Examining Participation and Power Between Local Actors in the Peruvian Andes: Andean Ecosystem Association and the Indigenous Communities of the Vilcanota

Examining Participation and Power Between Local Actors in the Peruvian Andes: Andean Ecosystem Association and the Indigenous Communities of the Vilcanota

Caitlin Doughty, MESc 2014 1


Many of the problems faced by international organizations intending to create conservation and development projects are lack of stakeholder engagement, limited local knowledge, and restricted time. This can be further complicated by donor demands that may or may not align with project goals. Local organizations focused on conservation often have an advantage in creating projects because they understand local power relations, share local discourses, and are involved with communities for extended periods of time. Twenty-one comunidades campesinas in the Vilcanota Mountain Range are involved in a local conservation project aimed at protecting the endangered Polylepis forests. A local non-governmental organization, Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN), works with these communities to encourage conservation and economic development. In contrast with the failures of international projects, ECOAN has implemented a successful project that has expanded Polylepis forests while supporting the development of communities. Community members believe that their relationships with ECOAN, Polylepis trees, and the development project have benefited their lives. However, this success is challenged by ECOAN’s obligation to translate their work according to donor demands. Data for this project was gathered through interviews with community members, ECOAN staff, and donors, as well as participant observation.


The cramped, frigid, concrete community center was transformed into a colorful, warm productive space upon the arrival of Quechua leaders from twelve communities of the Sacred Valley in Peru. Like me, they had left their warm beds before the sunrise to travel by foot, car, and bus to a small town called Pisac in order to participate in a meeting with the local conservation organization, Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the establishment of a conservation area network between communities. ECOAN staff members facilitated the meeting in the local language, Quechua, but the bulk of the discussion and decision-making came from the community representatives.

Photograph 1. Community leaders discuss a conservation area network amongst themselves.

The scene above is just one example of the collaborative relationship I observed between ECOAN and the communities in which they work. The observations were a part of my research, evaluating the ECOAN Polylepis conservation project. My evaluation concentrated on the conservation organization’s interactions on two fronts: with local communities and with national and international donors. The idea for this research grew out of reading extensive literature on the failures of international conservation and development projects resulting from their inability to understand local power relations and discourses. I argue that as a local organization, ECOAN is better positioned to overcome these difficulties and is able to have a successful project (measured through the amount of forest protected and restored while maintaining a working relationship with communities) as a result of their ability to understand and work with local complexity. At the same time, they are encouraged by their national and international donors to translate their work according to donor demands.

Theoretical Context

There is an extensive literature on why conservation and development projects fail to meet their goals. Cornwall (2003) and Kothari (2001) discuss development projects that view communities as a homogenous unit when in reality these communities have complex social and financial structures as well as varied interests. By failing to address different power dynamics, such as the exclusion of women (Cornwall 2003), projects run the risk of increasing disparities that are already present (Kothari 2001:146). Twyman (2000) and Van der Ploeg (1993) describe how developers’ disconnect with local communities increases project failure. Twyman (2000:330) writes on how communities fear that expressing disapproval of a project will result in a reduction of the benefits directed towards them. Van der Ploeg (2002) argues that developers, assuming they have superior knowledge, displace local knowledge oftentimes to a project’s detriment. All four pieces offer insights on why international developers are unable to connect with local communities and thus are limited in their ability to implement a successful project.

David Mosse’s work on the ethnography of aid provides a base for understanding the relationship between ECOAN and their donors. Mosse (2004) argues that policy is impacted by development, which is itself organized through complex relationships and the will to maintain them (648-651). At the same time, developers use policy ideas and language to interpret the results of their work (ibid.: 661). Thus, the relationship between developers and those who create policy for developers is a complex mixture of give and take and, in the end, a form of miscommunication (ibid.). Donors are a part of the political interpretation process, influenced by policy in their decision on which projects they fund and how they describe the results of a project (ibid.). For example, Mosse writes that there is a tendency to describe projects as failed or successful without taking into consideration the actual results of the projects (2004:662). Rather, failure is a result of their inability to successfully articulate themselves within the policy framework (ibid.:662).


