Efforts to save the Amazon offer triple win: Improving human, environmental, and economic health and wellbeing

  • Article type Story
  • Publication date 04 Jun 2020

Joint measures that tackle climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic must place the livelihoods of people front and centre. This is especially true for the custodians of natural ecosystems, which are vital in winning the fight against climate change and ensuring a green recovery in developing countries. In Ecuador, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and its partners are supporting the government’s climate ambitions and, in the process, improving incomes, food security and resilience.

The climate benefits of well-functioning ecosystems are well known, ranging from providing stable water supplies to supporting ground vegetation that prevents flooding and landslides while storing carbon in the ground. Protecting ecosystems is also important to inhibit the release of new diseases, such as COVID-19.

The recent emergence of this devastating virus underlines the need to preserve biomes like the Amazon—critical to combat climate change as it is the world's largest terrestrial carbon reservoir. Zoonotic diseases, where pathogens cross from animals or insects to humans, are usually the result of human encroachments into the natural environment. Ecosystem restoration can help maintain climate ambition while safeguarding vulnerable livelihoods.

While the Amazon’s indigenous people are regularly portrayed as rainforest guardians, they also need to earn a living. That is why indigenous farmer and community leader Hugo Vicente Cucuzchi Ushpa cut down Amazon trees to plant cash crops and raise cattle when he moved to Ecuador’s El Pangui district eight years ago.

The imperative to earn income through farming has been a major contributor to the destruction of 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest during the past 50 years. In Ecuador, the expansion of frontier lands for agriculture is the main cause of deforestation. Cultivation of coffee, cocoa and oil palm, along with cattle grazing, together account for 80 percent of deforestation in the country.

“When I first arrived here, it was a truly beautiful place,” said Ushpa, a member of the Shuar indigenous group. “There were forests, there were woods. But I liked to cut back a little to grow cacao, cassava, banana. While I had to cut down some of the forest, I also felt sorry for what I had to clear.”

As a responsible father, Ushpa wanted to generate a reasonable income so that his sole child, a four-year-old boy, could receive a good education to follow Ushpa’s dream for him to become an engineer. Thanks to a GCF-financed project carried out with the Ecuadorian Government and UNDP, Ushpa has not altered his aspirations, but he has changed the way he treats the land.

The initiative provides financial and technical assistance to help farmers transition from clearing forests to sustainable production—demonstrating that one of the best ways to protect ecosystems, and thereby reign in global emissions, is to secure people’s livelihoods. This GCF project is estimated to prevent the emission of 15 million tonnes equivalent of greenhouse gases and benefit 450,000 people, including many traditional inhabitants of the Amazon.

“Of course, something must be done about reforestation, because sometimes when you almost cut away everything, the sky is left too open, and too much sun comes through,” said Ushpa. “We then begin to be hit by illnesses.” “So, I am not clearing anymore, I am conserving,” he added.

Ushpa can achieve higher crop yields and make more money by improving the cultivation of his lowland cacao plants, rather than cutting down trees on the adjoining Andean mountains. Enhancing the treatment of cacao nuts after they are gathered increases their market value and further adds to Ushpa’s income.

Indigenous people are often at the centre of nature-based solutions like this GCF-funded initiative. As Juan Carlos, the director of PROAmazonia said, “More than 80 percent of the forest is intact in the Amazon in Ecuador, and basically that is because of indigenous communities.” GCF and UNDP are working closely with PROAmazonia, a national programme set up to counter deforestation in Ecuador, to ensure the allocated climate finance is effective and reaches those who most need it.

After losing over 2.2 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2014, the country now aims for zero net deforestation. GCF’s investment will co-finance Ecuador’s REDD+ Action Plan that aims to turn that ambition into reality. In addition to ensuring that financial instruments are aligned with the Plan by orienting public credit lines towards sustainable farming practices in vulnerable watersheds, the project will promote tax incentives for REDD-supportive activities and strengthen purchasing policies for deforestation-free commodities, their certification and traceability.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the humanitarian and economic devastation we unleash if we don’t protect biodiversity properly. The success of farmers like Ushpa to provide for their families, while protecting vital ecosystems and curbing climate change, also reminds us that it is possible to achieve human, environmental and economic wellbeing if we address them together.