Spotlight on Latin America: Q & A with Marta Echavarria

By Adrian Vogl and Marcelo Guevara | February 26, 2019

 

Ecologist and entrepreneur Marta Echavarria has long been a pioneer in the field of communicating the values of nature to diverse audiences, working to protect nature by showing how communities depend on and benefit from natural ecosystems. Echavarria is Colombian, lives in Ecuador and works in Peru, which gives her a truly Andean perspective. In 1995, she founded EcoDecisión along with partner Jacob Olander. EcoDecisión is an enterprise dedicated to developing new ways to fund biodiversity conservation and sustainable rural livelihoods.

Echavarria is well known in the Andes-Amazon region for helping to foster some of the earliest and most iconic water funds in Latin America, including in the Cauca Valley (Colombia), and for the cities of Quito (Ecuador) and Lima (Peru). The expansion of the water fund idea across Latin America has generated a huge and growing demand for the kind of work that NatCap engages in around science, data, and standardized approaches for water fund investment and impact.

We sat down with Echavarria to learn more about the role of science for building political and financial support for conservation, the vital role that indigenous peoples and perspectives can play, and her vision for a future where people and nature thrive.

Echavarria will speak on Tuesday of the Natural Capital Symposium at the panel, “Achievements and challenges in a changing Latin America.” Registration for the 2019 Symposium ends March 7.

Marta EchavarriaPlease tell us a little about yourself.

Echavarria: I was trained as an ecologist, which means that my education focused on understanding the cycles of life. But my experience and my passion is to bridge science and practice, the scientific and the social, and what I enjoy now is playing the role of a translator – to make concepts from the natural and physical sciences simpler and more practical to those, like economists, who are not trained in these fields.

What are some of the most exciting successes in your career in recent years?

Seeing the processes that I was involved in back in the 1990s – starting with the water users’ associations in the Cauca Valley in Colombia – alive and well today as functioning water funds. At the time, some might have considered these investments to be, shall we say, unnecessary. So for me, my biggest feeling of accomplishment is that these programs have institutional and financial durability after all these years.

Secondly, I love seeing the evolution of professionals in this field. For example, people that I worked with in Colombia, in Ecuador, and in Peru, that have moved on to different jobs but are still passionate about ecosystem services. Even though they have changed roles, these people continue working toward the same goals. The idea that I was helped in my efforts, and that I have in turn been able to support and inspire other people to take on this work – seeing this turn into an inter-generational movement, motivates me to continue helping the next generation of conservation advocates.

What is your biggest professional challenge now?

I think that the biggest challenge now it to guarantee that our successes have sustainability over time, that these approaches are mainstreamed. We need to get to a point where these investments in protection and in nature are not only used in the water supply sector or the environmental sector, but in every sector: agriculture, hydroelectricity, transportation, finance, and that the maintenance costs of all these services includes the costs of protecting and regenerating the ecosystems that they depend on. And we need to guarantee that we have people with the capacity and knowledge to carry these programs on. And the challenge of mainstreaming is not just here in Latin America, but all over the world.

What is the role of nature in helping society confront these challenges?

Sometimes, those of us who live in western societies, who live by the scientific method and are immersed in formal economies, forget that we still have a lot to learn from indigenous communities about how everything – nature and society – is interconnected. I think that’s what we have to understand the most: that we are an integral part of the world. It’s not just that we depend on nature, but that somehow nature is much more important to us than we are to it. Indigenous communities are not separated from nature. Their worldview is totally integral, and I think that new generations need to return to that way of viewing their place in the world.
When it comes to payments for ecosystem services, I think that we still have a long way to go towards systems that really support a mutually-beneficial relationship between those that protect or produce resources and those that use them. We have not yet realized this integrated vision at scale – we are still at a point where our solutions are partial, dispersed, and small-scale.

What role can the science of ecosystem services play in helping us reach this goal?

I believe that science gives a much broader vision for human beings to understand our role on the planet and also our limitations. Through the scientific method, we can be in a continual learning curve, starting from a basis of ancestral understanding but always deepening that knowledge based on new findings. It is a powerful message to say that nature is important to sustain the economy, and here are the ways to illustrate that: climate cycles, water cycles, nutrient cycles. Through applying the scientific method, we will continue to find and apply solutions that are more powerful than not having them.

But science has its limitations. Scientists are not always great communicators. I believe that the fields of ecosystem services and climate change have failed many times in that sense, because they go into very complex language and jargon so that others, who are not immersed in that world, do not understand. So I do believe that we all have to make the effort to ensure that our science is as simple and understandable as possible to everyone.

What are some key components that must be in place for these efforts to succeed long into the future?

In the past I would have gone on about the importance of having champions, people to pioneer and make visible these new ideas. But now I think we are beyond that, and what we really need is a critical mass of people who are thinking in the same way, who are incorporating and institutionalizing these processes, to make sure we do not lose the ground that we have gained. We have had success in getting resources for conservation (such as the new law of payments for hydrologic services in Peru), but having resources in not enough to guarantee there will be greater implementation of high quality projects with good evaluation and strong performance. And I believe that the greatest struggle – getting these ideas integrated across all sectors – is still to come.

Latin America is seen as a leader in policies to protect ecosystem services and promote investment in them. Do you agree? What can Latin America to do continue driving the changes we seek in the world?

I agree that Latin America has been a leader, and I believe that this might be linked to our indigenous legacy that has marked us in the way we use the Amazonian and Andean territory. Latin Americans are deeply rooted in their land and their ancestors and, despite having a strong history of conquest and violence, at the same time we are linked closely to nature. The pre-Inca civilizations in our past have given us a legacy to live in balance with nature and water cycles. At the same time, we have reached a stage of development where we have basic needs covered, which makes us think that we want cleaner ecosystems, more orderly ecosystems, at least that we should not continue thinking that they are unlimited.

So in the realm of water at least, you can see the wealth of experiences that we have brought to the attention of the world: the pilots in different places in different times, that have now evolved from the voluntary to the more formal and obligatory. You can see it in the experience we have now in Peru, but also in Brazil and other countries in the region. I do believe that we can call ourselves leaders, but at the same time we have some latent and extremely important threats that we cannot forget, such as the mining sector, hydrocarbons, and lack of enforcement of the new norms.

The fact that water is the basis of much of this discussion is not an accident. It is a valuable resource that is essential, is not regenerated easily, and everyone needs it. In that way it is a great aggregator, an opportunity to help people understand, little by little, and finally lead them towards our more integral vision of nature and society working together for the well-being of all.

Adrian Vogl is Lead Scientist and PRO-Agua Project Lead at the Natural Capital Project.
Marcelo Guevara is Research Associate and Latin America specialist at the Natural Capital Project.