Securing Livelihoods, Preserving Biodiversity: Conservation Agriculture in Ecuador


By Flora Lindsay-Herrera and Alicia Macmanus

This post was originally published by Agrilinks and is cross-posted with permission.

In Ecuador, farmers in the Ayampe and Galera San Francisco watersheds were initially wary of changing their agricultural practices. When they saw the tangible economic benefits, however, the majority of farmers who participated in pilots incorporated conservation-friendly approaches. The project demonstrated techniques for introducing subsistence farmers to environmentally-sound practices for cash crop production methods, without encouraging increased forest degradation.

Background: Unsustainable Farming Practices in Ecuador

Historically, along the Ecuadorian coast, people live in family farms and rely on subsistence agriculture, livestock raising, and timber extraction for their livelihoods. Due to a lack of environmentally-friendly economic opportunities, farmers there have contributed the unsustainable use of natural resources, environmental degradation, and the loss of biodiversity. The economic gains of these small operations were short-lived as the soils became depleted of nutrients and the forests degraded. In response, farmers extended the agricultural frontier even further, at the expense of remaining forests.

To improve local livelihoods under the Sustainable Forests and Coasts Project, USAID and Chemonics used conservation agriculture. With the help of a local NGO, Conservación & Desarrollo, and the Ecocacao producer’s association, the project worked with 185 farms to encourage 17 agricultural practices in the Ayampe and the Galera San Francisco watersheds. These practices aimed to increase productivity, reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, improve climate resilience, and minimize biodiversity threats. They included:

  • Irrigation trenches to optimize water use and increase soil moisture
  • Mulch to enrich the soil
  • Production and application of compost
  • Organic topsoil and organic fertilizer made from local materials
  • Terraces and the practice of sowing against the slope to reduce soil erosion
  • Mixed cropping, crop diversification, and crop rotation to promote soil quality

Initially, Conservación & Desarrollo taught classes on these practices in traditional field schools. But the project recognized farmers’ need for individualized support and moved the NGO toward individual technical assistance. To complement the technical training, the project helped to form 22 new linkages with monthly agricultural fairs and other buyers that valued organic products.

Results: Majority of Farmers Incorporate Good Agricultural Practices

The project tracked outcomes through its monitoring and evaluation system, income perception surveys, and case studies. Out of 185 farms, 60 percent incorporated up to five of the good agricultural practices, 26 percent adopted between 6 and 10 practices, and 14 percent adopted more than 10 of the 17 practices that the project encouraged.

Although some of the farmers were reluctant to change familiar practices by reducing their agrochemical use, over time they began to see that it was feasible to switch to less-toxic fertilizers, such as compost and organic biol, without decreasing production. Farmers embraced this benefit and significantly reduced chemical use, from 64 to 100 percent for 12 products used in the region. Some farmers even launched small enterprises of their own by selling homemade biol to their neighbors.

In addition to working across all 185 pilot farms, the project tracked the crop type, yields, and perceived economic benefits of the new practices for 19 farms in the Ayampe watershed. Results showed that good agricultural practices increased average monthly income by $32.67 (42 percent) as a result of increased sales and cost-savings from reduced chemical use. Overall, more than 16,225 people enjoyed increased economic benefits as a result of more linkages, better management practices, and conservation incentives.

Takeaway: Time and Trust Yield a Business Case for Change

The project tracked and demonstrated the economic merit—both in cost savings and income generated—of good agricultural practices to farmers as a means of encouraging adoption of the conservation-friendly practices. The project worked in sites with high conservation value but limited economic growth potential, and consequently the project needed to orient productive projects toward the modest expansion of subsistence livelihoods. Above all, changing productive practices takes time, trust, and knowledge of the resource base. The project worked with local organizations like C&D and Ecocacao and with farmers to carefully assess natural resource stocks, develop management practices, train beneficiaries on such practices, and design mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of resources along the entire value chain.

The USAID Sustainable Forests and Coasts Project worked with Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment, local governments, communities, and producer groups to create long-term improvements in both conservation and the lives of the poor along Ecuador’s coast. Project reports, including the final report detailing the full range of technical assistance activities undertaken during the project, are available through the USAID Development Experience Clearinghouse.

Flora Lindsay-Herrera is capacity building and learning lead for the Climate Change Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments Project, and Alicia Macmanus is an associate for Chemonics' Agriculture and Food Security Practice.

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