- The Yasuní Strip of Diversity and Life (Franja de Diversidad y Vida), on the western border of the Yasuní National Park, was created to protect the area’s Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation and to uphold the rights of Indigenous and farming communities in the region.
- The Terramaz project seeks to promote sustainable practices in order to fight against deforestation. These ideas, however, do not resonate with some inhabitants of the strip, where there is an urgent need for basic infrastructure and services: 82% of Indigenous inhabitants there live in extreme poverty.
- The undefined status of the western limits of the Yasuní National Park and the lack of land titles for the region’s inhabitants have provoked conflicts in the strip, which is also affected by oil drilling.
*This report was carried out as part of a journalistic partnership between Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora de Ecuador.
On Aug. 10, 2009, in the community of Los Reyes, Sandra Zabala, a local farmer, and two of her sons, Byron and Damaris Duche, were attacked with spears by people who were later identified as members of the Taromenane clan, based on the type of weapons they used. The Taromenane are one of Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation (pueblos Indígenas en aislamiento voluntario, PIAV), along with the Tagaeri, who live in the buffer zone of the Yasuní National Park, located in the northeastern province of Orellana, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
This was not the first time these Indigenous groups had clashed with colonos, or local settler farmers, but it was the first time that such an attack by Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation had taken place on the borders of the agricultural frontier as opposed to inside the rainforest. Since the 1980s, confrontations provoked by the advancing activities of the logging and oil industries led to a massacre in which at least 60 individuals from PIAV groups were killed, and loggers and other workers were killed with spears.
The three members of the Duche Zabala family died in the attack, with their deaths increasing intercultural tensions in the region. In an attempt to resolve the conflict, in 2013, the Ecuadorian government delineated the Strip of Diversity and Life along a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) stretch of the western boundary of the Yasuní National Park, where isolated Indigenous groups live. The strip overlaps with the national park’s buffer zone, measures 36,506 hectares (90,208 acres) and is home to 27 local communities, among them members of the Waorani, Shuar, and Kichwa Indigenous peoples. The main objective of the strip is to halt the advance of the agricultural frontier, which had been the root cause of conflicts in the region, and to meet the needs of the communities living in the area by creating a management committee made up of inhabitants of the Strip of Diversity and Life.
Despite receiving little attention from successive governments in terms of the provision of basic services and infrastructure, the strip was created with a set of restrictions for the farmers and community members living in the area. One such regulation is that no more than 30% of farms can be intervened in, according to territorial management plans. This measure seeks to protect PIAVs from the advance of the agricultural frontier and the loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, a municipal ordinance prohibits the lots of land from being divided up into smaller parcels, something commonly practiced by farmers when they need to distribute their inheritances. This, added to the fact that 82% of the Indigenous people (Waorani, Shuar and Kichwa) in the area live in extreme poverty, according to a publication in the digital magazine Plan V, has led to rejection of the strip.
The strip is also home to a number of oil drilling blocks, operated by a range of state and private companies and consortiums from Ecuador, China and Argentina. Oil drilling has driven socio-environmental conflicts in the region as a result of events such as oil spills and gas burning, as was the case of the Waraoni community of Miwaguno, which sued PetroOriental for contributing to the acceleration of climate change in 2020. Locals have also complained that the companies do not hire them and prefer to employ foreign workers. These problems lead to continual protests and road closures by the local communities.
It is in this situation that the Terramaz project has emerged, a program funded by the French Development Agency that seeks to support Amazonian communities in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador in their fight against deforestation and in their transition toward sustainable forms of development. So what is the project about and what improvements has it made in the strip?
In order to answer these questions, a team of reporters from La Barra Espaciadora and Mongabay Latam traveled to the strip to see the project up close and how it has developed in an area characterized by intercultural tensions, poverty and socio-environmental conflicts.
Starting point: gaining trust
To address the needs and requests of the region’s communities, the Diversity and Life Strip Management Committee was created in 2015 via an institutional cooperation agreement that was signed by the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, the Secretariat of Policy Management, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights (now the Secretariat of Human Rights) and the municipality of Francisco de Orellana, the capital of the province of Orellana. The committee, however, was later dissolved because of a lack of compliance by the signatory institutions, according to Alonso Jaramillo, the territorial coordinator for the Terramaz project in the strip and part of the Ecuadorian Fund for Popular Progress (FEPP).
The distrust of local inhabitants in the Strip of Diversity and Life is due to this kind of “political maneuvering,” Jaramillo said. At Terramaz, however, the territorial coordinator added, “we have already demonstrated on the ground what we can do.” Initial skepticism from local inhabitants soon gave way to enthusiasm, Jaramillo said. “In the [community of] 12 de Febrero they told us, ‘We don’t want to know anything’ [about the project]. [But] when we began to work with them and visited them [to work] on the issue of legalization [of their land], we were welcomed.”
