Healthy forests are crucial for biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon storage. Worldwide, about 350 million people rely on forests for income and subsistence, including about 60 million indigenous people who completely depend on the forests.

Yet many forests are also contested spaces, with different groups staking claims for forestry, agriculture, mining, conservation and other activities. With climate change, deforestation and environmental degradation all threatening forest livelihoods, new approaches are needed to ensure the sustainable management of forest resources and build resilience among forest-dependent people.

This is where Model Forests come in. First developed by the Canadian government in the early 1990s, at a time of intense conflict over forests, the approach aims to bring together different actors to develop a shared local vision for sustainability and adopt concrete actions to achieve common goals.

The effort showed immediate promise, and at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Canada offered funds to develop model forests elsewhere. This led to the creation of the International Model Forest Network , which has been fostering the creation of Model Forests devoted to sustainably manage forest-based landscapes worldwide.

Model Forests are voluntary in nature and represent a variety of land uses, values, and approaches to resource management and land ownership. They include multiple activities, aiming to meet the competing needs of different actors in the community while working to conserve the forest. Three elements are key: a large landscape, broad partnerships, and a commitment to sustainability.

EcoAdapt: Model Forests in Latin America

SEI’s Oxford team has been working with Model Forests through EcoAdapt , a four-year project funded by the 7th Framework Programme by the European Commission started in 2012.

“The work has given us an opportunity to use a ‘co-exploration of knowledge approach’, using the Model Forests platforms to deal with water governance issues in the context of climate variability and change,” says Mònica Coll Besa, an SEI research fellow. “We have investigated processes for water governance in Chile (Model Forest of Alto Malleco), Bolivia (Model Forest of the Chiquitania region) and Argentina (Model Forest of Jujuy) that contribute to the local development while reducing vulnerability to climate change.”

As EcoAdapt nears its end, a closing workshop was held at the University of Valladolid’s campus in Palencia, Spain, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Mediterranean Network of Model Forests , 12–16 October. Participants shared insights from work in Latin America and the Mediterranean, reflecting on key aspects of good governance and effective natural resources management.

“The research within EcoAdapt has gone from problem diagnosis in each landscape, through science-society partnerships, to adaptation planning and implementation of ecosystem-based adaptation pilot actions,” says Coll Besa. “Through participatory and community-led processes, the work has built capacity, fostered learning, and helped prevent and resolve resource management conflicts.”

Those processes are important for climate change adaptation because adaptation itself is a long, iterative process requiring extended interaction and commitment. “Social learning and social validation have proven to be crucial in each landscape,” she says. “We have also worked to build alliances around common issues and shared interests between key actors and agents of change in the water governance networks in each landscape, connecting from the local to the national scales.”

Different strategies and actions

Participants in the workshop also discussed different pilot actions they have implemented in their Model Forests. These include rainfall harvesting, slope protection planting different medicinal crop species, protection of water sources, the use of improved irrigation systems, the use of improved cooking stoves with mud and other local materials, and the creation of watershed protected areas (see weADAPT for details).

Participants also discussed successful strategies, such as bringing diverse actors together to generate information together; strong inter-institutional collaboration; decision-making processes based on shared interests oriented towards seeking holistic solutions; the establishment of leadership groups at the municipal level to spur local governance; and peer-to-peer learning. They identified common challenges as well, such as socio-political instability.

Notably, Coll Besa says, the discussions revealed differences between the approaches taken in EcoAdapt and the Mediterranean Model Forests. Top-down approaches seemed to dominate in the latter, while in EcoAdapt, where the projects are led by civil society organizations, more bottom-up approaches are the norm.

“In this regard, the workshop offered an opportunity to find synergies and opportunities for future EU–Latin America cooperation,” says Coll Besa. “For example, we could consider expanding our pilot work in EcoAdapt to seek to influence decision-making bodies and programming at higher levels, through national, regional and international institutions.”

Materials from the workshop will be made available through the Mediterranean Model Forests and EcoAdapt websites. In addition, insights from EcoAdapt will be presented at a side-event hosted by SEI at the Paris Climate Change Conference, 4 December at 12:00 in the CICERO pavilion.

Read about an EcoAdapt event at the Global Landscapes Forum 2014 »