The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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Life Below Water – Conserving Marine Areas

This is the second in our series of Darwin blogs celebrating the remarkable and innovative ways Darwin projects contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Our last blog explored two projects in the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle, working to minimise unsustainable shark fishing and implementing collaborative community schemes to better manage seagrass beds.

This blog looks at projects working to establish marine protected areas. With the first project, we travel to Belize and look at a protected area in the heart of the Mesoamerican Reef. From the Caribbean Sea we then move to the South Atlantic to learn about the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary Project and their plans to establish the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic.

Conservation and socioeconomic benefits of a marine protected area at Glover’s Atoll, Belize

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are now common, and have evoked considerable public interest. They have become one of the more popular tools within an ecosystem-based management approach because they are able to balance environmental health and biodiversity conservation with the socio-economic needs of fishing communities across the world’s oceans.

Areas within MPAs where all extractive use is prohibited are traditionally referred to as ‘no-take areas’. However in Belize the term ‘replenishment zone’ (RZ) has recently been adopted in place of ‘no-take zone’. ‘Replenishment zone’ has a less negative connotation for resource users concerned about being restricted from fishing in traditional waters.

Belize 22-014 Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit - Alex Tewfik

Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit – Alex Tewfik

This Darwin project, led by the WCS Belize Programme, works with fishers in Belize to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fisheries they rely on, particularly queen conch and Caribbean spiny lobster. The cooperation of local fishers is crucial, and so their perception of the role of these protected areas is pivotal to project success. Interventions are focused on the Glover’s Reef Atoll which has an area of 350 km2 and lies approximately 42 km east of the central Belizean mainland. This atoll is 1 of 7 protected areas that comprise the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

A study carried out through the project demonstrates the positive impact of protection within the RZ. Importantly they also identify the benefits of RZs for small scale fisher livelihoods. The benefits observed following the establishment and enforcement of the RZ at Glover’s Atoll have been supported by a broader set of fisheries conservation strategies, such as size limits, closed seasons, and species bans. The sustainability of this approach will be assured by continuing long-term community consultations that support the core objectives for the management of GRMR, enhancing economic benefits for Belizean fishers.

The results of this research (published in Marine Ecology Progress Series) will also be used to inform the ever-evolving conservation and management strategies employed by WCS across Belize. Ultimately the aim is to achieve a balance between biodiversity and ecosystem services protection, including fisheries and tourism-based livelihoods. Doing so will help to secure the future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Belize Barrier Reef System, and will generate findings with broader applicability across the Mesoamerican Reef.

Belize 22-014 A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover's atoll lagoon ,Credit - Alex Tewfik cropped

A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover’s Atoll lagoon, Credit – Alex Tewfik

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary: Planning for the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve

Although many people would struggle to find it on a map, the remote UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island is on the verge of entering the ‘big league’ of ocean conservation, joining such notable company as the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands as home to one of the world’s largest marine reserves.

The intention to close at least 50% of Ascension’s 440,000 km2 exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to all forms of commercial fishing by 2019 was formally announced by the UK Government at the UN Our Oceans summit in September 2016 and will establish the largest fully no-take MPA in the Atlantic Ocean. Providing the scientific and technical data to support these decisions is currently the focus of a Darwin Plus project led by the Ascension Island Government Conservation & Fisheries Department and the University of Exeter.

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary (ASIOS) Project aims to address many of the challenges and controversies common to all remote, large-scale MPAs: How can it be enforced? How effectively will it conserve the highly mobile species of the open ocean? How do we measure its success? The project is also responding to the mandate of local and UK Government stakeholders to assess whether an economically-viable and well-managed fishery can coexist with a future MPA in a portion of the EEZ, and, if so, which areas should be protected.

Galapagos DPLUS063 Aggregation of Galapagos sharks, Credit - Ascension Island Government Conservation and Fisheries Dept

A Galapagos shark being released after fitting acoustic tag, Credit – British Antarctic Survey

Oceanic islands and seamounts are known to be hotspots of abundance and diversity for pelagic species and are obvious focal points for the creation of marine reserves. In order to better understand the scale of their ‘bio-aggregating’ effect, the ASIOS project team surveyed the biodiversity of three previously unstudied seamounts lying 260-320 km to the south and west of Ascension. To determine how large an area needs protecting, the expedition set out to measure how the abundance and diversity of marine life at all levels of the food chain varies with distance from each mount, as well as mapping the movements of individual top predators associated with them. These datasets will hopefully provide a rare insight into the “biodiversity footprint” of a tropical seamount system that can contribute to MPA planning on Ascension and beyond.

