Chocó land deal failure shows flaws in Ecuador’s forestry incentive program

Mar 22, 2024 | 0 comments

By Maxwell Radwin

By now, dozens of countries have some version of a forestry incentive program, with the government paying local property owners to keep their trees in the ground. But a lot of the programs have come under scrutiny because they’re easy to manipulate and hard to monitor. The one in Ecuador, Socio Bosque, one of the first in Latin America, is no exception. Since its creation in 2008, it’s been criticized for failing to pay participants and for mismanaging who’s applying for which plots of land.

The Andean Chocó bioregion of northwestern Ecuador. (Photo by Lidia Dávila)

A conflict over thousands of hectares of Chocó forest in the Imbabura and Pichincha provinces — now enmeshed in a decade-long legal battle — shows that the program is also susceptible to potential negligence, corruption and political dealmaking, activists in the area claim.

Over 9,000 hectares (22,239 acres) were stolen from local communities through an illegal land sale, they say. Then the new owners took in thousands of dollars from the Socio Bosque program that could have gone to local conservation efforts. Now, that land is owned by a conservation group trying to sell carbon credits.

“These are people who really need that support to be able to conserve and reforest and to ideally improve their agriculture and land management practices,” said a member of the Land Restoration Lab for the Latin American Association for Alternative Development (ALDEA), who wished to remain anonymous due to legal concerns.

Eight communities in the parishes of Selva Alegre, San José de Quichinche and San José de Minas, located in the Andean Chocó bioregion of northwestern Ecuador, rely on subsistence farming and cattle ranching. The area has high rates of biodiversity and forest cover, and overlaps with the Chocó Andino de Pichincha Biosphere Reserve that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.

In 2005, approximately 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest changed hands through what might have been a legal land deal. But the size of the land was changed from 100 hectares to 9,190 hectares (22,708 acres) on official documents, according to a report from ALDEA and several other groups working in Ecuador.

The company that purchased the land, UCPEIN, was owned by Daniel Antonio and Fabián Renato Sáenz Vargas, who aren’t from the parishes in question. Then they sold the land to their mother, María del Carmen Vargas de la Torre, the report shows.

UCPEIN couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

For five years, Vargas de la Torre received around $30,000 in annual Socio Bosque payments, amounting to more than $150,000. Critics argue that this wasn’t a clerical error on land sale documents but rather intentional “green grabbing,” in which outsiders bought up land and manipulated documents in order to benefit from environmental programs.

“People were interested in protecting and maintaining the forests and benefiting from them,” said Lidia Dávila, a member of the Selva Alegre parish. “[They wanted] to make a slightly better quality of life, a dignified life, and maybe educate our children and improve their lives. But it’s something that only remains a dream.”

For most of the time that the Vargas de la Torre was collecting payments, locals were trying to apply for the Socio Bosque program themselves, and didn’t understand why they were rejected. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that they discovered Vargas de la Torre had already enrolled in the program, following an inspection by local authorities.

Complaints filed to the Ministry of Environment have led to multiple inspections, and Vargas de la Torre was ordered to return $152,364.

Multiple companies have tried to buy the land over the last several years only to be dissuaded by the legal questions surrounding the title. But in October 2020, the organization Rainforest of Ecuador purchased it for $3.68 million and is trying to sell it again for more than $7 million. The organization is a subsidiary of Rainforest Resources, which works with private companies to offset their carbon emissions through the purchase of carbon credits. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Without support from the government, residents have begun staging protests on the land and reaching out for help to organizations like ALDEA. But they’re unsure whether the problem will be resolved any time soon.

“It is painful that, in my country, our own authorities aren’t interested in our future or our well-being. Far from it,” Dávila said. “But we’re going to try to help ourselves and defend for ourselves.”
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Credit: Mongabay

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