By Keith Alger, Senior Vice President, Latin America, Rare
What starts uphill runs downhill, and in countries with mountainous terrain like the high Andes this can mean pollutants from upstream running into drinking water supplies in the valley.
Take Colombia—one of the most biodiverse countries in the world; number one in orchid species with over 4,000 and almost half its terrain in the Amazon rainforest. It appears to be a natural paradise.
Yet Colombia, like many other species-diverse countries, loses 2,000 square kilometers of natural forests each year. Healthy upland ecosystems—including páramos (spongy grasslands) and cloud forests—help regulate and clean fresh water. When the habitats are stressed or destroyed water quality and quantity is impacted. In some places, farmers and cattle ranchers cut down trees to create grazing pastures and let cattle roam into rivers, creating freshwater shortages or polluting water for downstream consumption.
Without a way to value the preservation of these ecosystem services, individual landowners make decisions based on more immediate, personal benefits that lead to deforestation or overgrazing.
These problems may stem from human activity, but people also wield the solutions. How then do you bring the interests of upstream and downstream together so that upstream farmers can make a living and downstream communities get the water they need?
Enter Rare, an international conservation organization with a penchant for community-led conservation campaigns and an eye toward finding solutions around behavior change to benefit both people and nature. One such solution lies in the idea of reciprocity.
Rare and its partners have taken this idea of reciprocity and created an innovative program promoting reciprocal water agreements through Pride campaigns (Rare’s signature program that uses marketing techniques to generate local pride in natural resources). The agreements involve funding from downstream users that incentivizes farmers to set aside part of their land for conservation. These incentives are rarely monetary. For example, upstream farmers might receive barbed wire and other materials to keep cattle out of rivers and other ecologically-sensitive areas. Or the upstream farmers might receive support to grow sustainable crops and training to improve cattle management in exchange for conserving critical habitat.
In Colombia, Rare is working with a regional water authority to ensure the water supply in the Cauca Valley is clean, steady, and available. With the Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Cauca Valley (CVC), Rare plans to ensure the conservation of water regulating ecosystems in seven sub-water basins using Rare’s strategy of Pride campaigns to promote and accelerate the adoption of reciprocal water agreements.
Offering incentives for conservation is only half the battle. Rare’s Pride campaigns engage community members—from school children to politicians to cattle ranchers—to take pride in their stewardship of natural resources based on values of reciprocity. Rare Fellows (employees of the local organization with which Rare partners who receive Rare’s training) employ Pride campaigns with targeted media such as billboards, radio spots and puppet shows to help reinforce messages that change behaviors. Once the local communities take ownership and responsibility of their resources, they essentially protect their own future interests.
These win-win water projects combining Pride campaigns and reciprocal water agreements for watershed protection have worked throughout Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, and potentially could be applied on a more global scale.
In Peru, the Yuracyacu subwatershed plays a crucial role in supplying fresh water to major cities in northeastern Peru, and for harboring many plant and animal species found nowhere else, such as the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. To build interest and support for the campaign, the population of Nueva Cajamarca chose the monkey as its Pride campaign mascot, and named it Chorito. There is even a campaign song, about the river Rio Yuracyacu.
Within the next few years, the campaign aims to encourage voluntary contribution to a local fund, which will be managed by the municipality. This fund will help the residents who live in the upper part of the sub-basin to improve agricultural practices and implement other conservation activities, which will help maintain the water source for everyone.