Gaining ground with private conservation


Raised in a rural corner of the Colombian Andes, Lourdes Peñuela now helps small farmers there apply principles of environmental conservation. Thousands of miles south in the western foothills of the Peruvian Andes, 20-year-old Iván Vallejos guides bird watchers through scrubby woodland where his community is protecting the habitat of endangered species such as the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and white-winged guan (Penelope albipennis).

Although they have never met, Peñuela and Vallejos are at the forefront of private conservation, a movement that they believe heralds the future of environmental protection in Latin America. With public funding of park systems and conservation efforts falling short, small farmers, large landowners and local nonprofit organizations are working to fill the gap.

One association of like-minded landowners doing so is the Alliance of Latin American Private Conservation Networks. The alliance’s 1,600 members have placed five million acres (two million has) of land in 16 countries under protection. And they only represent a fraction of the region’s private conservation efforts.

Indeed, Latin America hosts an impressive array of private initiatives, some very large. For instance, Chile, though not represented in the alliance, is home to Pumalín Park, a 740,000-acre (300,000-ha) private reserve in northern Patagonia assembled by U.S. clothing entrepreneur Douglas Tompkins. On nearby Chiloé Island, LanChile airline owner Sebastian Piñera is developing a nature park on 320,000 acres (130,000 has).

“In Latin America over the past 50 years we’ve gotten into the bad habit of thinking that conservation is the government’s job,” says Pedro Solano, director of the conservation program ar the non-governmental Peruvian Environmental Law Society (Spda). But because of budget constraints, “there’s no national protected area in Latin America that’s well protected,” he says. “What excites me most about private conservation is that it hands the ball back to the people, giving them not only the responsibility but also the opportunity to reap benefits and build a better society by establishing close ties with the land and with nature.”

Groups of individuals, businesses and organizations involved in private conservation exist throughout Mexico and Central America, as well as in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and Brazil. The initiatives are as diverse as the climates and cultures, including sustainable shade farming of coffee, ecotourism, scientific research and habitat restoration.

When people hear the word conservation, Solano says, a nature reserve usually comes to mind. But he adds conservation can mean a variety of mechanisms and strategies that point toward “a society that uses nature responsibly to ensure the survival of future generations.”

While governments must continue to play a role in conservation, private efforts have the advantage of being more flexible and adaptable to local needs, proponents say. And because they’re voluntary, the people involved tend to be deeply committed.

Private efforts “can be adjusted to every interest, every ecosystem, every pocketbook,” says Martín Gutiérrez Lacayo of Pronatura, a non-profit environmental group that works in six regions of Mexico.

In Colombia, most members of the Colombian Association of Civil Society Natural Reserves are small farmers who want to make sustainable use of the resources on their property. The association consists of 33 local groups that in all are conserving more than 124,000 acres (50,000 has) of land, including habitat for more than 125 threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna, Peñuela says.

Originally motivated by a desire to protect ecosystems on which their livelihood depends, they have found that nurturing biodiversity makes their farms more productive. An additional incentive for members of the network is the technical assistance they receive from non-profit organizations that specialize in conservation and sustainable production.

One pitfall of private conservation is that future owners—including the children of those who protected the land initially—may put their property to other uses. With conservation easements still rare in the region, these future owners are not legally bound to keep the land protected. That’s why the Colombian association has made environmental education a priority.

When Peñuela and her colleagues began to organize, their children tagged along to workshops. While their parents received training from conservation experts, the kids learned to identify birds, butterflies and plants. Some have gone on to study environmental sciences, and their 1,000-member youth organization, Heirs of the Planet, is being eyed as a model by groups in other countries.

In contrast to Colombia’s network of small landholdings, Brazil has over 1.2 million acres (500,000 has) of private protected land, much of it in large tracts. Nearly half of this land, 18 private reserves totaling 613,000 acres (248,000 has), is in the fragile Pantanal wetland region, while another 247,000 acres (100,000 has) are in 450 reserves in the tropical coastal forest known as the Mata Atlântica. The Brazilian Amazon has just 40 private reserves, which cover a total of 99,000 acres (40,000 has).

Brazilian law allows private conservation areas to be used for activities such as research, environmental education and tourism. In exchange, the owners enjoy benefits that include tax breaks, payments for environmental service (available only in Paraná state) and protection from expropriation, says Beto Mesquita of the Instituto Bioatlântica in Rio de Janeiro, which is part of Brazil’s National Confederation of Private Natural Heritage Reserves.

In Latin America, private property ownership often carries negative associations with land grabs and shady deals, says Alfonso Blanco, executive director of Prometa, an environmental organization in Tarija, Bolivia. But as Blanco and other leaders of the private conservation movement pointed out at a meeting in Lima last December, private property can be crucial to conservation because ecosystems so often span public and private lands.

In many cases, landowners join forces to combat the deterioration of their environment or protect vital resources. For instance, a community in the hills outside Tarija, Bolivia, established a private conservation area to protect the watershed that provides the city’s drinking water.

