Mountainous “water forests” are recognized by local, national, and global communities as an important contributor to Andean and Amazon watersheds. A keystone species for high Andean forests, Polylepis, currently comprise a narrow 6,000-kilometer-long, 500,000-hectare vegetative band spanning seven Andean countries and supporting a unique ecosystem. Primary Polylepis forests have been reduced to just 1-10% of their natural range. Major deforestation drivers today are harvesting for firewood and construction materials, uncontrolled fires, and grazing by livestock. The nonprofit organization Acción Andina (AA) was created to respond to the need of local communities to protect their forests and restore their watersheds with native trees.
The edges of these forests are found at 3,500-5,000 meters, mostly defining the upper tree line for the Andes range and found beneath glaciers. There are 21 native Polylepis species, filling different ecological niches. They are critical to building permanent streams and wetlands and carbon-rich soils and are home to a range of IUCN-listed species of conservation concern. They also serve as natural water reservoirs and provide fresh water to hundreds of thousands of people in local communities and cities below, including major metropolitan areas. In light of climate change, high Andean people are motivated to protect and restore polylepis forests for their cultural and natural resources values. As a result of decades of conservation and community engagement work by leading conservation practitioners, communities understand the crucial roles of forests at these altitudes for water and land security.
In the 2021-2022 restoration season, Acción Andina aims to plant 2.1 million native trees, restore and protect 1,050 hectares of forest and support 15 local restoration leaders.
Acción Andina aims to grow 2.1 million native trees by 13 on-the-ground partners, involving approximately 100 local and indigenous communities in six countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. ECOAN, the main implementing agency of Acción Andina, provides in-person and online training to local implementing partners. Activities (forest conservation, capacity building, and tree growing) are planned on an annual basis. A reforestation cycle (seed/cutting collection, sapling production, and planting) occurs across a fifteen-month period, with plantings occurring September through March. Protected area creation can sometimes take several years depending on the local process.
In addition to helping safeguard water sources for hundreds of thousands of people, Acción Andina immediately benefits high Andean communities. AA receives more requests to work with such communities than it can currently respond to. The project creates jobs in the nurseries, employing on average two laborers and one manager. Funds transferred to the communities for their sapling production and reforestation services are used collectively for general community benefits, such as school renovation and community halls. The community can choose to hire additional people to help manage project operations, but this depends on the wishes and priorities of each community.
Acción Andina is the flagship initiative of Global Forest Generation, created to address the major obstacles currently hindering restoration progress, including:
- The lack of local restoration capacity and quality projects worldwide: There are not enough long-term programs and implementers on the ground to advance restoration as urgently as it is needed to meet climate, biodiversity, and restoration targets.
- The limited capacity of tree-planting projects to deliver comprehensive ecosystem restoration in the long term and the lack of transparency, traceability, and quality control in international reforestation projects.
- The lack of diversified, long-term funding resources and partnerships. Short-term annual reforestation grants can be an important starting point for many projects but they need to be blended with long-term financial resources.
Acción Andina is a long-term initiative specifically targeting the development and support of local leaders, effective ecosystem restoration using scientific and traditional knowledge, and the creation of sustainable funding mechanisms for grassroots organizations.