Enhancing equitable and sustainable forest restoration in the Ecuadorian Andes


While Ecuador’s constitutional adoption of the Rights of Nature and protection of the Andean-Bear-Corridor offer new opportunities for reversing some of the fastest deforestation rates in the world, conservation conflicts remain. Even within protected areas, small-scale farming has drastically reduced tree cover. This pilot project focusses on leveraging access to land title and the application of Rights of Nature principles to mitigate socio-economic disparities and enhance forest conservation.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project addresses the following SDGs:

    SDG 1 – No Poverty
    SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities
    SDG13 – Climate Action
    SDG 15 – Life on Land
    SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
    SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

Ecuador's landmark vote to adopt Rights of Nature principles into their constitution in 2008, which recognises Nature's right to flourish and helps to safeguard biodiversity hotspots, including the Andean-Bear-Corridor, provides a foundation to address one of the world's most alarming deforestation challenges. However despite these efforts, widespread barriers to conservation persist. For instance even in designated protected areas, the impact of small-scale farming has resulted in a significant reduction of tree cover, reaching as low as 10% in numerous locations. 

Halting and reversing the ongoing, devastating deforestation of the Andes requires a comprehensive approach that encompass socio-economic, political and legal aspects. Previous SSRP projects, such as initiating vanilla production as an alternative livelihood, have highlighted the perilous socio-economic status of farmers and the lack of land tenure as factors likely to impact both wildlife conservation and local communities.

This initiative serves as a pilot project to explore methodologies for a Darwin Initiative proposal focussing on the potential of facilitating access to land titles and implementing Rights of Nature approaches to reduce socio-economic inequalities and enhance conservation efforts.

The team hypothesises that:

  1. Constitutional Rights of Nature (Art 70-74) can complement domestic laws and policies that advocate for secure land ownership (Art 83(6) & 408) 
  2. Farmers with recognised land titles will protect their land better, contributing to the preservation and restoration of native forests and species protection, and are more likely to have improved socio-economic conditions
  3. Andean bears, classified as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction (IUCN Red List), are threatened by local farmers due to their purported threat to livestock and crops. Rights of Nature approaches can support land management that are sympathetic to wildlife, reducing human-wildlife conflict, in contrast to pressures to weaken carnivore protection legislation seen elsewhere
  4. Interventions can be designed to deliver synergistic benefits across multiple outcomes, including advancing the implementation of the SDGs (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Four overlapping circles demonstrating the intersection of social, economic and legal biodiversity issues

By fostering capacity development and providing direct legal and technical support, this project aims to address power asymmetries concerning control over land and forest resources and their conservation. In doing so, this intiative aligns with SDG targets 10.2 and 10.3 (Reduced Inequalities) and contributes to the empowerment of local communities for sustainable land management, thereby enhancing economic outcomes (SDG 1 No Poverty).

Supporting local communities to control and manage their lands sustainably relates directly to targets 15.1 and 15.2 (SDG Life on Land) while contributing to climate change mitigation activities (targets 13.3 and 13.b under Goal 13 Climate Action). These targets also relate to the Ecuadorian government’s own introduction of Rights of Nature legislation which this project seeks to support.

Through the team's ongoing collaboration with the Cambugán Foundation, local communities and government institutions, the project actively builds partnerships for the SDGs. Simultaneously, it empowers local individuals to engage meaningfully in Ecuador's legal and political institutions, addressing targets 16.3, 16.6, 16.7, and 16.b under Goal 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions).

Timeline and funding


December 2023 - July 2024


SSRP funding (£20,000)


This project aims to develop the methodologies and deliver pilot data required for a Darwin bid in 2024 to test the four abovementioned hypotheses. The overarching goal is to develop optimal interventions  that align with the needs and perspectives of local populations, while complying with Ecuadorian laws and legislation.

The study location is chosen as the Provincial Government will issue land titles conditional on the provision of geo-referenced maps, legal documents, a reforestation plan (targeting 60% land cover), and a sustainable management plan for remaining land. The rationale for choosing this location is reinforced by the fact that farmers in this region become eligible for modest subsidies, known as 'socio-bosque' payments, designed to incentivise sustainable forest management practices. These subsidies are a crucial component of the Provincial Government's approach to supporting and advancing environmental conservation efforts within the community.

Through this research project, the team aims to:

    1. develop and pilot a scheme to facilitate land title applications and the use of Rights of Nature approaches by training para-legals and para-biologists;
    2. identify appropriate indicators and methodologies for measuring long-term changes in social, economic and ecological outcomes, by conducting a comparative analysis between sites with and without land titles
    3. establish how private land ownership can incorporate the responsibilities of both the state and individuals to act in accordance with Rights of Nature principles.  

A fundamental challenge for biodiversity protection is identifying interventions that are effective in protecting natural habitats from agriculture and other economically-favourable activities. Academically, this intiative aims to build capacity for long-term research on the effectiveness of legal frameworks in achieving desired outcomes. Using the concept of para-biologists pioneered at Sussex, the project is novel in training and deploying para-legals for a conservation-based project. Continued collaboration with the Andean University in Ecuador and the academic training for an Ecuadorian law graduate are integral components. Sussex students from the School of Life Sciences will analyse camera trap data, with results intended for publication in peer-reviewed journals and reporting to the Ecuadorian government.

Through this project, the Cambugán Foundation anticipates strengthening its relationship with Local and National Government Officials. In-person visits ensure adherence to written commitments related to providing land titles in exchange for the development of appropriate management plans. A UK barrister, specialising in Rights of Natur legislation, will contribute pro-bono work and conduct site visits. Additionally, two UK-based volunteers skilled in biological recording will visit the area, providing training to para-biologists in the analysis of camera trap and acoustic biological data. 

Expected outcomes and impacts

Residents of the Choco-Andean region are largely migrants who have arrived since the 1950s. The documents required for land title applications are unavailable to most residents, who lack access to computers and/or internet, have no training in mapping, or are unskilled in writing ecological management plans. By facilitating access to these documents, the project aims to empower people to access their legal entitlements across five parishes, one of which participates in the previously mentioned SSRP-funded initiative on sustainable vanilla production. In addition, by linking facilitation with forest restoration, this research will assist in the formation of more positive attitudes towards forest ecosystems. Despite the vital role of the forest in ensuring soil stability and regulating water flows amongst other things, previous anthropological research suggested residents in the Choco-Andean region predominantly perceived the forest as offering little to the community.

From an economic standpoint, the training of para-legals and para-biologists from the region serves a dual purpose. It not only provides direct skills and employment opportunities but also facilitates access to land titles for local families. The acquisition of land titles may have widespread economic impacts on individual families, as it profoundly affects their ability to sell land or pass it down to their descendents. SSRP researches will collaborate closely with the Cambugán Foundation, a community-led initiative, who are contracted to lead the training workshops, coordinate the pilot project, and subsequently pay the trainees to gather preliminary data. 

Related work

See previous research funded through SSRP on promoting 'Sustainable livelihoods, carbon storage, biodiversity conservation through forest vanilla production

The team

Where we worked

Andean region, Ecuador.