Bolivia’s watershed agreements: a case study of locally-led adaptation for climate resilience

As nations globally strive to find sustainable solutions to climate adversity, ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and locally-led adaptation (LLA) emerged as a promising approaches, blending traditional knowledge with innovative strategies to enhance ecological and human well-being. This article explores the implementation of these approaches in Bolivia, where watershed agreements are made to address the impacts of climate change. This case study is based on the experience of one of IUCN NL’s Bolivian partners: Fundación Natura Bolivia.

Header photo: Upstream communities receive conservation incentives. Photo courtesy of Fundación Natura Bolivia

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in the community Los Negros, we explore how EbA and LLA principles are applied in practice, locally as watershed agreements or “Acuerdos reciprocos por el agua”. This case not only highlights the challenges faced but also showcases the potential for EbA and LLA to foster resilience, offering insights into stakeholder engagement, policy integration, and the vital role of monitoring and evaluation in adapting to an ever-changing climate. As Bolivia stands at the crossroads of climate change mitigation and sustainable development, the insights from this experience are important.

Ecosystem-based adaptation

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) is centered on the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services to help communities adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. It involves the sustainable management, conservation, and restoration of ecosystems to provide services that help people cope with climatic changes.

Key Characteristics:

  • Conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems;
  • Integration of ecological and biodiversity considerations into adaptation strategies;
  • Emphasis on the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide to people, especially in terms of adaptation.

Locally-led adaptation

Locally-led adaptation (LLA) prioritises the leadership and decision-making authority of local communities and stakeholders in the adaptation process. It recognises that local people are the most knowledgeable about their own needs and the challenges they face due to climate change.

Key Characteristics:

  • Empowerment and active participation of local communities in planning and implementing adaptation measures;
  • Tailoring adaptation strategies to local socio-economic, cultural, and environmental contexts;
  • Ensuring access to necessary resources and capacity building for local actors to lead adaptation efforts.

In practice, EbA and LLA can be complementary. Effective adaptation strategies can integrate EbA principles within a locally-led framework, ensuring that ecosystem management efforts are aligned with local needs, knowledge, and leadership, thereby maximising resilience and sustainability.

Watershed agreements in Los Negros Bolivia

The watershed agreements in Bolivia reflect the innovative, community-driven solutions to climate change. As more and more communities in Bolivia, especially in the Chiquitania region, face water scarcity issues, it is key to implement models which are beneficial for nature and also local communities.

Originating from a simple, yet revolutionary exchange in the village of Los Negros in 2003, this model has since transformed the landscape of environmental conservation in Bolivia and beyond. By bridging the gap between upstream land conservation and downstream water usage, watershed agreements have turned the traditional Payment for Environmental Services (PES) schemes on their head, offering a more adaptable, effective, and locally resonant approach to safeguarding nature’s bounty.

Upstream communities receive plastic piping as in-kind payment in return for conserving their land. Photo by Fundación Natura Bolivia

The essence of watershed agreements is rooted in their simplicity and reciprocal nature: upstream landowners are incentivised to conserve forests—not through complex economic transactions, but through tangible, mutually beneficial exchanges with downstream users. This pivot from economic incentives to fostering a culture of stewardship and reciprocal benefits has not only led to the conservation of over 210,000 hectares of critical watershed areas but has also cultivated a model of environmental governance that is deeply democratic, participatory, and reflective of local values and realities.

How the water agreements work

Reciprocal benefits

The model was initiated with a simple exchange where downstream irrigators offered beehives and honey production training to upstream landowners for every 10 hectares of forest they conserved for a year. This concept of reciprocal benefits underpins the entire watershed approach.

Expansion and adaptation

What started with six farmers conserving 465 hectares has grown to 4,500 families conserving 210,000 hectares by 2016. The model has been adapted by 40 Bolivian municipalities, changing the behavior of almost 200,000 people.

Funding and support

The agreements are funded through a combination of local government investments, contributions from water users, and initial support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This funding model has facilitated rapid replication and scaling of the watershed agreements.

Flexibility and local design

Watershed agreements are characterised by their flexibility, allowing them to be designed, managed, and monitored locally. This local focus ensures that the agreements are relevant and adaptable to the specific needs and conditions of each community.

Reducing conflicts and bureaucracy

By focusing on cooperative, community-based processes, watershed agreements have been effective in reducing local conflicts over water and forest resources. The model promotes a message of shared responsibility and mutual benefit, which has been key to its success.

Intensive cattle farming in Bolivia has led to overexploitation of the soil, resulting in loss of nutrients and biodiversity.
Photos: Fundación Natura Bolivia

Components of the agreements

  • Incentive-based conservation. The agreements use economic and non-economic incentives to encourage upstream landowners to manage their forests and water resources sustainably. These incentives are tailored to benefit both the environment and the local communities.

  • Local negotations and consensus. Watershed agreements are grounded in local negotiations, where upstream and downstream parties come to mutually beneficial agreements without the red tape associated with national conservation incentive schemes.

  • Alternative development tools. As part of the agreements, upstream landowners receive alternative development tools such as beehives, fruit tree seedlings, and irrigation systems, offering them new sources of income and development pathways while incentivizing forest conservation.

  • Institutional capacity building. The agreements aim to build institutional capacity at the local level, helping to create the frameworks needed for planning and implementing watershed protection strategies.
A map showing the watershed agreements across Bolivia. An interactive online version of this map can be found here.

Catalyst for change and sustainable development

The watershed agreements in Bolivia are a vibrant example of how locally-led adaptation strategies can be a catalyst for change as well as sustainable development. The evolution from a single innovative watershed agreement in Los Negros to a widespread movement involving thousands of families and covering critical watershed areas showcases the potential for community-driven initiatives to achieve significant environmental and social outcomes.

Communities as decision-makers

Furthermore, the success of watershed agreements highlights the importance of local knowledge and participation in crafting effective adaptation strategies. It demonstrates that when communities are engaged as active stakeholders and decision-makers, conservation efforts are more likely to be sustainable and resilient on the long term. This approach resonates with the growing recognition of the value of locally-led adaptation, which prioritises the insights and needs of local communities in the face of global environmental challenges.

In conclusion, the watershed agreements in Los Negros, Bolivia offer a compelling case study in the power of integrating locally-led adaptation strategies with ecosystem-based adaptation principles. As we move forward in our global efforts to combat climate change, the lessons learned from Bolivia’s experience underscore the need for innovative, community-centered approaches that harness the synergies between human and ecological well-being.

Strengthen the Roots project

With the Strengthen the Roots project, IUCN NL and Wilde Ganzen support small community organisations in Bolivia, Ghana and Indonesia that stand up for nature in and around their communities, enabling them to mobilise local support for their work. This way, Strengthen the Roots works on nature conservation that is not performed top-down, but is driven by the collective strength of community organisations.

Want to learn more? Contact our experts:

Mariel Cabero
Expert Environmental Justice
Sander van Andel
Senior Expert Nature Conservation