Finding “Gold” in Latin America

We’re thrilled to be featured at the Ecosystems Marketplace in a story about a project auditor with the Rainforest Alliance.

Jeff Hayward: Quantifying Carbon, Communities, and More

Last January, Hayward spent a week visiting a new project in southwestern Nicaragua. Here, large landowners graze cattle on their acreages while farmers hold on to smaller plots of land. At the same time, tourism is booming, with beachfront hotels luring both the Nicaraguan elite and international visitors.

This is all happening in a rare ecosystem: the dry tropical forest.

Environmental NGO Paso Pacifico has been working to protect these forestlands with a range of strategies for the past three years. The organization didn’t initially aim to create a carbon offset program, but with the help of an interested landowner, they designed the Return to Forest project to reforest more than 400 hectares of private cattle lands.

After reviewing the project in his Washington, DC office, Hayward spent a week in Nicaragua with Paso Pacifico’s directors. They visited landowners and evaluated their properties, met with stakeholders and the community members who do everything from work in nurseries to plant trees.

The Ingredients of a Successful Project

Hayward says that, over time, he’s developed the ability to know going in which projects have the highest chance of success.

“The first clue is a well-run organization with a really concrete set of goals and objectives, and the institutional capacity to make it happen,” he says, adding that in Paso Pacifico’s case there was a high level of trust between project organizers and the community. Every landowner had signed a contract with the organization, and they had the original titles to the land, the inscription documents, with everything signed and stamped.

Then Hayward and Rainforest Alliance look at the project’s environmental and social impacts. Are the right tree species being planted? How does the project aid biodiversity? And, how’s the community relationship — are materials in a local language? Are they explained in a way that a non-scientist can understand?

Hayward found a variety of elements that linked environmental goals with the community, including environmental education programs in six communities, training for community members to work in reserves, and developing signage and information on the project in the local language. Paso Pacifico also collaborates with national and international researchers who are studying wildlife, including the yellow-naped parrot and spider monkeys, which will allow the project to study biodiversity over time.

Surviving the Audit

In April, 2008, Paso Pacifico’s project was validated under CCB standards and received a “Gold” designation — the highest rating a project can receive.

“I think one of the reasons it is a really good project is that, deep down inside, it really is a conservation project and that’s why it conforms very well to the CCB standards,” says Paso Pacifico executive director Sarah Otterstrom.

That doesn’t mean the project’s validation was a sure thing — the auditing process may be as nerve-wracking as one from the tax inspector. Hayward “commands a great deal of respect,” Otterstrom says. “He had us shaking in our boots before and during — basically until the audit was over.”

Otterstrom describes his holistic knowledge of forestry, offsets, and working with local communities — and says that while he made the audit process as transparent as possible, Hayward required the projects’ leaders to develop their own approaches to potential problems.

“It just demonstrates his professionalism about auditing and holding projects to the standards that Rainforest Alliance/SmartWood is trying to support,” she says.

The auditing isn’t over, either. CCB validation lasts for five years, so Rainforest Alliance auditors will return in 2013 to monitor the project’s progress; a series of annual project audits will also take place until then. After this, an on-site audit will be done every five years for the project’s planned 40-year lifetime.

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