Identifying an Economic Engine: Watershared

Residents of the Yapacani community receive barbed wire and fruit tree seedlings in exchange for a commitment to conserve their water-producing forests. (Photo: Natura Bolivia)

When Maria Teresa Vargas (Class of 2005) came to Kinship, her project was small and simple: how to get six downstream farmers in Bolivia’s Los Negros Valley to help their six upstream counterparts conserve their water producing forests? Even a child could see that there was lack of coordination amongst watershed actors that could only be solved with collaboration, negotiation, and incentives. But recognizing how to solve a problem was far easier than finding the economic engine to do so. But within a few years Maria Teresa had found the solution – reciprocal Watershared agreements in which downstream water users provide economic development projects to help upstream farmers protect their forest. Watershared is designed to change both downstream culture and upstream behavior by building institutional capacity to provide economic and non-economic incentives for conservation. By demonstrating to local authorities and water users that watershed protection is in their own interests, Watershared helps create the institutional framework needed to plan and implement such conservation.

The forested watershed bordering Bolivia’s Amboro National Park provide water for millions of downstream users.

Maria Teresa has since experimented with various versions of the Watershared model:  Programs are now run by municipal governments, not Maria Teresa’s Foundation. The payers are no longer the international donors that Maria Teresa started with but are water users and governments. Natura runs a five-day training program to help communities in countries as far afield as India, Madagascar, Nepal, Kenya and South Africa develop their own Watershared initiatives. The first 600 students to graduate from the Watershared school were funded by Coca Cola, which has a company-wide mandate to replenish aquifers from which it is removing water for drink production. 
Variations of Watershared are now being implemented in six countries, and more than 25,000 families are now conserving more than a million acres of forests, in exchange for development projects such as honey and fruit production and improved irrigation systems. The Watershared model is based on a simple philosophy: those who produce water share it, those who benefit from water, share the benefits.  Watershared, its philosophy and its economic engine are thus the same everywhere: for the indigenous Guaraní conserving rainforests on the Bolivia-Paraguay border, for the suburban residents of the city of Merida preventing contamination of the cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, and for the milk producers protecting stream banks above Cuenca, Ecuador.

Signing a Watershared contract: barbed wire and irrigation pipes in exchange for forest conservation. (Photo: Natura Bolivia)

Featured: Kinship Fellow Maria Teresa Vargas

Maria Teresa Vargas was raised on a farm in the village of Mataral in the buffer zone of Bolivia’s mega-diverse Amboró National Park. She now works with mayors and councilors from 70 municipalities across Bolivia to help them protect their forested water sources. Together, they have convinced half a million water users to sign “Acuerdos Reciprocos por Agua” or “Watershared” agreements with 4,000 upstream landowners to conserve 200,000 hectares of water-producing forest. Maria Teresa is now leading the transfer of this model to municipalities in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the Comoros. As a graduate of the MIT/Poverty Action Lab Executive Training course on randomized evaluations, Maria Teresa has been trained in balancing evaluation science and program implementation. Maria Teresa has a masters in International Relations from the National University of Costa Rica and a masters in Forestry from Yale University. She was a Mulago Foundation Henry Arnhold Fellow in 2016 and a Kinship Conservation Fellow in 2005.