At the start of the project, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries identified 42 colono farmers who owned land but did not hold titles to it. The lack of land titles, according to local inhabitants, is caused by a costly and bureaucratic process to obtain them. The Terramaz project has been accompanying the regularization process of these tracts of land, both by helping to update the paperwork in each case as well as by developing management plans.
Wilson Vega, Terramaz’s coordinator in the strip, said that besides the lack of land titles, there is the problem of the changes made to the boundaries of the Yasuní National Park by various Ecuadorian governments over time. Such was the case in 1992, when the park’s boundaries were redrawn and overlapped with areas inhabited by colono farmers and Indigenous communities. As a result of this, there is now a 10-km (6-mi) stretch of Yasuní’s western margin that has not been properly demarcated.
“Once the settlements have been identified, we have to sit down with the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture … and carry out this legalization process definitively. What we will do is to facilitate things again, to convene and help the two parties get together and reach a resolution,” Jaramillo said.
Sowing the seeds of the agroecological transition is a question of patience
Grass has started to grow beneath the coffee bushes. Moisés Guanuchi, a local farmer, points toward the ground and says that in the past he would have sprayed herbicides to prevent the growth of the “bush.” But these chemical products “kill the microorganisms in the soil, which then decreases the harvest,” Guanuchi explained. Now, he prefers to use his scythe to cut the grass. He has also learned how to make lime sulphur, a natural pesticide.
This new knowledge has led Guanuchi to abandon agrochemicals such as glyphosate, a substance that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified as genotoxic because it causes damage to DNA, is carcinogenic to animals and, according to an article by the Universidad Veracruzana, is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Farmers once preferred to use these types of products, Guanuchi explained, because they have long-lasting effects against pests, but he says that no one ever informed him about the dangers of using them.
Now, the farmer saves money on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, thanks to the knowledge acquired in the Agroecological Field Schools, which seek to generate knowledge and practical skills for sustainable, agroecological and agroforestry agriculture. “An agroecological transition doesn’t take place overnight, it takes time and, depending on each system of production and each farm, we could be talking about more than five years for us to have a full ecological transition,” said Wilson Vega. For Vega, the four-year cycle of the project is not enough, and that is why he said he believed this project should have a second phase, which would not necessarily depend on the financing and support of French institutions.
At the Agroecological Field Schools, Guanuchi learned about the preparation of mountain microorganisms, which make it possible to recover soil fertility using low-cost resources available on the farms, such as fruits and molasses. “We stopped buying bags of urea, we used to buy 10-30-10 [a type of inorganic fertilizer] and many others. It cost us a lot of money,” Guanuchi said.
Walking through the coffee plantation with his wife, María Roldán, he acknowledged that his lack of knowledge in the past led them to “strip back all the trees,” but this changed a few years ago when he began to plant local tree species, such as the guaba or guama (Inga edulis) in between the coffee bushes. The Agroecological Field School facilitators supported him, as the trees would provide shade and would have capacity to maintain nitrogen levels in the soil, thereby enriching it. Leaf debris falling from the trees would also feed the soil with organic material. “Where I planted the trees, I can see that I have a better end product,” the farmer said.
The coffee bushes that are protected by the canopies of the guaba trees sit in moist soil, and as a result have greener leaves and thicker beans. Guanuchi has also planted cedar trees (Cedrela odorata), a species that had previously been decimated due to the high commercial value of its wood.
Sustainability is a social and economic challenge
Across from the Guanuchi Roldán farm are the cocoa fields of the Chicaiza family. Don Efraín collects cocoa in burlap bags and checks on the health of the fruits that are not yet ready for harvest. “I am grateful to this field school because I have almost no attack of monilia, a disease that affects the cocoa fruit. When there is a severe attack, up to 60% of the harvest is ruined.” Now, Don Efraín controls the pest with the help of lime sulphur. Before that, he used systemic pesticides, i.e., chemicals that do not remain only on the surface of the plant but are absorbed and transported to every part of the plant tissue.
Efraín Chicaiza is the leader of the Nueva Esperanza community. One of the Terramaz workshops was held on his land. “[My fellow farmers] were really impressed, and were excited to see how I am managing it [the knowledge acquired in the Agroecological Field Schools]. Then they are also motivated to do it,” Don Efraín said. He did confess, however, that sometimes the other farmers are unsure about the new agroecological practices. “When they say, ‘How often do you do this?’ or, ‘How often do you prune?’ it becomes difficult for them, and they say, ‘I’m not going to make so much investment, this is work.’” The leader explained that in the countryside there are still many cultural barriers to the agroecological transition, but there are also pressing economic needs that mean farmers need to produce quickly, despite the environmental costs of such methods.
Many of Don Efraín’s neighbors prefer to provide minimal maintenance to their crops with agrochemicals while they look for work as employees in oil companies or in nearby cities. At most, 40% of the students from the Agroecological Field Schools have been applying the techniques they have been taught, Chicaiza said. “I’ve told them [the coordinators of the Terramaz project] that hopefully this will not just happen this year, that they will look for mechanisms or economic resources so that this can continue and that the farmer will continue to be incentivised [to use these methods], because life in the countryside is not easy,” the community leader said.