With less than two years until designation there is still much to be done; however, with the support of Darwin Plus, the European Union’s BEST 2.0 initiative and other donors, the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary promises to put the Territory firmly on the map as a global leader in MPA science and management.

For the complete articles on these projects, and a variety of other interesting updates from Darwin coastal and marine projects, see the latest Darwin Newsletter themed on “Life Below Water”. For more information on WCS’s project in Belize see here, and for more information on the Ascension Island MPA see here.

Our next blog will look at the International Year of the Reef.

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Darwin for Climate Action – improving watershed management from Morocco to Bolivia

In the second of our climate resilience themed blog posts (read out first one here!), we take a look at the different watershed management approaches used by projects to address both climate change adaptation and mitigation. First, we visit Morocco for an introduction to the adaptation work undertaken by the Global Diversity Foundation’s plant conservation programme in the Atlas Mountains. We then travel half way around the world to see the Natural Bolivia Foundation’s watershed project and the impact it is having on livelihoods, deforestation and climate resilience in the Chaco.

Conserving threatened plant species to support community adaptation and resilience to climate change in the High Atlas

The Mediterranean ecosystem of the High Atlas in southern Morocco is home to significant plant biodiversity – including endemic, endangered and economically important species – that has been sustained for millennia by Indigenous Amazigh communities. However, High Atlas cultural landscapes are under increasing threat from interrelated socio-ecological problems that include overharvesting of endemic useful plants, intensive grazing, inadequate water management and the erosion of cultural practices of conservation and sustainable land use management. The effects of climate change, heightened in fragile montane ecosystems, are compounding the impact of all these factors.

Morocco 24-010 Irrigated thyme, Credit Global Diversity Foundation

Irrigated Thyme, Credit: Global Diversity Foundation

In April 2017, Global Diversity Foundation began implementing a three-year Darwin Initiative project. One of the ways the project is seeking to improve the resilience and adaptation of local communities to climate change is by building and restoring water management infrastructure to provide more efficient irrigation of large tracts of agricultural land and community nurseries in partner communities. This contributes to climate change adaptation in partner communities whilst also ensuring that precious water resources are used wisely and can therefore continue to sustain the broader ecosystems within which these agricultural terraces are embedded. To support this work, the project team collaborate with diverse partners to provide training courses for local communities and associations on cultivating drought resilient crops and using water economically to improve resilience to climate change and increasingly arid conditions.

As part of this programme, the Global Diversity Foundation are establishing community seed banks to secure improved availability of locally adapted plant species, and carrying out research on the impact of climate change on the High Atlas flora to identify potential new climate change refugia for target endangered or endemic plant species. The results of this research will inform our ongoing conservation actions in the High Atlas. All of these activities enrich partnerships with Amazigh people, who continually assess the impacts of climate change on their cultural landscapes and devise further strategies to lessen its effects on their socio-ecological wellbeing.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here.

Watershared: adaptation, mitigation, watershed protection and economic development in the Bolivian Chaco

Bolivia’s Gran Chaco encompasses swamps, salt flats, scrublands, and the largest virgin dry forest on earth. Although the region offers high soil fertility, it receives minimal rainfall. Most of the economic activity in Chaco requires water, so there is an urgent need to increase water efficiency and, most importantly, ensure that the water arrives in the lowlands in the first place.

Upper watershed farmers in the Chaco often have no economic alternative other than to deforest their land for agriculture. Forests are destroyed and cows enter streambeds to drink, forage, urinate and defecate. The subsistence agriculture of upper watershed farmers is unproductive, while downstream water sources are contaminated. Children miss school with diarrhoea as a result of contaminated water, and waterholes dry up.

Bolivia 21-008 Compensation in the Chaco, Credit - Natura Bolivia

Compensation in the Chaco, Credit: Natura Bolivia

Reciprocal watershed agreements – otherwise known as Watershared agreements – are simple, grassroots versions of incentive-based conservation. They help upper watershed forest and land managers to sustainably manage their forest and water resources to benefit both themselves and downstream water users. Watershared agreements focus on changing behaviour through economic and non-economic incentives and building institutional capacity: in other words, by showing local authorities and water users that watershed protection is in their own interests, and then facilitate the creation of the institutional framework needed to plan and implement it.

