The Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative [ELTI]: Inspiring Leaders to Conserve Tropical Forests and Biodiversity

EarthzineArticles, Biodiversity, Education, Original, Sustainability

Farmers in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula learn to restore degraded pastures with  native tree species.

Farmers in Panama’s Azuero Peninsula learn to restore degraded pastures with native tree species.

Few ecosystems evoke more reverence, curiosity and awe than tropical forests. Indispensable for human well-being, they provide essential goods and services. Tropical forests mitigate the impacts of climate change, regulate water cycles, maintain genetic diversity and are home to species that provide medicines and food.
Despite this, tropical forest destruction continues at an alarming rate–driven by global demands for timber, urban sprawl, the exploitation of fossil fuels and other energy sources, and advancement of agricultural frontiers.
Conservation of these majestic and intricate ecosystems has been the domain of foresters, biologists, ecologists and resource managers. But the fate of tropical forests rests in the hands of a much more complex, diverse and dynamic assemblage of actors, many who are amenable, but not sufficiently well prepared to engage in conservation.
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) joined forces in 2006 to create the Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative (ELTI). ELTI outfits policy makers and land managers from different sectors of society with the knowledge, tools and skills to protect tropical forests and restore degraded landscapes.
To date, the program has reached more than 1400 people through 22 field courses, workshops and conferences in six countries, in the Neotropics (Central America and tropical South America) and tropical Asia. ELTI provides follow-up support to its alumni as they translate the lessons learned in ELTI’s training events into action.
Capacity-Building beyond Protected Areas
ELTI emphasizes conservation of lands that fall outside of protected areas. Approximately 87% of the Earth’s land surface is not under a formal protection category. Unprotected lands house important tracts of forest and natural systems exposed – often more so than those in protected areas – to commercial agriculture, unsustainable logging, mining and oil extraction and large-scale infrastructure development. Research conducted by F&ES students on behalf of ELTI in 2006 revealed that relative to training options for protected areas management, there are few capacity-building opportunities that aim to conserve biodiversity in multiple-use, working landscapes.
Engaging the “Shapers” Of Tropical Landscapes
At an ELTI training event, it’s not uncommon to encounter an indigenous leader wearing a traditional feather headdress, a conservationist in field clothes and a governmental official in business attire engaged in the same conversation.
In addition to training conservation professionals, ELTI prepares individuals who possess relevant academic, work and life backgrounds in areas such as agriculture, forestry, energy, rural development, tourism, public works and large-scale infrastructure development. Our events draw participants from governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society groups, indigenous and community-based organizations, businesses and academia. Needless to say, debates in our courses and workshops can be incredibly synergistic given the diversity of perspectives.
Recruitment of participants is targeted. ELTI conducts research and taps into its network of contacts to enlist those individuals who are best suited to the objectives of the training event and the conservation goal at hand. This often involves inviting individuals who are not necessarily pro-conservation, but who are open to learning and perhaps even to being converted to the “environmental side”. Often, the courses, workshops and conferences that ELTI delivers are the first direct exposure that decision makers or land managers have to conservation issues.
Indigenous leaders from the Amazon (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia) learn about Payment-for-Ecosystem Services (PES) opportunities in a field station in Brazil.

Indigenous leaders from the Amazon (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia) learn about Payment-for-Ecosystem Services (PES) opportunities in a field station in Brazil.

Sowing the Seeds of Conservation Leadership
The Neotropics and tropical Asia boast some of the last and most extensive tracts of tropical forest, subject to some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Conservation efforts in both regions follow a three-pronged approach to (1) conserve remaining natural ecosystems, (2) restore degraded areas and (3) mitigate or eliminate primary threats and impacts. ELTI’s training programs follow suit.
Within the realm of forest conservation, ELTI’s courses and workshops explore the science behind forest carbon and climate change. The events inform initiatives that protect biodiversity and abate the impacts of global warming. Participants learn about ecosystems services and their valuation as well as the benefits and challenges associated with payment-for-ecosystem services (PES) schemes, including the proposed – and controversial – climate change mitigation mechanism, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
ELTI’s training programs in restoration of degraded areas benefit from the extensive research and experience of F&ES, STRI and other organizations regarding native species reforestation, agroforestry and silvopastoral systems. By training farmers, cattle ranchers and representatives from NGOs and local governments, ELTI promotes landscape-level land uses to conserve biodiversity, protect ecosystem services and sustain rural livelihoods.
ELTI’s training efforts on impact and threat abatement have focused on the effects of biofuels production on tropical forests and climate. The benefits derived from biofuels generated from agricultural feedstocks, such as oil palm, soy, sugar cane and corn vary greatly depending on where and how they are produced. ELTI has hosted heated and contentious debates regarding the virtues and vices of first and second-generation biofuels on tropical forests and climate in distant regions of the world.
Practical, Experiential Learning
ELTI’s training events emphasize action. Participants learn the science, theory and fundamentals behind forest conservation and land restoration, and are pushed to explore and understand the mechanics and challenges encountered in practice. Almost all of the training programs include field trips and site visits, so that participants experience conservation challenges and potential solutions first hand. Interactions with researchers studying forest dynamics, farmers experimenting with native species reforestation, community leaders developing a REDD project, or governmental authorities drafting a PES bill, afford the participants opportunities to consider the policy, social, cultural and economic dimensions of conservation strategies in their real-life contexts.
Cattle ranchers and farmers in Panama learn about native species reforestation and silvopastoral systems in the field.

Cattle ranchers and farmers in Panama learn about native species reforestation and silvopastoral systems in the field.

From Good Intentions to Action
Participants leave a training event with a healthy dose of motivation. It is not unusual to hear claims that an ELTI course or workshop was a life-changing experience. Undoubtedly, we feel flattered by these comments, and appreciate the participants’ optimistic plans, but we are realistic. Not everyone will join the ranks of a conservation organization or attempt to shift a mandate on their own.
ELTI participants are very busy people, who upon returning to their employment will immerse themselves in the day to day of their work. Whereas initial motivation will naturally dissipate, noble intentions may remain. In every group there are people who, on their own impetus or through additional infusions of encouragement, will continue to learn or even act right away.
Through ELTI’s Leadership Program, we cultivate these individuals and provide them support in accessing additional training (sometimes with ELTI) or developing a conservation project. Participants in ELTI’s Leadership Program have received additional instruction on agroforestry and silvopastoral systems, developed proposals for integrated watershed management projects, conducted outreach initiatives including television shows, community trainings and workshops on sustainable land-use planning, PES and land restoration, and received mentorships in the implementation of native species reforestation efforts, among other types of support.
Keeping ELTI Honest
ELTI was born from a partnership between F&ES and STRI and benefits from the vast wealth of knowledge and expertise that is produced and housed in both institutions. We serve as “honest brokers” of this information by presenting conservation strategies and their implications to our audiences and providing them with a forum where they can decide if and how they will proceed after leaving our training event. But we are not impartial actors. Our capacity-building efforts direct participants to conserve tropical forests and other natural systems, to protect them from existing or imminent threats and to restore lands that have been affected by deleterious activities. In doing so, we aim to ensure the long-term survival of forest ecosystems and biodiversity in tropical regions of Latin America and Asia, and the myriad benefits they provide to all of us.
Javier Mateo Vega is director of ELTI
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