The nonprofit organization Practical Action was wrapping up a bird conservation project in northern Peru funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a program the GEF helps support, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe. Suddenly, the isolated community of San José de Lourdes was having difficulty acquiring not only cleaning and disinfectant products, but food as well.
Practical Action rapidly shifted gears and, through an amendment to its CEPF grant, was able to purchase and deliver the direly needed commodities. They also provided seeds, along with instructions, to assist the community with growing their own food.
Conservation work across the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot has transformed since the pandemic began. “Nothing has been able to go forward as planned because so much of what our grantees do involves working in the field and visiting communities,” said Michele Zador, grant director for CEPF’s investment in the Tropical Andes.
As a result, CEPF and its Tropical Andes Regional Implementation Team - Fondo Patrimonio Natural in Colombia and Bolivia, Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano in Ecuador, and Profonanpe in Peru - have worked with grantees to make needed adjustments.
The timeline for the majority of CEPF grants in the hotspot has been extended. Nearly a quarter of grantees, like Practical Action, have also significantly shifted their activities to help communities weather the pandemic.
“What we’ve heard from grantees is that the priority for governments - local, regional, and national - have been the cities,” Zador said. “A lot of these rural communities have felt ignored. At the same time, indigenous peoples are very vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Through a grant to Pialapí Pueblo Viejo Indigenous Reserve in southwest Colombia, CEPF is helping the Awá community purchase and install communications equipment such as radios, relay stations, and antennas.
The Awá territory straddles the remote border region between Ecuador and Colombia, and has longstanding issues with drug traffickers and illegal gold miners passing through, among others. The reserve is in a humanitarian crisis with the murders of Awá community and youth leaders in recent years, and the pandemic has introduced yet another threat. CEPF-funded communications equipment will help bolster the work of the Awá reserve guards in keeping intruders - and COVID-19 - out of their territory.
Meanwhile, indigenous communities of the Chayu Nain Communal Reserve in northern Peru have requested equipment for subsistence fishing to meet their protein needs. “These communities have basically barricaded themselves in, so they are having to become far more self-sufficient,” Zador said.
Most CEPF-funded projects in the Andes that provide training to local communities have shifted from face-to-face meetings to online activities. FELCA in Colombia has allowed local children - who didn’t have online access at home - to use their wireless network funded by CEPF to complete remote schoolwork.
“Local communities, NGOs, indigenous groups, and rural organizations struggle during ‘normal times,’” said Martha Silva Velasco from the CEPF regional implementation team in Colombia. “This pandemic has put extra pressure on many of them as they continue defending and protecting biodiversity in their territories. They really need as much help as they can get.”
When grantees do make plans to go into the field, they must follow protocols to ensure they’re not putting themselves or anyone else at risk.
CEPF is assisting grantees to develop and implement COVID-19 mitigation policies, including the purchase of basic supplies and equipment. In cases where grantee staff are required to travel to rural communities, CEPF is covering COVID-19 testing prior to their visits.
CEPF is also covering costs related to heightening community understanding of COVID-19 prevention strategies, including the production of radio programs in local indigenous languages, the printing of flyers, and planned public health training workshops.
Beyond the immediate needs, CEPF grantees are having to consider more long-term challenges. Fundación CODESPA is working to promote ecotourism in the Bosque Polylepis de Taquesi, which is located close to Bolivia’s capital of La Paz. They anticipate an uptick in national tourism as soon as quarantines are lifted in the city.
Project staff are working with their local counterparts to develop and implement new health measures to keep the community and visitors safe. The effort to integrate COVID-19 mitigation into ecotourism will serve as a model for the hotspot.
“COVID-19 is a new threat to biodiversity in the Andes. We know that when economic opportunities are reduced, people will have no choice but to exploit their natural resources,” Zador said. “We must, therefore, engage in finding solutions.”
This piece was originally published by CEPF, a GEF-supported fund.