The Watershared model was first developed in 2003, in the Bolivian village of Los Negros. Six downstream irrigators negotiated a ground-breaking deal with their upstream counterparts. “For every 10 hectares [ha] of forest you conserve for a year,” Andrés Rojas told Serafín Carrasco, “we will give you a beehive and training in how to produce honey.” And so the first reciprocal watershed agreement was struck. The Reciprocal Watershed Agreements Darwin Project helped another six municipal governments create and consolidate Local Water Funds. These funds were designed to catalyse local investment in the upstream “Water Factories” of the Chaco and thereby simultaneously:

  1.  Mitigate climate change (conserve old growth forests);
  2.  Adapt to climate change (maintain water sources);
  3. Increase food security (maintain quantity of irrigation water and diversify upstream production systems); and
  4. Improve human health (enhance water quality).
Bolivia 21-008 Handing out conservation incentives, Credit - Natura Bolivia

Handing out conservation incentives, Credit: Natura Bolivia

Most importantly, by having water users and municipal governments pay for the conservation activities, the project developed the institutional framework for sustainable financing of climate change mitigation and adaptation activities. In addition to the 96,510ha that the project conserved under Reciprocal Watershared Agreements, there was a high demand from local authorities for the creation of new municipal protected areas. The project used Darwin Initiative funds, along with counterpart support, to help create three new municipal protected areas. The creation of these areas protected another 500,000 ha of the Chaco’s forests.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here. To read more articles about how Darwin projects are working towards improving climate resilience in developing countries worldwide, see our special edition of the newsletter from November 2017.


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Darwin for Climate Action – Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation at Yayu Biosphere Reserve

In honour of the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that was held in Bonn in November 2017, the Darwin Initiative blog will be running a series highlighting a few of our most innovative and interesting climate change focused projects.

The first entry in this series looks at the climate resilience and biodiversity project in the Yayu Biosphere Reserve in Ethiopia. This project, led by Dr Aaron Davis of RBG Kew, took an approach to climate resilience which focused on empowering the communities living near the reserve. The Yayu team believed that improving the income and livelihoods of local coffee farmers would limit forest loss through land conversion and empower the farmers to put more climate resilient practices in place – and evidence to date suggests they have been successful. The project has had a number of positive impacts over its three-year lifespan, and is due to end in just a few months. Below is an extract from the article the project team submitted to the Darwin Newsletter to explain more about those successes and the methods used to achieve them.

Yayu Reserve in Ethiopia covers 167,000 hectares and is one of the most important storehouses of wild genetic resources for Arabica coffee. Given that these forests are suitable for wild coffee, it may come as no surprise that coffee farming occurs within the forests of the buffer zone and transition areas of the reserve, generating up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the local population.

Despite the popularity of Ethiopian coffee, most coffee farmers at Yayu are struggling to make sufficient income. This drives forest loss through land use conversion, leading to a reduction in biodiversity, deterioration of ecosystem services, and a narrowing of income diversity. In the longer term, coffee farming at Yayu has been identified as climatically sensitive and thus low coffee prices are also problematic, because farmers have a reduced capacity to adapt to increasing climate variability and change.

The overarching model of the project is to increase the income for the farmers who grow, harvest and process the coffee at Yayu, via improving coffee quality and providing sustainable access to market. One of the ways the project is working towards this is by training farmers in coffee harvesting and processing techniques, as well as installing the appropriate equipment, to improve the quality of coffee they produce.  If the value of the forest-based coffee production improves, this will serve to preserve the forest at Yayu. In turn, this brings benefits for coffee production, from the ecological services (including pollinator services) provided by the forest. With improved coffee prices, farmers also have the potential to invest in coffee-farming, including adaptation to climate change.

Ethiopia 22-006, Graciano Cruz, a coffee farmer from Panama, advises on drying bed construction, Credit - Emily Garthwaite.jpg

Graciano Cruz (HiuCoffee) a coffee farmer from Panama advises on drying bed construction, essential equipment for producing high quality coffee, Credit: Emily Garthwaite

Early on in the project it became evident that farmers knew how to improve climate resilience, but there was simply not enough value in their coffee crop to pay for it. This project has supported the Yayu cooperatives by providing them with what they need to improve their coffee quality and making direct links to the markets where they can sell it.

As a direct result of the project, more than 130,000 kg of high quality project coffee has been purchased from the five Yayu cooperatives, tripling the income from coffee for several hundred households across the community.

Ethiopia 22-006 - Yayu coffee sold in Waitrose 1 Credit - Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

Yayu Forest Coffee – which has tasting notes of citrus fruit and bourbon biscuits – is now on sale in Waitrose in the UK, with 25p from each packet sold going directly back to the project, Credit: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee

With improved and stable prices it is now possible to put climate resilience experiments into practice. If farmers invest in climate adaptation measures (such as soil mulching, pruning, and better shade management) what will this mean in terms of improved resilience, coffee productivity, quality and income? Following this, farmers will be in a much better position to quantify the precise value of climate adaptation measures and target their limited resources more effectively.