ECOAN was established in 2000 by two Peruvian biologists studying the destruction of Polylepis, a high altitude tree that is home to several endemic bird species. Their studies motivated them to found a conservation organization and work with over twenty comunidades campesinas (peasant communities) in the Vilcanota Mountain Range outside of Cusco on restoring and protecting the endangered Polylepis forest. The Polylepis project includes activities such as yearly tree plantings, developing state recognized conservation areas, and implementing community development initiatives such as solar panel and greenhouse installation. Initially, the project was funded by international donors, including the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), but is now concentrated through a two million dollar endowment established at the Peruvian-based donor institution, Fondo de las Américas (FONDAM). Financial support for the endowment comes from Conservation International (CI) and FONDAM.


For this research, I visited three communities in which ECOAN works: Abra Málaga, Rumira Sondormayo, and Patacancha. These communities were chosen specifically for their differences and relation to ECOAN. Abra Málaga is a remote community without electricity or frequent visits from tourists and has the longest standing relationship with ECOAN. In contrast, Patacancha and Rumira Sondormayo have electricity and receive day visits from tourists multiple times a week. Most of the men have worked in tourism as porters for Machu Picchu treks. Both communities have been a part of the conservation project for ten years. Abra Malaga and Rumira Sondormayo both have legally recognized private conservation areas. Patacancha does not.

I conducted 41 interviews in these communities and carried out participant observation. Additionally, I interviewed all of the ECOAN staff in the Cusco office that work on the Polylepis project (6 people), and employees at ABC (1 person), and FONDOM (3 people). I approached this research as a third-party reviewer, not affiliated with any of the groups involved, but I received logistical support from ECOAN in the form of introductions to communities and permission to attend meetings.

Findings and Analysis

Hector2 one of the biologists from ECOAN, operated the handheld GPS as Alberto, the president of Rumira Sondormayo, indicated where the irrigation line should be placed. Hector showed Alberto how to use the GPS and then listened as Alberto explained why the irrigation line needed to be located in a certain area between four homes. Hector had the technical knowledge while Alberto understood the intricacies of the local social, climactic, and agricultural environment. The scene illustrates the relationship between ECOAN and the communities in which they work. Rather than entering communities under the assumption that they have all of the valuable knowledge, ECOAN focuses on exchanging information.

All of ECOAN’s projects depend on local participation for success, measured as the number or area of trees restored and protected while maintaining a collaborative relationship with communities. For example, every year ECOAN holds planting events in the communities. Everyone, from children to women to elders, participates in planting Polylepis seedlings in areas that the community has designated for conservation. Participants receive monetary compensation for their work and it is organized like a traditional group workday known in the region as faena. Alberto explains “We get paid 20 soles sometimes 15. It depends on the category; if they are children they get 5 soles.” Community members also manage the Polylepis nurseries and any benefit programs funded by ECOAN. During my stay in Patacancha, I worked alongside community members on an ECOAN irrigation project that was co-managed by community members and ECOAN employees. Hector, of ECOAN, wanted to make the relationship clear to me, stating “We will not start a project unless there is local leadership … it is their project so they need to help do the work.” The inclusion of communities helps create a feeling of ownership.

In addition to including local knowledge and leadership in their projects, ECOAN understands local political dynamics. This is due to two main factors: (1) ECOAN staff members are from nearby Andean communities and thus speak the local language, Quechua, and understand local community dynamics, and (2) they have been working in a majority of the communities for over ten years and are well known and trusted. One example is with women. Though women are invited to all of the meetings, attendance is minimal. Over lunch, the ECOAN Project Coordinator and Administrator explained that though women do not come to the meetings, they have a significant influence on decision-making. This is because men consult their wives at home after which a decision is finalized. Though this is not the case in all households, it was a process that I was able to observe while staying with families. While an outsider may see the women as disempowered, ECOAN understands that their participation is included, if indirectly. When talking to women directly, they informed me that they attend the meetings but do not talk. Victoria of Patacancha said “They [ECOAN] speak and report on the project.”

