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Nature-based vs. technological approaches to adaptation to climate change in the Peruvian Andes

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  • Challenges and opportunities for the restoration of Andean forests

Challenges and opportunities for the restoration of Andean forests

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In some parts of Ecuador, communities have started to change the landscape by clearing small patches of forest for crops and to feed their animals. Photo by T. Munita/CIFOR
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The Andes mountain range as viewed from Ecuador. Restoration efforts are underway in Andean forests across the region. Photo by T. Munita/CIFOR

Views on ecological restoration in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

The tropical forests of the Andes in Latin America are key global ecosystems that make an extraordinary contribution to the world’s biodiversity and livelihoods. Andean forests are the source of huge rivers, and have more varied and unique species than the Amazon. But they are now are threatened by increasing demographic pressures, and by harvesting and production practices.

In the past decade, ecological restoration has become a vital strategy to recover the integrity and functionality of degraded ecosystems, to promote sustainable development, and to mitigate climate change.

Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia — the countries hosting tropical Andean ecosystems — have each set quantitative restoration targets. But what has been the real progress in these countries? And what is happening to their Andean forests?

To understand developments in tropical Andean forest restoration, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Andean Forests Program — a regional initiative of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), facilitated by a partnership between Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Condesan — undertook a comparative analysis to look at the progress, challenges and future prospects of Andean forest restoration in these four countries.

Over a period of 14 months, researchers examined academic, legal and policy documents and conducted more than 40 interviews. Their aim was to identify challenges and opportunities to guide the next steps in restoration policy and practice for Andean forests. The resulting analysis will prove essential in making the most of “unprecedented” levels of international attention and funds, says Manuel Guariguata, co-author of the study and leader of CIFOR’s Forest Management and Restoration Team.

“It is now essential to start the restoration process,” says Carolina Murcia, a senior researcher affiliated with the Pontifical Xavierian University in Colombia and lead author on the study. “We can’t afford to lose more natural capital; rather, it is time to start recovering it.”

Read more: Lessons from Latin America for forest landscape restoration

A peatland landscape is seen in Peru. Photo by R. Bhomia/CIFOR


A key finding of the study is heterogeneity among Andean forests. “Each of the four study countries has its own history, geography and socioeconomic situation, which determine its relationship with Andean forests and the restoration approach,” says Murcia.

Colombia is leading the movement, with 50 years’ experience in restoration and a historical focus on these forests: the Andes are home to 75% of country’s population, but are also fertile lands and a major source of its water. In addition, 70% of Colombia’s electricity is generated by water flowing through these forests.

The National Plan for Forest Restoration of Ecuador, for its part, identifies two priority criteria for fertile Andean areas: landslide prevention and water resource protection.

Meanwhile, the relationship of Peru and Bolivia to Andean forests is completely different. In Peru, these ecosystems, known as yungas, or “high rainforests”, originally covered 15% of the nation’s territory. With steep slopes and high moisture levels, they are seen as an area of passage to the Amazon. “In this region, all forests are often seen as ‘rainforests’ and are considered for harvesting purposes as a source of timber. Thus, restoration has also played a very discreet role,” says Murcia.

In Bolivia, there are large forest areas with low population density. According to the study, this “has resulted in a culture of abundance, where the notion of restoration does not even fit.” The current philosophy of the state, for example, “does not allow forest restoration outside a production scheme,” Murcia says.

Strangely, local people who have occupied the Bolivian highlands for decades are not aware of the disappearance of their forests. The study reveals that “the scarcity they may experience in periods of drought is not associated with loss or, therefore, restoration.” According to Murcia, all this shows why restoration is still in the early stages in Bolivia and Peru.

This heterogeneity in approaches to restoration is reflected in aspects such as policy frameworks, implementation mechanisms, and the links between decision-makers, biological resource managers, academia and civil society.


In spite of the differences, the four countries also face common challenges. The first is to integrate a new, holistic discipline such as ecological restoration into government policies ranging from natural resource management to development. Restoration, says Murcia, means much more than increasing forest cover and capturing carbon.

An additional challenge is to comply with international restoration commitments through national programs but with local implementation — something difficult when technical capacity, technology and information are limited.

