Improving conservation and development outcomes: The achiote-farming livelihood project in Jamboé Valley, Ecuador

Improving conservation and development outcomes: The achiote-farming livelihood project in Jamboé Valley, Ecuador

Akielly Hu, BA 20191


This study addresses the need to improve livelihood project implementation through a qualitative study of the achiote-farming livelihood project in Jamboé Valley, Ecuador, an unprotected area surrounded by the Podocarpus National Park. The objective of this study was to explore the perceptions, experiences, and values related to the achiote project in order to evaluate its socioeconomic and environmental impact and inform future project design to improve conservation and development outcomes. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 21 families. Analysis of the data suggests that while achiote provides an additional source of income for families, its conservation and livelihood impact is limited due to the low market price of achiote, the growing importance of off-farm employment, and social embeddedness of cattle raising. While a livelihood project like achiote may not resolve all conservation and development issues, addressing market and profitability issues moving forward will enable the achiote project to address a clear need for improved livelihoods in Jamboé Valley.


Since the 1980s, researchers and practitioners have focused on improving rural livelihoods as a way to address both development and conservation needs of a given region. A livelihood may be broadly defined as “the activities, the assets, and the access that jointly determine the living gained by an individual or household” (Ellis 2000). Because communities living in biodiverse areas often rely heavily on surrounding ecosystems for sources of livelihood like fishing, hunting, and agriculture, addressing livelihood needs has proved an unavoidable component of conservation (Adams et al. 2004, Wright et al. 2016, Harvey et al. 2018). Hundreds of livelihood-focused projects have been implemented globally to achieve this ideal “win-win” outcome of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation (Roe et al. 2015, Blomley et al. 2010).

Although livelihood-focused projects have been widely implemented, evaluations of their development and conservation outcomes have produced mixed results (Ferraro et al. 2012, Brooks et al. 2006, Nautiyal 2011, Weber et al. 2011, Bauch et al. 2014, Roe et al. 2015, Langholz 1999). As a systematic review by Roe et al. (2015), puts it: “It is clear that we do not understand why most alternative livelihood projects do not work, and why a small handful of them do”. One challenge to proper evaluation is lack of quantitative monitoring of outcomes (Sutherland 2004). In a systematic review of integrated conservation and development projects by Brooks et al. (2006), less than a quarter of originally reviewed articles could be analyzed due to lack of quantitative data. Another challenge is the high variation in the local and institutional contexts in which livelihood projects take place. As Lele et al. (2010) note, “trends in the larger political economy” and “location-specific histories and processes” may inhibit or enable conservation. Roe et al. (2015) also explain that variation in conservation and development outcomes are due to the fact that “interventions need to be designed specifically for the local context”. Finally, conservation projects are often conceived and supported based on political preferences of stakeholders (i.e., nonprofits and governments) rather than evidence on causal impact (Bauch et al. 2014).

Clearly, there is a need for improved implementation of livelihood-focused projects. Brooks et al. (2012) found project design as significantly important for achieving success in livelihood projects. One method of improving project design is the use of monitoring and evaluation systems, which can inform future decision making for project funding and expansion (Stem et al. 2005). Because livelihood-focused projects inevitably have ecological, economic, and social effects, multiple measures of success must be included in evaluations (Brooks et al. 2006). Equally important is the need to evaluate the context of the targeted location and population, as it is often “macro-level processes, which are usually beyond the scope of livelihood focused interventions, that determine how livelihood pathways evolve” (Wright et al. 2016). In sum, three possible approaches may be taken to improve implementation: 1) evaluate the local context to inform decisions, 2) base project design on local contextual factors and existing livelihood project frameworks, and 3) develop a system for quantitative impact evaluation to measure progress over time.

This study addresses this need to improve livelihood project implementation through a qualitative evaluation of the achiote-farming livelihood project in Jamboé Valley, Ecuador, an unprotected area surrounded by the Podocarpus National Park. In June 2014, the conservation NGO Nature and Culture International (NCI) exchanged abandoned pastureland in the Jamboé Valley for forested land inside Podocarpus National Park owned by 21 local landowners. After obtaining a grant from UNESCO, NCI worked with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment and the Universidad Técnica de Loja to provide achiote seeds and technical assistance for families to farm achiote on these former pasturelands. NCI also arranged for Industria Lojana de Especerías, a local spice industry, to buy the product at a predetermined price from the families. The primary goals of the achiote project are to promote an alternative to deforestation for cattle ranching and diversify local livelihoods (NCI).

