Evaluating Safeguards in a Conservation Incentive Program: Participation, Consent, and Benefit Sharing in Indigenous Communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon
Critics suggest that Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) may not generate improvements in well-being for participating stakeholders, and may in fact undermine indigenous rights. To ensure positive social benefits from REDD+ projects, the United Nations REDD Programme has proposed core safeguards, including local stakeholder participation; free, prior, and informed consent; and equitable distribution of benefits. However, there is little experience to date in implementing and evaluating these safeguards. We apply these core safeguards as a framework to study how people in indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon perceive and benefit from Programa Socio Bosque, a conservation incentive program in Ecuador’s national REDD+ Programme portfolio. We interviewed 101 individuals in five communities that had participated in the Programa Socio Bosque for at least 18 months. Close to 80% of respondents reported that the decision to join Socio Bosque was made democratically, that they were familiar with the conservation goals of Socio Bosque, and that they were aware which area their community had selected for conservation. However, only 17% were familiar with the overall terms of the conservation agreement, implying that they were either not fully informed of or did not fully understand what they were consenting to in joining the program. Although the terms of the program require a community investment plan to be democratically developed by community members, less than half of respondents were aware of the existence of the investment plan, and fewer than 20% had participated in its development. The majority of respondents (61%) reported that they did not know the amount of incentives that their community currently receives, and only 44% stated that incentives were managed democratically in communal assemblies. Moreover, although a slight majority (53%) said they had noticed benefits to the community from participating in Socio Bosque, the majority (57%) said their family had not received any benefits. These results demonstrate a need to strengthen inclusive participation, better inform participants about program design, and improve the management of incentives within communities if incentive-based conservation programs are to achieve their social development and environmental goals.