If you want to find out more about this project, visit their project page here. To read more articles about how Darwin projects are working towards improving climate resilience in developing countries worldwide, see our special edition of the newsletter from November 2017.


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Learning from Monitoring and Evaluation, Darwin Initiative projects in Nepal

by Simon Mercer

In our 1st blog post of 2017 Vicki gave a great account of all of the monitoring activities that keep us busy throughout the year here at LTS. With ever increasing scrutiny of the effectiveness of UK aid spending, the importance of effectively monitoring projects has never been greater. The Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) component of the Darwin Initiative and IWT Challenge Fund programme, led by LTS International, uses a range of tools and approaches (outlined in Vicki’s article) to support projects to gather the data they need to demonstrate their impact. At the same time these activities give us the chance to identify and capture lessons on project implementation and design that can be shared across the Darwin community to foster learning.

Towards the end of 2016 I flew out to Nepal to visit two Darwin-funded projects, one based in Kathmandu led by BirdLife International, and the other by Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in the Far West of the country, led by the Zoological Society of London. These projects were selected for Mid Term Review (MTR) based on a range of criteria, including the potential for lesson learning, the scope for M&E support, and the organisations involved. Geographical focus was also a really important consideration, as it is vital that we are able to visit more than one project at a time during these visits. This helps to keep costs down and maximises value for money.

In technical terms, MTRs are formative evaluations that follow a rigorous evaluation framework based on the DAC criteria for evaluating development assistance, focused on project effectiveness, impact and sustainability. In practice, these visits are used to assess project progress against its logframe objectives. In addition they provide an important opportunity for us to provide technical support and assistance where needed, and to engage with project teams to influence project implementation. Importantly these visits also offer a great opportunity for lesson learning.

For those of you who are interested in finding out more detail about these recent visits, the full MTR reports will soon be available on the Darwin Website. These reports will provide a detailed technical account of the MTRs including data collection methods, key findings, and recommendations. For those of you who can’t wait for these to be published a selection of key lessons is presented below.

1 – Clear logframes with SMART indicators are vital for demonstrating project progress. This was a clear lesson that emerged from both projects visited, in slightly different ways. The project in Suklaphanta was using its logframe and robust monitoring and evaluation systems to effectively track progress, making sure the project remained on course and adaptive to changing circumstances. This enabled the team to accurately report project progress. The logframe for the BirdLife project was less clear; over the years we have found that the selection of appropriate indicators is a common challenge facing Darwin projects with a strong policy component. These weaknesses in the logframe had led to reporting challenges that suggested that the project may be struggling. The MTR gave an opportunity for some focused logframe and theory of change support. The project was also able to demonstrate that progress to date has been good, the challenge created by the weak logframe was in clearly reporting and communicating this progress.

2 – Engaging partners in project formulation and design brings real benefits. With its focus at the policy level, success for the BirdLife project is dependent on the strength of interaction with Government of Nepal partners. Any risks associated with this have been significantly reduced by involving key government stakeholders right from the start. Whilst the focus of the ZSL project is very different, it has demonstrated similar benefits as a result of early engagement. Partner interactions at the national park level are working well, with different stakeholder groups working efficiently towards a single shared goal.

3 – Darwin projects can achieve more than originally planned. Interacting with other Darwin and non-Darwin projects working on similar issues can enable projects to make savings, leverage additional funding, and broaden their impact. For the BirdLife project, this was evident in the selection of project sites to complement ongoing work by Bird Conservation Nepal, the local BirdLife partner. This has allowed field level activities to get up and running quickly, whilst making sure some of the associated costs can be covered.

For the ZSL project, shared meetings with key local stakeholders including other conservation organisations and donors is allowing knowledge to be effectively shared, new funding sources explored, and impact to be extended to new sites, beyond the original scope of the project.

DSC_0512.jpg

Members of women’s cooperative, ZSL Suklaphanta project, Credit: Simon Mercer

A key personal lesson from this latest batch of MTRs is that even in its 25th year, Darwin continues to carry out vital conservation work in the most challenging of contexts, and remains at the cutting edge of conservation thinking. This blog can only provide a snapshot of the achievements and key lessons coming out of the current batch of Darwin projects – remember to keep an eye on the Darwin website for the reports of these and other MTRs.

When you think that there are well over 100 current Main Darwin Projects, and almost 1,000 have been funded since the scheme began, the achievements of the Darwin Initiative are truly staggering. Monitoring and evaluation remains the key tool for projects to demonstrate and provide evidence of these achievements more widely.