This is a crucial moment for the world’s tropical forests. Among the most biodiverse systems in the world, tropical forests are also one of the most vulnerable to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and land degradation.
“If you look at any of the most important metrics of environmental problems — if you look at carbon storage, if you look at rate of destruction, if you look at intensity of biological diversity — it’s all in tropical forests,” said Indy Burke, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).
The F&ES-based Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative (ELTI) is working with practitioners, decision makers and landholders across the tropics to restore and protect these threatened landscapes, providing them the access to information and the tools to achieve more sustainable practices.
ELTI does this through field training and online education that helps people develop the capacity to confront these challenges. ELTI also offers post-training support tailored for its network of alumni to apply and share what they learn in the courses. These alumni include government officials, private sector representatives, farmers, cattle ranchers and other practitioners.
“ELTI comes to the conservation/restoration world with a very different approach,” said Eva Garen, director of ELTI. “We work from the bottom up and we try to integrate conservation and restoration strategies into traditional livelihoods.”
A critical part of ELTI’s success is that it involves from the beginning the local leaders and practitioners in restoring ecosystems and conserving biodiversity, said Garen.
“These are living landscapes; people are managing and using these landscapes and have been for many years,” she said. “If restoration makes sense for them and integrates ways of supporting their livelihoods, people are more likely to care for the trees and give them a chance to stay in the landscape for long enough to bring back and maintain ecosystem services and biodiversity.”
Importantly, this process also makes the latest knowledge on ecological restoration and sustainable production systems — and the resources to develop programs that use this information — available to people who otherwise might not have access to these resources. According to David Neidel, ELTI’s Asia advisor, although this body of knowledge continues to grow, the vast majority of people in the world can’t access it. ELTI provides access to that knowledge, synthesizing the latest information with practical insights from people who have experience restoring tropical forest landscapes, he said.
ELTI team members and partners translate this knowledge into local languages and through concepts that resonate with local communities in training landscapes that ELTI established with in-country partners throughout the tropics. Each ELTI training landscape is network of demonstration sites and model farms for experiential learning, knowledge exchange and innovation.
In the Philippines, where more than 20 typhoons happen every year, ELTI works with communities that have been affected by natural calamities. There is only about 3 percent of natural forests left in the country, which leaves landscapes prone to severe landslides when a typhoon hits, Neidel explained. ELTI is helping landholders restore their lands, strengthening the capacity of people, biodiversity, and ecosystems to recover from these disasters. They do this through “rainforestation,” a practice that uses species that are native to the region.
In Panama, a biodiversity hotspot that has become a mosaic of cattle ranches and large-scale farms, they are working with local communities to promote sustainable agriculture but also strategies to restore tropical forest landscapes. In farms that were once degraded, farmers are now producing more and better. Odielca Solis, an ELTI alumna in Panama, now has cattle and trees in the same area, producing mangos, passion fruit, Persian lime, coffee and protecting water streams and biodiversity. “We don’t have to damage the environment in order to have earnings,” Solis said.” ELTI changed things… it opened doors. And here it is, we have the solution!”
And in Colombia, ELTI is providing hands-on, technical assistance that helps farmers identify their own solutions. Today, local landholders produce high-quality products, such as sustainable milk, to increase their income while also supporting ecosystems and protecting biodiversity. They do this through a production strategy, known as silvopastoral systems, that combines trees and animal production. This approach is scaling out all over the country and was even part of a national program called Mainstreaming Biodiversity in Sustainable Cattle Ranching. ELTI and in-country partners helped train many technical staff and farmers who were part this program.
“We are able to understand the difficulties that they face, but at the same time we have the right language to speak about environmental problems with them,” said Zoraida Calle, ELTI’s Colombia coordinator. “We’re seeing results in plant cover at the landscape scale, [we’re seeing] more forest areas, and at the same time we’re seeing farmers that are developing a culture of stewardship for the land.”
In Brazil, where there are more than 200 million hectares of pasture that are mostly degraded, farmers and ranchers have started learning from the experiences of ELTI team members and its alumni from Colombia and Panama to implement their own silvopastoral systems. Young leaders, who are the third generation of small landholders in rural settlements, have started implementing projects to diversify their family’s source of income. Also, farmers from a watershed that supplies water to more than 7 million people have started receiving training and support from ELTI to improve the quality of their milk products and the sustainability of their farms using silvopastoral systems, said Desirée Lopes, ELTI’s associate director.
And in Indonesia, ELTI is working with the private sector and local communities to restore the habitats of important primate species, such as the proboscis monkey and the Bornean gibbon. ELTI also provides training to rehabilitate riparian zones within oil palm plantations, coal mine sites, and mangroves.
These kinds of initiatives, Lopes said, are only possible because ELTI has had a long-standing support from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. “These are programs that take time to develop,” she said. “Arcadia had the vision to invest in long-term capacity development, so we were able to build relationships with key stakeholders, find out from people what was most needed in their contexts and stay in these places for long enough so we can actually make an impact.”
As ELTI’s programming continues to expand so does the demand for even more. According to Garen, natural resource managers and farmers across the tropical world reach out to ELTI asking if there might be opportunities to adapt programming for their home countries. And so they are working to identify opportunities to create innovative programming, in the field and online, to reach even more people.
View some of the exciting projects developed by ELTI alumni across the world.
Members of ELTI’s network of alumni — which now exceeds 7,400 — are looking for support to share their experiences with others. Across the world, they want to turn that knowledge into on-the-ground results, such as increasing tree cover, mitigating the effects of natural calamities, continuing cultural heritage, and establishing community associations and other bottom-up actions that support biodiversity and livelihoods.
“That’s our goal, to support our alumni with project incubation, open-access information, networks and leadership development so they can apply and share their knowledge,” Lopes said. “It’s their time to shine and become global restoration leaders. And that’s where ELTI is going next.”