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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Collective action through benefit-sharing mechanisms: a way out of rural poverty, inequality and environmental degradation?

Workshop in Coello, August 2012. Courtesy of Beth-Sua Carvajal

Time and again we’ve been struggling to find the best recipe for mixing conservation practices with economic development experiments, trying to spice up the potpourri with some sustainability, equity and fairness seasonings. Time and again we’ve been trying to give communities what belongs to communities, reshaping the story about how human get things done – for their own good and for the good of the environment.

In the Coella and Combeima watersheds (Tolima, Colombia) the narrative of managing the commons is taking such a participatory shape. Community actors, from individuals to organizations, from private to public sector, take part in the designing and promotion of benefit-sharing mechanisms (BSMs) meant to guarantee the provision of ecosystem services and the well-being of the communities in the region. Such a scheme seems to be an answer to the failure of the traditional Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes to redistribute wealth in an equitable manner and to solve social inequalities. The BSM is a collective action process where an agreement among watershed inhabitants and stakeholders aims to solve the existing  problems in the region such as deforestation, erosion, pollution of water bodies, reduced flow, loss of biodiversity and soil fertility. It seeks the satisfaction of both collective and individual interests without prejudicing the baseline resources, quality of life and well-being of the affected population.

The initiative is part of a larger project funded by the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) bringing together the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the World Wildlife Fund- Colombia (WWF), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the National University of Colombia (UNAL). The project is developed for three Andean countries: Bolivia (EL Alto, La Paz), Colombia (Coello, Combeima, Alto Putumayo) and Peru (Santa). The project seeks to identify the variables that need to be taken into account when BSMs are designed as means to fight against rural poverty and environmental degradation. In this sense, the Citizen Action Discussion Group (Conversatorio de Acción Ciudadana) serves as a community tool for effective participation and influence on decision-making, linking rights and duties of citizens with conflicts that affect this group. The process is developed in three stages (preparation, negotiation and monitoring), where representatives of communities and local organizations are trained and empowered to effectively use knowledge on political, social, economic, legal, cultural, environmental and technical aspects.

Such an initiative is an ambitious effort to eliminate asymmetric power relationships in the region, paying particular attention to the active integration of former marginalized groups in the process of negotiating and designing the BSMs. At the same time, it is a valuable opportunity to understand the watershed context through the local actors’ eyes, the various interests and needs in relation to BSMs, as well as to identify windows of cooperation and complementarity among the various actors. With this, one is also reminded that when managing the commons diversity can be the missing spice in the recipe; It can replace tragedy with cooperation provided that there is enough room for thorough understanding and analysis of the setting, horizontal dialogue and negotiation.

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