Other challenges? One is the lack of a common definition. “What restoration means for one sector may not mean the same to another,” says Guariguata, mentioning the tasks of assessing the success or failure of programs, and meeting international targets such as the Bonn Challenge. In his view, there is also a need to develop a unified vision of the discipline, which is currently fragmented into sectors such as environment, agriculture and indigenous peoples.

Restoration is a long-term process, which can take from six to ten decades to consolidate. Success, says Murcia, cannot be achieved without community commitment, and structures for management and budgetary administration that go beyond presidential terms and “protect initiatives against political whims.”

Read more: Learning from women’s and men’s perspectives on agroforestry to enhance climate change strategies and actions in Latin America

In some parts of Ecuador, communities have started to change the landscape by clearing small patches of forest for crops and to feed their animals. Photo by T. Munita/CIFOR


Although one of the international targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, known as Aichi #15, is to restore 15% of the ecosystems degraded by 2020, the study sets a more realistic objective: each country should start from this commitment, ensuring that in 50 years these ecosystems will be on an appropriate path of restoration for biodiversity. This means recovering the variety of species, not recovering the land for production purposes, says Murcia.

To achieve community commitment, she considers it essential to secure land tenure and to report both the effects of degradation of forest landscapes and the benefits of their recovery.

“Restoration works! What needs to be done is to guide communities and understand the social and economic drivers of degradation,” she says.

In addition, the participation of the academic sector and NGOs in program design needs to be strengthened. Verónica Gálmez, Andean Forests Program incidence coordinator, explains that “NGOs act as hinges between local and national actors and provide an overall view of territorial and sectoral levels.”

According to Gálmez, the study can help prioritize interventions and investments and determine baselines. Thus, dissemination actions are planned for the various countries.

Murcia, like Gálmez, views the future with optimism. The reason? Communities’ growing interest in recovering their forested landscapes. “In the end, restoration is much more than planting trees. It is about turning the relationship between people and nature into something positive.”

By Gloria Pallares, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Manuel Guariguata at or Carolina Murcia at

 This research was prepared by CIFOR and the Andean Forests Program, facilitated by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Condesan and financially supported by CIFOR through the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors, and by the Department for International Development (DFID) through the KNOWFOR program. The Andean Forests Program is part of the Global Programme on Climate Change of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

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  • Trees in Andes to counter Peru’s climate and water crisis, says FTA scientist

Trees in Andes to counter Peru’s climate and water crisis, says FTA scientist

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N-fixing alder trees line an oat field in a traditional Andean agroforestry system. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF
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Remnants of quenuale forest on almost bare hills in Huascaran National Park. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

By Cathy Watson, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World Blog

In Peru, the Andes used to be home to biting poverty but are far more prosperous today. Their indigenous inhabitants benefited from land reform, and successive governments have invested in roads, municipalities and even sports grounds. Nevertheless, there is much to worry about. The environment is profoundly fragile,  its degradation threatening economic growth.

Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is researching the mountains’ trees.  Over half the water in the Amazon watershed comes from Andean forests. But they are fragmented, neglected and a fraction of what they once were. On farms, exotic trees have supplanted native ones.

Coming up: Virtual Symposium on water, climate and forests

In Ancash, Mathez-Stiefel, who is also a Senior Research Scientist  at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) in Bern, meets experts on social and environmental change. “In Peru we’ve done well on production but less on environment,” says Pedro Estrada, who heads ALLPA, an NGO based in the town of Huari.

Looking across at a group of women in traditional hats and big skirts and at a poster for a bullfight with matadors from Colombia, Estrada says. “It’s striking to see indigenous women eating in restaurants, and twenty years ago, no one would have had ten soles to see a bull fight. Today more money circulates in the economy.”

Other informed commentators also appreciate Peru’s progress but worry deeply about its sustainability. Dr. David Vidal, who directs Peru’s National Research Institute on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, describes how “the glaciers in the Andes have dangerously retreated – 40% since the 1970s”.

Highly degraded sloping land in Peru’s Ancash region. The vegetation is dominated by species of Eucalyptus. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

Robert Lopez, who is chief of the 340,000 ha Huascaran National Park, is worried that the park’s 41 sub-watersheds are overlooked, especially in light of Peru’s water crisis. “We have to see the park as a water bank that produces water.”