The relationship between ECOAN employees and community members is essential. Of the six employees of the Cusco ECOAN office, three spend a majority of their time in the field. All 41 community interviewees knew at least one of the ECOAN employees by name. Ernesto of Patacancha stated, “First I knew José, afterward Hector and Jorge. They work with ECOAN. They are good people.” As the opening scene to this section illustrates, conversations about ECOAN’s work are not one-sided. During an informal conversation, Alberto, the youthful President of Rumira Sondormayo, expressed that the decisions of community members are incorporated into ECOAN’s actions and decisions (Alberto, Personal comm., July 4, 2013). He also emphasized that on numerous occasions his community had declined projects (Alberto, Personal comm., July 4, 2013). Unlike the findings of Twyman (2000), Alberto did not express fear of losing benefits due to declining projects. This further demonstrates the collaborative relationship between ECOAN and the communities in which they work.

Though the relationship between ECOAN and communities appeared positive there are difficulties. When ECOAN first entered the communities and told them that they could no longer use Polylepis for firewood and building material, the communities did not immediately listen nor agree. It is only with time that ECOAN has built trust and understanding. Despite the long-standing relationship, it is continually a balancing act between their desire to maintain a strong relationship with communities, conserve trees, and appease donors. In contrast to the relationship with communities, the relationship between ECOAN and FONDAM is still building.

From the ECOAN perspective, the FONDAM process for funding can be frustrating and complicated. José, one of the staff biologists, admitted that he prefers field work to being in the office working on donor paperwork. ECOAN employees expressed that receiving funds from FON-DAM is more challenging than it was with ABC and IAF. This is likely a factor of the relatively new relationship between ECOAN and FONDAM.

FONDAM considers ECOAN a relatively new organization without extensive experience in the field. One of the environmental specialists at FONDAM who is the main person of contact with ECOAN, expressed the organization’s frustration with the FONDAM process: “I think its previous funders or donors are not as demanding as us.” She went on to explain that ECOAN initially had difficulties working with the FONDAM software, processing their applications, and providing the appropriate backup documentation proving their work in the field. FONDAM’s Director of Environment discussed how ECOAN has many improvements to make such as relating their work to the market. For him, there “has to be a market, even for social services there is always a market.” The Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at FON-DAM emphasizes that the work must continue beyond the initial establishment of the project with activities such as surveillance. With ECOAN for example, he asks “once the project is established and functioning, what are the activities that will be done to protect the conservation areas?”

While the relationship between ECOAN and the communities stands in stark contrast to the lessons provided by the literature, the relationship between ECOAN and their donors does not differ greatly from the findings of Mosse’s work; there is a breakdown of clear, unpoliticized communication (Mosse 2004). ECOAN understands its project in terms of the work it is doing with communities and does not necessarily relate it to some of the data that FONDAM requires. For example, the Director of Monitoring and Evaluation emphasizes that surveillance is needed to ensure that the conservation areas are continually protected. ECOAN monitors their work through continuous interactions with the communities but does not necessarily consider this surveillance. Without explicitly translating their actions into the donor’s terminology, FONDAM may lose some of the significance of ECOAN’s work.

This is further complicated by ECOAN’s role as an arbiter between donors and communities. One example is the confusion within communities about ECOAN’s origin. During an interview, Juan of Patacancha asked, “Which country is ECOAN from?” when I replied Peru, he then wanted clarification, “They are not foreign?” Thus even though ECOAN appears to have a good relationship with community members they are still viewed as outsiders, at least by some. One physical example of a possible area of confusion is the signs ECOAN constructs in communities which include not only ECOAN’s logo but also ABC’s, CI’s, and FONDAM’s, none of which have interacted directly with communities.