At the time of this report, the first field school still had half a year of training left. One of the modules, Wilson Vega explained, engages with the issue of administration and marketing, so inhabitants of the Strip of Diversity and Life can sell and earn income from the agrochemical-free products they have started to produce. Exchanges that have been made with farms, groups and agroecological associations in other regions of Ecuador and even in southern Colombia have further strengthened these new practices. “For 2023, for example, an exchange has already been arranged to go and see the cocoa crops in Esmeraldas,” a coastal province of Ecuador located on the border with Colombia, Vega added. At the end of the training, students will either receive certificates of participation or approval, in accordance with their performance, from Amawtay Wasi University.
The classes are being recorded to later produce audiovisual material that can be delivered to the 27 peasant and Indigenous communities living in the Yasuní Strip of Diversity and Life. In addition to this, a second phase of the Terramaz project began in February that will involve the inhabitants of the central-southern part of the strip, which is more sparsely populated than the northern sector. Another initiative implemented by Terramaz to promote the agroecological transition is the Local Investment Fund, a competitive funding program that will award $1,000 to agricultural, artisanal, agroforestry, educational or tourism initiatives with sustainable practices in the area.
Governance is the biggest challenge
The Terramaz project started in late 2020 and runs for four years. It is coordinated by the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development, ONF International (a subsidiary of the French National Forestry Office) and the Association of Agronomists and Veterinarians without Borders. In Ecuador, the Terramaz project is being carried out by FEPP, which has worked with Indigenous and peasant farmer communities in the region since before the Strip was founded.
Some of the key objectives of the Terramaz project are to build up governance in the strip by setting up a management committee, to implement Forland, a software for detecting deforestation and land management, to implement an agroecological transition through training and economic support and to achieve the regularization of land and legalization of land titles in order to prevent the growth of the agricultural frontier that threatens the Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. The project also focuses on conducting research on land use and land titles, the agrarian system and other social and environmental problems in the area.
There hasn’t been an active management committee in the strip since 2015. It was only in December 2021 that the organizational body was relaunched, after Terramaz had organized three sets of meetings with representatives from the 27 communities in the area. These efforts were supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries — one of the few institutions to have maintained a presence in the region, according to Alonso Jaramillo. At the December 2021 relaunch of the committee, a board of directors of 10 people from peasant farmer and Indigenous Kichwa communities was elected. Patricio Taco, a biologist and expert in natural area management and ecotourism, was elected president.
However, Taco claimed, halfway through 2022, dissatisfaction with the strip became more pronounced. Representatives of the ministers and the top representatives of the five public institutions involved in the strip were present at the event in which the nominations for the board of directors took place, but the commitment to the people living in the strip on the part of these actors and institutions diminished in the following meetings.
The committee concluded that visiting the communities in the strip could be difficult so, in an attempt to encourage the authorities to attend, they decided to hold a meeting in Coca, as Francisco de Orellana, the capital of Orellana province, is known. Despite these efforts, the meeting was only attended by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and from Proamazonía, an anti-deforestation program run by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture. “Representatives from the communities [of the strip] made it all the way to Coca, so how could the absence of these [official] bodies not cause disquiet,” Taco said when lamenting the disregard for the region shown by Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s government. As a result of this, the vice president of the committee encouraged the splitting of the organization and, accompanied by a group of supporters, issued a statement calling for the Strip of Diversity and Life to be abolished.
Taco has sought to consolidate the committee’s standing in order to demand that government institutions comply with the implementation of basic services, the construction of roads to allow farmers to transport their agricultural products to market, the implementation of education and health infrastructure, financial compensation for preserving the rainforest intact and the creation of more job opportunities. Taco has also called for the committee’s board of directors to be restructured. “We have made little progress. We have only got to the point where the strip’s convention and management model are being revised,” he said.
Aug. 23, 2022, was the day of the hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights [against the Ecuadorian State for violations against the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples], “and there it was effectively demonstrated that the state had done little to nothing. In that sense, we as a project have taken advantage of this situation to invite them, so that the state will be more proactive,” said Wilson Vega, Terramaz’s territorial coordinator.
Meanwhile, Terramaz is looking to give the committee added legitimacy by making it the convener of training courses for civil construction, catering and fish farming. The decision to carry out these courses came after an investigation into the training needs of the area. “We want to give the idea that the committee is a structure with a function, that it serves [the community] or does the necessary management for the implementation of this [management] model [for the strip],” Alonso Jaramillo explained.
Terramaz has also sought for the committee or the cantonal or provincial decentralized autonomous government to take ownership of Forland. Using this geographic information tool for land management will make it possible to collect information from the Strip for Diversity and Life and monitor the increases or decreases in deforestation there, as well as assess the state of the agroecological farms.
*Banner image: María Roldán puts into practice what she learned at the Agroecological Field School. She claims that her coffee crop has improved and the grains are now bigger. Image by Armando Prado.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 9, 2023.
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