Lopez has just 26 rangers. Yet the park holds most of Peru’s glaciers and lies in the world’s highest tropical mountain chain, the Cordillera Blanca. Rivers that start in the park flow to the Amazon as well as Peru’s hot arid Pacific coast where large farms rely on their water to produce the exports that have helped make Peru a middle income country. Income per person is now $12,000 a year.

The growth of jobs elsewhere in Peru partly explains the threat. “When the park was created in 1975, government gave rights to the people who were using it,” says Lopez. “But they were meant to periodically withdraw to let it recover. This broke down 10-15 years ago. Mining dynamized the economy, pulling men out of cattle. They now just roam, compacting soil and stopping regeneration.”

Glacier expert Dr. Vidal says “In the last 20 years, there has been an abandonment of agriculture towards mining, medium cities, and the coast. In agriculture, you can earn 10-12 soles a day, in mining 40-70. What type of reforestation can we do? Plantations have been planted but we need to think about how to make them deliver more ecosystem services and improve water infiltration.”

N-fixing alder trees line an oat field in a traditional Andean agroforestry system. Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

Mathez-Stiefel has documented changes in highland villages. One was a vast hacienda 40 years ago with Argentine livestock. Until land reform in the 1970s, its Quechua-speaking inhabitants were serfs who surrendered animals as tithe to the landowner. Transport was by mules, houses were straw, and education took place in a church rather than a school.

Since then, as in most of Peru, where 40% of the population has moved out of poverty since 2000, a great deal has improved. The village now belongs to the community and has houses of cement, potable water, a health center, a kindergarten, primary and secondary school, and electricity. Nationally, 91.4% of dwellings in Peru have electricity, 74.2% in rural areas.

“Some people say land reform was rushed, and there have been attempts to reverse it,” says ALPA’s Estrada, whose grandfather’s own 40 hectares were given to his workers in the reform. “But people are much better off because of it. The system was unjust. There are still communities in the jungle that are made up of people who fled peon status in the Andes.”

However, Mathez-Stiefel has found less positive change – more extreme weather and crop disease, less forest and indigenous tree cover, the virtual disappearance of llamas and other camelids, and depopulation, particularly the flight of men.

Anthropologist Teófilo Altamirano from Peru’s Catholic University calls internal migration “the major transformational force of the past 60 years” in the Andes. Today just 30% of Peruvians live in the mountains, half the figure before. Other ICRAF research has found that about 15% of people in the Amazon are Quechua speakers, a sign of the number of indigenous people that have left the highlands.

Mathez-Stiefel believes trees can address the interlinked challenges of climate, water, energy, diet and livelihoods. “The Andes is dominated by eucalyptus but there is also a rich array of traditional agroforestry practices and indigenous species. One of the most exciting is quenuales, a tree which lives where nothing else lives – up to 15,000 feet.”

“Quenuales (Polylepsis spp.) are uniquely suited to store water in upper basins,” says literature at the Huascaran National Park. “The leaves and bark absorb water, thus creating very humid zones in which there is development of mosses, lichens and fungi. The water absorbed is deposited underground and feeds the region’s ponds. The roots prevent erosion and landslides to lower areas.”

Increasingly aware of its importance, government has begun restoring quenuales. Farmer Margarita Rubina, 42, approves. “It’s a sturdy hedge and protects the house from wind and its branches are good for cooking,” she says.  Dressed traditionally, in many ways, she represents the new Andes. Guinea pigs run around her feet on her earth floor. But her children study in schools in town. And where Rubino once had a herd of criollos, descendants of the small stocky cattle brought by the Spaniards 500 years ago, she now has four exotic cows and sells cheese. Mathez-Stiefel and Estrada discuss if planting protein-rich fodder trees might raise her output of milk.

“The rural world has not been seen as an opportunity for life,” says the vet, whose family has been Andean for 300 years. “We need to improve rural identity. Youth do not want to repeat the lives of their parents. But a dignified comfortable life is possible here. Agroforestry is super interesting”

Mathez-Stiefel has work ahead but has clearly found allies.

___ _ _ _ _ _ _ ___

For more about ICRAF’s program in the Andes, contact

Her research to characterize Andean villages was a collaboration between ICRAF and the Andean Forest Program funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). It forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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