Development projects are another potential source of contention. With the relationship that ECOAN has established, community members maintain partial ownership over the projects that are conducted in their communities including deciding which projects they are interested in pursuing. Since ECOAN is dependent on FONDAM for Polylepis project funds, they must receive approval from FONDAM for these projects. When FONDAM does not approve of a project, ECOAN is forced to communicate to communities that they cannot support the project that the community wants, thus potentially damaging their relationship. During an interview with the ECOAN Project Coordinator and Administrator, this topic arose: “FONDAM does not want to support pasture management and animal handling … because for them it is not a priority … for them, the private conservation areas are priority.” And while private conservation areas are also ECOAN’s priority, they simultaneously understand that community needs also need to be a priority for a project to be successful.

ECOAN is thus caught in the middle of working with both community and donor demands. The relationship between ECOAN and FONDAM is new and building. While FONDAM views ECOAN as a new, young organization, ECOAN views the requirements of FONDAM as unnecessary and strict. Fortunately, FONDAM is patient and ECOAN is willing to learn. Ultimately, ECOAN is learning to translate their work into donor language which has the potential to reduce the time and effort available for project activities in the field. Perhaps once they are able to do this, they will be better positioned to convince FONDAM to fund other community demanded projects.


The ECOAN case study provides an example of the potential for local organizations to overcome challenges faced by international development and conservation agencies. They respect and are able to learn from local knowledge and politics while combining their own technical knowledge. The result is a successful conservation project that includes the expansion of protected areas within communities. The relationship between ECOAN and FONDAM further illustrates how relationships with donors can complicate local projects. This case study should encourage us learn from and support locally organized conservation projects.


This research could not have been possible without the support of many. First, I would like to thank Dr. Carol Carpenter for advising me through the creation, implementation and analysis of this research. Significant support for the creation of this project was also provided by Dr. Amity Doolittle. Sincere thanks to the funders of this project that made the research possible: the Tropical Resources Institute and the Council on Latin American & Iberian Studies of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center. Additional thanks to the Carpenter-Sperry Internship and Research Fund for providing support for a conference presentation of the research findings. Thank you to Pablo Peña for introducing me to ECOAN staff in Peru and giving me sage advice about research in the Andes. In Peru, I cannot thank the ECOAN staff enough for providing essential logistical support as well as great insight. I am indebted to the communities of Abra Málaga, Rumira Sondormayo and Patacancha for their generosity and time.


Cornwall, A. 2003. Whose voices? Whose choices? Reflections on gender and participatory development. World Development 31, 1325-1342.

Kothari, U. 2001. Power, knowledge and social control in participatory development. In Participation: The New Tyranny?, eds. B. Cooke and U. Kothari, 139-152. London: Zed Books.

Mosse, D. 2004. Is good policy unimplementable? Reflections on the ethnography of aid policy and practice. Development and Change 35, 639-671.

Twyman, C. 2000. Participatory Conservation? Community-based natural resource management in Botswana. The Geographical Journal 166, 323-335.

Van der Ploeg, J.D. 2002. Potatoes and Knowledge. In An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance, ed. M. Hocart, 209-227. London: Routledge.


Doughty, C. 2014. Examining Participation and Power Between Local Actors in the Peruvian Andes: Andean Ecosystem Association and the Indigenous Communities of the Vilcanota. Tropical Resources Bulletin 32-33, 24-30.

  1. Originally from a rural town in Southern California, Caitlin Doughty holds a BA in environmental studies from UC Santa Cruz. Prior to graduate school she advocated for indigenous rights in the Amazon and has focused her studies at F&ES on under- standing how to make conservation and development projects better for local people. A Master of Environmental Science graduate, Caitlin will continue to work at the interface between human rights and environmental issues.

  2. The names of community members, ECOAN staff, and FONDAM staff have been changed for confidentiality.