional payments for environmental services in Latin America

Also posted in Spanish

Hours before the start of Katoomba Meeting XX in Lima, CDKN organised a workshop to present the experiences and findings of the “reciprocal watershed agreements” project, which was carried out in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica and Peru, and led by Fundación Natura-Bolivia and Rare Conservation. Jorge Villanueva from CDKN reports from the event.

Traditionally, payments for environmental services have been conceived as a commercial transaction based on the payment that members of a society make ​​for the benefits they receive from ecosystems. Yet, in Andean culture, particularly when it comes to water, this model of markets and payments – for a resource that has always been used – makes little sense.

Instead, talking about reciprocity and responsibility among those who use water in a basin focuses the attention on “working together” for a common benefit, which facilitates the understanding between different water users. This approach has taken form through the Reciprocal Watershed Agreements (ARA), a scheme that was born in Bolivia -and was supported through a CDKN-funded project . It came about from the need to ensure the provision and quality of water for irrigation and domestic use in the lower basin, through the conservation of critical ecosystems on upper basin. There was also the need to provide, at the same time, economic benefits for those who preserve these ecosystems.

According to Niguel Asquith, from Fundacion Natura-Bolivia, “Although users of the bottom of a basin pay a small amount of money in cash for the care of water, this money is not given in cash to the people of the high basin, but as support via development projects . ” These projects are important for climate compatible development because taking care of the forests in the highlands contributes to the mitigation of climate change. They also allow land users to transition from a traditional form of agriculture – very dependent on rainfall – to alternative productive activities (not climate dependent) as beekeeping, which allows them to adapt to climate change.

It is important to mention that the economic contribution is voluntary and is derived from a social agreement, where actors decide the correct value to pay.

Click here to watch an interview with Nigel Asquith about Reciprocal Watershed Agreements in Latin America.

Pride for preserving

A key aspect in the implementation of the ARA model is the communication approach called “PRIDE” used locally by Rare Conservation. This approach uses campaigns conducted throughout the project to inspire community pride for the natural surroundings and the peculiarities of the ecosystem where they live.

By harnessing the interest and pride that a community feels in their own resources, the implementation of the ARA model is easier because participants acknowledge the reciprocity and shared responsibility for the common good.

As pointed out by Gabriel Jimenez, Mayor of Municipal Government of Quirusillas in Santa Cruz (Bolivia), the process began with the training and awareness-raising of community people around the love of nature and biodiversity. “This process was consolidated with the voluntary financial contribution of people [in the lower basin] to preserve the main sources of water and the forest.” Therefore, when the ARA model was proposed, the community welcomed it without problems, as logical and natural.

Replicate to grow

There is a real question, though, about how to adapt a model designed to operate on a small scale, with small individual landowners, to a broader area of millions of hectares? According to Niguel Asquith, the idea is not to scale the model focusing on a larger area, but to look for replication from one municipality to another, again and again, which is possible in the Andean region. Thus, something that was initially thought to function in areas of mid-altitude of Bolivia is also being used in some parts of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.

The ARA system is quite simple, and requires no major economic or opportunity cost analysis, as this is a model that is based not on precise economic calculations, but on reciprocity, where the economic factor is a co- benefit. Also, this simplicity allows adoption by other municipalities and therefore its replication.

The project is led by researchers at Rare Conservation, Fundación Natura-Bolivia, and partners throughout Latin America, and funded by Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

Some conclusions of the workshop

  • Currently the ARA model is being implemented in 31 municipalities of Bolivia, with a total area of 84,000 hectares, involving 2,000 families.
  • Working with partners has enabled the implementation of the ARA model across 25 municipalities in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, covering an area of ​​25 thousand additional hectares.
  • Stakeholders perceive the ARA model as investments that contribute to a common good, while conventional Payments for Environmental Services (PES) are considered as expenses, and economic contracts.
  • On the sustainability of the mechanism, ARA users showed a conservationist spirit, taking into account future generations as motivation to continue implementing the model. On the other hand, the primary motivation of conventional PES participants from LAC region was the existence of an economic contract.
  • The target population of ARA has an increased knowledge and awareness of why they are preserving the habitats compared with conventional PES participants.
  • The ARA model and PSA can be complementary mechanisms, and their viability depends on the national context.

Image credit: Thomas Müller /SPDA

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