The 21 Indigenous Communities comprising the Federation of Awa Centres in Ecuador (FCAE) have legal deeds for 120,000 hectares in the Northwest of Ecuador, a region of humid forests and great biological diversity, known as the Awa Territory and containing the last expanse of Chocoano forests remaining in Ecuador.
The territorial struggles by the Awa to defend their communal forests from pressure from the timber and mining industries and colonisation, benefited until a few years ago from the difficult access to the North Western part of the country. Over the past years, the opening up and paving of two new highways crossing the region facilitated the activities of several timber companies and the consequent disappearance of the forest.
In spite of this being an illegal activity, the timber companies started with offers to buy the timber. They managed to carry out business with some Awa families, causing organisational problems in several communities and within FCAE.
The Ministry of the Environment, responsible for monitoring forestry management and extraction, has not shown itself to have efficient control over these companies, nor over formal and informal buyers. Over the past two years, FCAE has lodged criminal action against various timber companies for having illegally entered their territory to extract timber. They have also denounced the illegal activities of some Ministry of the Environment officials before the Civic Commission for the Control of Corruption.
Because of this, FCAE decided to launch its own project for community-based forest management, with the aim of providing sustainable income to its communities, conserve its forests and counteract pressure by the companies. In the process of analysis of the forest situation and definition of proposals, the Awa communities established 3 basic items that have served in the development of this project: it must be administrated and led by FCAE; the use of heavy machinery in the extraction of timber from Awa territory will be prohibited; the benefits will be equitably shared on the basis of agreements that the communities will establish with FCAE.
The first task was to reach agreements and consensus over the delimitation of an area of 1980 hectares of communal forest in Mataje, containing a high diversity of endemic wood species. On the basis of forestry inventories, a first forestry management plan for this zone of communal forest was prepared. A group of young Awa were trained to become a forestry team, hoping that in the future they will be the managers of their own development. This team made an identification of botanical specimens and later prepared the Community Forestry Management Plan according to Ecuadorian forestry rules. The Plan takes into account the criteria for certification in the framework of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The project has been visited twice by the Smartwood certifying company and is currently in the course of obtaining FSC certification. Other management plans for family zones in the Communities of Guadualito, Balsareño and Pambilar were developed.
The Awa started with a low intensity extraction of between 5 and 7 trees per month, using innovative extraction systems by aerial cable and preparing and marketing their timber directly to a company from Quito, the capital city, without using intermediaries. Various timber companies, with the intention of entering Awa Territory have increased their illegal attempts to put pressure on the Awa to sell wood to them.
In order to add more value to their forestry products, FCAE is seeking a market abroad for some products prepared by the Awa in Ecuador and they expect this to be possible in the year 2003. With this same objective, at the end of 2002, FCAE will be purchasing carpentry machinery to train their own people in this art and in making furniture for the national market.
The Awa experience has taught the following lessons:
1. The need to train community representatives right from the start in all aspects of forestry management.
2. The importance of a strong and representative organisation, able to manage a forestry project through all its stages and facilitate planning and assessment processes with its member organisations.
3. The community limits and its areas of forest management, either family or communal, must be agreed on and physically delimited in the forest.
4. The communities involved in the project must participate actively in the programming and assessment of activities related to forest management.
5. Care needs to be taken to avoid creating false expectations in the communities regarding the possible price of the timber extracted and the time and effort required to carry out a good forestry management plan. Transparency must prevail at all times.
6. Forestry management and timber marketing should not be considered as the only productive alternatives for the community, but rather as part of an integrated system for family and community maintenance including agro-forestry, animal breeding, handicraft production, etc.
7. The process for forestry certification is costly and complex. Although FCAE has managed to find resources to cover the costs of the visits by the evaluators, the question needs to be asked whether all the communities interested in certifying their forestry operations will manage to cover this cost.
From the above it is clear that community-based forest management is not exempt from problems, but it is also clear that these can be solved. The Awa’s experience may be of great help to enable other communities to develop similar processes --adapted to their own conditions-- aimed at making forest conservation compatible with the improvement of the living conditions of all those who inhabit these areas.
Article based on information from: “Experiencias de la Federación Awá del Ecuador en el manejo y conservación de su territorio”, a paper prepared by Hermes Cuasaluzán, Coordinator for the Federation of Awa Centres in Ecuador Projects and Jaime Levy; sent by Jaime Levy, ALTRÓPICO, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . The entire paper can be consulted at: http://www.wrm.org.uy/paises/Ecuador/Awa.html