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Empowering Local Communities through Sustainable Forest Products in the Amazon

The Amazon houses at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity. However, commercial crops, cattle grazing, and timber extraction have resulted in deforestation and degradation. Building on local knowledge, a project by the Runa Foundation provides training to indigenous farmers in Ecuador to mitigate the effects of climate change, foster biodiversity, and improve livelihoods by creating new value for forest products and increasing access to markets and economic stability.

© Runa Foundation

Traditional Methods Under Threat

Traditionally, Indigenous Kichwa Farmers in the Amazon maintained ‘chakra’ agroforestry systems that mimic the forest’s natural composition, providing subsistence crops to families and natural habitats for animals and plants.

However, over recent decades farmers have faced more pressure to earn additional income.  As a result, many abandoned the chakra farming method and resorted to the conventional production of commercial crops, cattle grazing, and timber extraction. These activities often encroach on protected areas, threatening many species and contributing to deforestation and degradation. From 1990 and 2010 alone Ecuador lost a total of 28.6% of its forest cover.

To make matters worse, infrastructure development in the region through increased government programs and population growth has led to further deforestation and exploitation in previously isolated areas. This has left the forest fragmented, which limits the movement of animals and creates regions that are more susceptible to human impact.

Protecting the Environment

The project aims to help farmers move away from unsustainable agricultural activities by creating viable economic opportunities for non-timber forest products and organic agroforestry products.

Runa promotes the production of Ilex guayusa in mixed-use agroforestry systems, which are more biodiverse than conventional agricultural systems. A study investigating the diversity and productivity of mixed agroforestry systems found that polycultures improve crop resilience against environmental pressures by increasing ecological diversification and decreasing land degradation through the natural cycling of nutrients and reduced human disturbance.

As these mixed-use agroforestry systems are established and maintained, they help to support the local flora and fauna populations, as these systems mimic the natural forest composition.

Empowering Communities

Runa supports farmers with capacity-building workshops to create platforms for collective decision-making and management. This empowers local communities to manage their own resources, improve their livelihoods, gain access to credit, restore biodiversity, and protect cultural traditions.

By creating sustainable value chains based on local biodiversity and strengthening farmer associations, Runa creates local capacity for designing strategies that protect ecosystems and improve livelihoods.

Runa works directly with farmers and their leaders to strengthen their organization through workshops, knowledge exchanges, and technical assistance to improve the capacity of the association itself so that they can effectively manage their participation in the value chain. Through these activities and direct collaboration with a variety of local actors, it is possible to create viable value chains based on local knowledge and the demands of international markets.

One example of this is the marketing of the leaves of Ilex guayusa. The tree is native to the western Amazon, and indigenous people have been consuming the leaves for centuries. The leaf is well-known for its energetic properties due to its high concentration of caffeine and antioxidants. This is just one example where the new value is being created for forest products that are environmentally sustainable and will improve livelihoods for local indigenous Kichwa farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

To supplement the agricultural initiatives, the program works with communities to create integrated landscape plans that include strategies for improved resource management, as well as reforestation and restoration. So far, the program has incorporated over 56,000 hectares into sustainable management plans, with 150 hectares of planned reforestation and restoration.

Overcoming Prejudice and Gender Inequality

Maira Pisango is president of the producer association UCKAR, and lives in the Kichwa community of San Rafael. She has worked with Runa Foundation since 2010, and was elected president of the Guayusa producers in her area. She facilitates the management and investment of the Social Premium Fund, generated from the sale of Fair Trade certified Guayusa.

Her first major accomplishment was to buy farm supplies for the members of her association, and she is currently working to obtain legal status for her association. As a female leader, Maira is a role model and pioneer in her community.

The opportunity to take on a leadership role has transformed many aspects of her life. Maira grew up in a situation common to many rural Kichwa women. As one of 12 children and a girl, her parents were unable to provide for her. Like many women of her generation, she did not advance beyond an 8th-grade education. However, with her husband’s support, she was able to finish high school while raising her first two children.

When she expressed interest in becoming a leader, her husband tried to stop her, as he didn’t want her to work to interfere with her household responsibilities. However, he changed his mind after seeing how much she gained from her role. She proudly states, “Before [becoming a leader] I stayed in the house, I was scared, I was intimidated to speak in front of a group, to answer questions. I am now an example to my children.”

In previous jobs, she faced racism and exploitation, as many Kichwa women do. In contrast, her work with Runa has been both professionally and personally fulfilling and has given her access to the professional world which is a rare opportunity for women from rural areas with low levels of education.

The Runa Foundation works to create valuable products from rainforest plants for consumers in North America and sustainable livelihoods for the people of the Amazon. We bring people together from different worlds who believe people everywhere can benefit from the bounty of the Amazon without destroying it.

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By documenting and promoting examples of inspiring, replicable solutions across a range of conservation and sustainable development topics, PANORAMA enables cross-sectoral learning and inspiration.

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