Reciprocal Water Agreements protect millions of hectares of Bolivian forest

Reciprocal Water Agreements protect millions of hectares of Bolivian forest

  • In return for committing to protect their water producing forests, farming families living in upper watersheds receive incentives to help them develop sustainable production initiatives and to connect their homes to drinking water.
  • These incentives are mainly funded by the municipality and from water service providers via a monthly payment made by service users.
  • The model has expanded rapidly in Bolivia and is beginning to be replicated in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

More than a decade ago, Bolivia pioneered an innovative conservation project. For the very first time, inhabitants of the same watershed, both those living in rural areas and in cities, could work together to protect the forest and its water sources.

These Reciprocal Water Agreements, also known by the Spanish-language language acronym ARA (Acuerdo Recíproco por Agua), sought to raise awareness of the fact that water protection is the responsibility of everyone who benefits from the resource, not just of those living along the headwaters of rivers high in the mountains or along the streams in the middle watershed. Such agreements would enable city dwellers in the lower part of the basin to create a fund to pool economic resources and support upstream farmers as they protected water sources.

The program was dreamed up by five locals, who wanted to take action to protect part of their territory. By 2019, it had already attracted 8,000 farmers protecting 350,000 hectares in 58 Bolivian municipalities. A scientific study that set out to evaluate the model’s results found that “this conservation was in exchange of $500,000 worth of development projects annually contributed by 250,000 water users.”

Today, “there are 24,000 farmers in Bolivia protecting almost 600,000 hectares in around 80 municipalities,” says María Teresa Vargas, Executive Director of the Natura Foundation (Fundación Natura), the organization managing the ARAs. The program has become a prime example of conservation success, leading to the creation of 23 protected areas totaling 3.4 million hectares in Bolivia, and is currently beginning to be emulated in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

Protecting forests in the watershed headwaters is vital for ensuring water supply. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

What are ARAs?

María Binda Gutiérrez Padilla grew up in a rural part of the Quebrada León community in Santa Cruz, living there until she was 30. Fourteen years ago, she bought a piece of land that she is very proud of in the Alto Espejo forest community, in the municipality of El Torno.

The streams running across it provide her with the drinking water she and her animals need. “I have water, I don’t need to buy it from anyone else,” she says. There is also a river that she uses to irrigate her fruit trees and to wash. “I can go and bathe whenever I want because it’s there, right next door,” she says.

María Binda Gutiérrez loves her land “because it is very beautiful […] buying it was a blessing,” she says, her voice betraying a smile on the other end of the phone. So when her cousin told her that she had signed a Reciprocal Water Agreement to protect her own forest, there was no question that she would do the same. “I have delicate and fragile forests in my territory, and I was not going to use them,” she explains.

There are 24,000 farmers protecting almost 600,000 hectares in around 80 municipalities in Bolivia. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

She signed her first agreement with the Natura Foundation six years ago. She agreed to protect her forest and, in exchange, to receive four crates of bees plus all the necessary equipment to harvest the honey. She now has six boxes and each one of them yields, per harvest, between 17 and 20 kilos of honey. In total, María Binda Gutiérrez earns an additional 5,000-6,000 Bolivianos a year (about $800) on top of her profits from the sale of the lemons, oranges and tangerines she grows in her orchard, and from the fish she rears in a couple of ponds.

As well as the bee boxes, other farmers who have signed up for ARAs have received help for growing fruit, mainly citrus, and fish farming. However, the program’s main draw, Vargas says, is access to water.

“We tell them to take care of their forest, turning it into a garden for them and for society. In exchange we connect their home to clean water – they have a tap, they have a water system for their community,” Vargas explains.

These agreements have been so beneficial that more and more farmers are committing to protecting their forest – and scientists have become interested in understanding the reasons behind this success.

Bee boxes.
Bee boxes, equipment to develop fruit and fish farming, and water access are some of the incentives received by farmers who sign up to ARAs. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

A study published in the journal World Development claims that “unfortunately, the conservation sector has rarely been able to identify scalable solutions, with most interventions comprising one-off projects adapted to specific local circumstances.” This means that “unless conservation practitioners can develop replicable solutions – and rigorously evaluate if they work beyond one location – they will simply be unable to solve the climate crisis.”

The study argues that Reciprocal Water Agreements, however, have not only managed to circumvent that difficulty, but the results of a second scientific study also show that they have “a positive impact on environmental values.” The research suggests that, in the places where ARAs were implemented, “the intervention increased the likelihood that people choose environmental protection as a value that should be prioritized for their children.”

But what is it about this project that has made it so successful? The key seems to be reciprocity. “Reciprocity towards my forest, my neighbor, towards those who live in the middle basin and towards the people who live in the lower basin who also need this essential resource. We all share the responsibility of taking care of the forest,” says Vargas.

