Initiative Targets Leaders With
Largest Influence on Landscapes
By Steve Kemper
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama have joined forces in a novel initiative to improve the management and protection of tropical forests in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Funded by a five-year, $4.8 million grant from the Arcadia Foundation, this collaborative program, called the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative (ELTI), is unique in its focus, target audience and emphasis on practical action.
In recent decades most conservation programs have concentrated on saving forests and biodiversity through parks and other protected areas, but ELTI is taking a different tack.
“What about all the biodiversity—which is the majority of it—that falls outside of these areas?” says Eva Garen ’97, Ph.D. ’05, ELTI’s coordinator for Latin America and a research associate at F&ES. “What can you do to protect those resources, which are basically working landscapes, while also understanding that people are integral parts of them?”
Those questions have shaped ELTI’s unusual approach to forest conservation. ELTI recognizes that many of the decisive campaigns against deforestation and its associated environmental perils—floods, drought, climate change, loss of biodiversity—will occur outside of protected areas.
“These working forests sustain local livelihoods and local communities,” says Mark Ashton ’85, Ph.D. ’90, Morris K. Jesup Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology at F&ES, who leads ELTI’s steering committee. “But they are under considerable threat from outside market forces through such things as logging and plantation agriculture.”
Unlike most training programs, which focus on the people who manage or work in protected areas, ELTI pursues a different group for its workshops: policymakers, community officials, indigenous leaders and managers of working landscapes.
“There are plenty of ways for North Americans or Europeans to take courses on natural-resource issues in the tropics,” says Amity Doolittle, a lecturer and associate research scientist at F&ES. “But there are fewer opportunities for native peoples to do courses in their own countries. The idea was to target people whose entire lives are bound up with these topics.”
Javier Mateo Vega, ELTI’s director, based in Panama, said that participants often do not have an academic or professional background or do not even work in conservation. “They are people who work in other sectors that have tremendous impact on how landscapes are managed. So you’ll find people from the ministries of agriculture or tourism or planning and also community leaders. We often know exactly whom we want to target. We try to bring them over to the green side, so that their decisions are more sensitive to conserving biodiversity.”
The courses are taught by scientists with expertise in the topic, often researchers from F&ES and STRI or, in Southeast Asia, from the University of Singapore.
“People here and at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute are constantly generating new knowledge,” says Brad Gentry, senior lecturer in sustainable investments and research scholar at F&ES and one of ELTI’s principal investigators. “But most of the dissemination pathways for that new knowledge are through classrooms in New Haven or at the Smithsonian complex in Panama City or through academic articles that are read only by other academics. We wanted to expand the routes by which that information would be made available to policymakers or land managers in Latin America and Southeast Asia.” Gentry also expects these managers and policymakers to suggest ideas and needs that spark new research at F&ES and STRI.
Javier Mateo Vega
ELTI’s workshops are designed to give practitioners and policymakers not only the motivation and knowledge to save their working landscapes, but also the practical means to do so. The attendees learn about the many human benefits (often called ecosystem services) that forests provide and how to mitigate threats. They also learn about the newest tools and international mechanisms, such as carbon trading and Reduced Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), that compensate countries for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in uncut forests or in reforested land. Lastly, they learn how to put all of this information into action through on-the-ground projects.
This atypical approach has tapped a deep interest. “The demand is incredible,” says Garen. “We have been overloaded with requests for trainings.” The most requested are courses about REDD and forest carbon sequestration and about payments for ecosystem services.
“We’re approaching this from an economic perspective,” says J. David Neidel, Ph.D. ’06, ELTI’s coordinator for Southeast Asia. “The question is, How does one derive multiple income streams from a sustainably managed landscape? REDD is one possibility. Other payments for ecosystem services are possible but not well-tested.”
Panama, for instance, gets about 80 percent of its drinking water from upland forests, according to Ashton. Furthermore, he says, without the water from these forests, the Panama Canal, which contributes about $1.8 billion to the country’s economy, would be a dry ditch. Many of these forests belong to local communities that are under pressure to develop them. But once policymakers and leaders understand that these forests are more valuable as providers of ongoing ecosystem services than as timber or developed land, there’s a better chance the forests will be conserved, perhaps by the government paying the communities to do so.
The prospect of income has created lots of enthusiasm, but many of these new tools and mechanisms are complex and poorly understood. Last year, one of Garen’s first workshops in Panama was about REDD, because most of the people in the country’s National Environmental Authority didn’t know how it works.
Most ELTI workshops alternate between the classroom and the field. For instance, ELTI held a program last year on sustainable land use at one of STRI’s Panamanian research stations, which was developing a land use plan for that coastal region and so could offer a case study. The invited decision-makers heard a series of lectures detailing the critical value and importance of healthy ecosystems and the threats to them. Then, to make these abstractions real, the group took several trips into the forest with guides who explained the area’s rich ecology and also pointed out examples of the damage caused by unsustainable development. Next came more sessions about different strategies for sustainable land use that either avoid or abate destructive threats, such as the creation of biological corridors, which are strips of habitat that connect two larger undeveloped areas, and preserving forests for carbon credits.
“I think we had 25 participants, and four or five really stood out as wanting to continue,” says Garen. “That’s four or five who will be doing something on the ground. If we can do that with every workshop, we’ll build a network.”
One of the lectures described the destruction of turtle nesting grounds by hotels and other developments. An attendee from Panama’s Ministry of Housing, whose job includes promoting developments such as hotels, was inspired to organize a seminar in his ministry about nesting turtles. ELTI guided him to experts on the subject.
Such follow-up is another one of ELTI’s innovations, through its leadership program. The program’s purpose, explains Alicia Calle, its coordinator, is to offer continuing support to the most enthusiastic participants through further training by scientific mentors and interns from F&ES or local universities. “The idea is to help them implement projects,” she says.
“People often leave these courses extremely motivated, with a new set of tools and information and a brand new network,” says Mateo-Vega. “Then they go back to the office and have a backlog of 1,500 e-mails, and their motivation dissipates. They are extremely busy, so unless you have multiple points of contact after the course and continue to encourage them by creating opportunities to engage in these issues, things don’t get done. We’re trying to close the gap that often exists between training and action.”