Private conservation has great potential in Mexico, where 89% of land is private, much biodiversity is outside national protected areas, and state-run reserves lack planning and funding. Says Pronatura’s Gutiérrez: “It’s cheaper and more effective for private individuals with resources to protect them.” Yet conservation does not always offer sufficient incentive. Adds Gutiérrez: “You can’t talk about conservation when people don’t have enough to eat.”

Incentives can take different forms, including income from ecotourism, compensation for land that provides environmental services and access to higher agricultural prices following the adoption of certified, environmentally-friendly farm practices such as shade-coffee cultivation. Says Gutiérrez: “The market is pulling us toward other mechanisms.”

Solano has high hopes for easements, legal instruments that enable communities, individuals or groups to protect habitat temporarily or in perpetuity. Increasingly, people are willing to become involved in conservation, he says, because “they’re feeling the lack of water, the loss of quality of life, and that’s making them recognize the value of nature.”

In Peru, a community near the southern city of Cusco has made a hillside conservation area to protect its water sources and prevent erosion. In the mountains above the Urubamba River Valley, Quechua-speaking farmers who cultivate over 800 varieties of native potatoes have created Potato Park. And on the arid north coast, near Chiclayo, Iván Vallejos’ community has set up the Chaparrí reserve to protect fragile dry-forest habitat that is home to several endemic bird species and the spectacled bear. Peru also grants 40-year concessions on public lands for conservation, wildlife management, environmental services and ecotourism, just as it does for timber, oil or mining activities.

Ecuadorian boom

Ecuador is seeing “a boom in private reserves,” according to Verónica Arias, private conservation coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in that country. Around Quito, landowners have set aside 54,000 acres (22,000 has) whose protection will safeguard water sources. And south of the capital, owners of land bordering four national protected areas have formed a private-conservation corridor that acts as a buffer zone. The fact that they also serve as park guards has helped authorities see the potential of private efforts, Arias says.

In Paraguay, members of a recently formed private ecological network hope to create conservation corridors similar to the one south of Quito to preserve biological diversity in increasingly fragmented ecosystems, says Juan Pablo Cinto, eco-regional coordinator for the Environmental Law and Economics Institute (Idea) in Asunción. So far, Paraguay has nine private conservation areas totaling 462,000 acres (187,000 has). Even ranchers are getting involved, setting aside portions of their land for conservation in return for tax breaks.

One ambitious effort is the 9,900-acre (4,000-ha) Cañada El Carmen reserve, which is owned by Idea in the northern Chaco region and was established as a private conservation area in Sept. 2005. The land abuts a reserve set up by Prometa in 1996 across the border in Tarija, Bolivia. The two groups have collaborated on cross-border conservation since 2001.

Networks throughout the region will hold their seventh Inter-American Congress in Cartagena, Colombia, from May 29 to June 2. The regional gatherings enable private conservationists to share ideas, arrange visits to each other’s reserves and discuss obstacles.

Landowners as partners

One important challenge is to persuade governments to view private conservation efforts as complementary to public initiatives and to treat landowners as potential allies, Solano says. Green advocates also want leeway for experimentation with private-conservation incentives and mechanisms. Other challenges include creating stronger economic incentives, getting more non-governmental groups into the field, improving understanding on the part of government officials and the general public and developing a better legal framework for private-conservation initiatives, experts say.

In Central America, regulations vary from country to country, says Carlos Chacón, a private-conservation specialist with The Nature Conservancy in Costa Rica. Guatemala and Costa Rica offer payment for environmental services. Nicaragua has passed laws favoring private conservation. Honduras and El Salvador are lagging behind, and Panama and Belize lack regulations, although Belize is one of the countries with the most private protected land.

Because taxes are low in Central America, tax breaks are not as strong an incentive as in the United States, Chacón says. Landowners respond better to other incentives such as technical assistance. They also value protection against expropriation, since land left in its natural state often attracts squatters or is viewed as “non-productive” and is taken for other uses.

Peñuela argues the private-conservation movement needs to set priorities. In Colombia, she says, closer ties must be forged with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Better information about conservation areas, including scientific data, is also needed, she says.

Private-conservation supporters agree that above all, they must stress the manifold benefits of land protection. “For conservation to work,” says Pronatura’s Gutiérrez, “it must be profitable for the owner, for the state, and for future generations and neighbors.”

- Barbara Fraser

Verónica Arias
The Nature Conservancy
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 225-7138
Alfonso Blanco López
Tarija, Bolivia
Tel: +(59 14) 664-5865
Carlos Manuel Chacón
The Nature Conservancy
San José, Costa Rica
Tel: +(506) 220-2552
Juan Pablo Cinto
Environmental Law and Economy Institute
Asunción, Paraguay
Tel: +(595 21) 662-543
Martín Gutiérrez Lacayo
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5635-5054
Beto Mesquita
Instituto BioAtlântica
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel: +(55 21) 2535-3940
Lourdes Peñuela
Colombian Network of Civil Society Natural Reserves
Cali, Colombia
Tel: +(572) 653-4538
Pedro Solano
Conservation Program
Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA)
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 422-2720
Fax: +(511) 442-4365