A man carrying pipes.
“Take care of your forest, turning it into a garden for you and for society. In exchange we will connect your home to clean water.” Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

Funding based on reciprocity

For Richard Estrada, Natura’s Technical Director, the project’s finance model has been fundamental in not only ensuring its continuance, but also its growth. So how does it work? The money needed to finance the farmers’ incentives comes from a fund in which drinking water service providers, which in Bolivia are cooperatives and public companies, contribute with a monthly payment made by service users through their water bill. The municipalities themselves and the Natura Foundation also contribute.

Renán Seas, Vice President of the Board for the CEAPA cooperative, one of El Torno’s drinking water service providers, says that the cooperative’s users contribute one boliviano per month ($0.15) to the program. “We are all aware that our boliviano is going up there, straight to the water sources. We have made this very clear, because otherwise our water supply, which is vital for life, is going to be affected,” says Seas.

Because the amount is voluntary, it varies depending on the cooperative. “Sometimes it is a percentage and sometimes it is a fixed amount,” explains Estrada. “So there are some cooperatives with 8,000 or 9,000 users that collect close to half a million bolivianos (around $72,000).”

The municipality contributes 1% of its own income. “Of all the tax revenue collected by a municipality, such as taxes levied by the city on houses and cars, 1% goes to the water fund,” explains Estrada. In addition, the municipality also contributes 0.5% of the budget it receives from central government.

Farmers laying pipes.
The money to finance the farmers’ incentives comes from a fund that is contributed to by water utility companies, the municipality, and the Natura Foundation. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

The Natura Foundation’s contribution is only $7,000 – and with good reason. “Agreements with farmers last for 10 years, so when the foundation leaves the scheme, its contribution is not even 20%. That way there is no negative financial impact, and it makes the water fund financially sustainable,” explains Estrada. This, he says, has already been proven. The agreement with El Torno, for example, has now ended and “they were not financially affected by our exit.”

In fact, according to Seas, “there are more and more community members living upstream. Before, we had to go and ask them to join the scheme, but now they are coming to us and we lack the resources to continue putting more land into conservation.”

The program attracts the interest of politicians

The results of the program have also motivated some municipalities to place larger areas under protection. Currently “23 protected areas have been created in 20 municipalities, which adds up to around 3.4 million hectares of water-producing forests,” says Vargas.

The foundation has also established agreements with the farmers who own the land surrounding the protected areas, creating a kind of protection belt. “These areas are much better managed than the national protected natural areas, which have no budget and no one there to defend them. Here there are people who take care of them and who are also linking their own personal conservation areas with the larger conservation area created by the municipal government,” Vargas explains.

A stream through the forest.
Twenty-three protected areas have been created in 20 municipalities, totaling approximately 3.4 million hectares of water-producing forests. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

Vargas believes that water has been the key to unlocking opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible. “It is very difficult when you live in countries as poor as ours to tell people that they need to protect their environment because it is morally important, because it is good for climate change, because it is good for society,” she says. Water, on the other hand, “has allowed us to get a lot of people around the table and make decisions about the spaces that need protecting and how we do it,” Vargas explains.

Water is a political issue, she says, not only because ensuring a drinking water supply is a local government responsibility, but also because “the municipal governments go and deliver the incentives, shout about it, and it leads to more votes,” explains Vargas. Her own experience has confirmed, she says, that “well-thought-out conservation can attract a lot of people.”

María Binda Gutiérrez knows this all too well. In 2020, a company seeking to mine limestone approached her with an environmental permit and mining concession, offering to buy her land. When her response was “my land is not for sale,” the offer turned into a threat. “They told me that if I didn’t sell, they were going to take it anyway,” she says.

“Well-thought-out conservation can attract a lot of people.” Image courtesy of Natura Foundation.

Undeterred, Gutiérrez sought help from agricultural unions and the mayor’s office, and brought together more farmers with whom she organized road blockades and filed appeals for protection. Finally, in March of this year, the company’s environmental permit was revoked. “It is a very big personal achievement of mine,” says Gutiérrez, but she is convinced that it would not have been possible without the support of the mayor’s office. “Thank God the authorities defended me,” she says. “They defended the territory because in reality the problem was not mine, it was the municipality’s – if mining happens there, the water will be cut off, because that is where the water comes from.”

For Vargas, “every civil servant at the local, intermediate and national level should be thinking about how to protect their rainforest ecosystems.” The Reciprocal Water Agreements, she says, “represent a super simple mechanism that helps local municipalities with their climate change adaptation and mitigation programs.”

This article was first published here on Oct. 27, 2022, on our Latam site

Banner image courtesy of Natura Foundation (Fundación Natura).


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