Achiote (Bixa orellana L. [Bixaceae]) is a shrub or small tree 6–10m tall native to South America (Gargiullo 2008). It produces seeds covered in a red aril, from which the commonly used spice and food colorant achiote (or annatto) is obtained (Rivera-Madrid et al. 2016). Because it is perennial and able to grow on poor soils, achiote has potential to generate income from degraded lands, such as the abandoned cattle pastures in Jamboé Valley (FAO). For the past four years, the achiote project has served as one of several NCI-sponsored sustainable livelihood and conservation projects.

The objective of this study was to explore the perceptions, experiences, and values related to the achiote project in order to evaluate its socioeconomic and environmental impact and inform future project design to improve conservation and development outcomes. Although NCI hopes to expand this program, the achiote project is still in its beginning stages. Currently, 19 (formerly 21) households farm achiote, with a total of 9.8 hectares of achiote planted to date. 9 of these families have not yet harvested any achiote. At the time of this study, no formal evaluation of the achiote project had taken place. Many methods for evaluating larger-scale livelihood projects involve quantitative analysis of survey data (Weber et al. 2011, Bauch et al. 2014). However, the relatively new nature and smaller size of the achiote project presents an opportunity to address obstacles to potential expansion through an in-depth exploration of the participants’ experiences and the local context of Jamboé Valley. For these purposes, qualitative research methods become useful for gaining insight into perceptions, values, and experiences (Stem et al. 2005). As NCI looks to expand the achiote project, understanding the local context, motivations, attitudes and experiences of participants will be key to addressing current and future challenges and improving the efficacy of the project.


Study area and population

Jamboé Valley, an unprotected area surrounded by the Podocarpus National Park, is situated in the Zamora-Chinchipe Province of the southeastern end of the Amazon basin (Figure 1). Podocarpus National Park is home to 99 known endemic plant species: the most endemic plants of any protected area in Ecuador (Lozano et al. 2010). The tropical Andes, which includes Jamboé Valley, houses 30,000 vascular plant species—one-sixth of the world’s total—on less than 1% of all land on Earth (CEPF). Located within a biodiversity hotspot, Jamboé Valley can therefore be considered an ecologically important area for conservation.

The study population is comprised of 25 heads of households representing 21 families from five villages within Jamboé Valley. Of the 21 households, 19 were currently participating in the achiote farming livelihood project and two were not. This study surveyed all 19 households that were currently participating in the achiote project at the time of field research (June–July 2018). Nine of these families had not yet sold or harvested any achiote.

Fig. 1. Location of Jambue Valley and land use in Ecuador.

Fig. 1. Location of Jambue Valley and land use in Ecuador.


Study participants were recruited for semi-structured interviews with the assistance of NCI’s achiote project promoter, a longtime resident of Jamboé Valley. All 19 households participating in the project agreed to interviews. Households not participating in the achiote project, or who had stopped participating, were also contacted with the assistance of the NCI employee. Two households not participating in the achiote project agreed to interviews.

During meetings with the participants, the nature, objectives, and methods of the study were explained. Informed consent to participate was then obtained from the participants. Participants were asked for their consent to record interview audio prior to beginning interviews. Participants were also informed that all information would remain confidential, and that no names would be shared.

Data collection and analysis

After verbal consent was obtained, in-person interviews were conducted. These interviews ranged from 18 to 64 minutes, and occurred in participants’ homes or directly outside their homes according to the participants’ preferences. Interviews were semi-structured, using an interview guide that included open-ended questions with follow-up questions as needed. The interview guides covered topics including, but not limited to, household economic activities, benefits and challenges of planting achiote, and perceptions of Jamboé Valley.

Interview audio was recorded on both a mobile device and a digital voice recorder. Interviews were then transcribed word-by-word. Analysis of transcript data was conducted using a grounded theory approach throughout the course of several weeks (Corbin & Strauss 2015). First, general themes and patterns were developed through an open-coding process. A codebook with variables was created to label and organize transcript segments. These codes divided the data into thematic categories. Codes were revised through an iterative process when needed. The author then applied these codes to transcripts using Dedoose, a qualitative data analysis software. Themes and findings were then generated through a process of analyzing this coded data. For confidentiality reasons, participants’ names will not be used in the discussion of the results.


Findings from interviews are organized into three broad categories: i) the local context of Jamboé Valley, ii) experiences with the Achiote Project, and iii) the Achiote Project moving forward.

i) Local context of Jamboé Valley

You have to fight to live”

Economic challenges and the need for sustainable livelihoods


The majority of interviewed families named unemployment as the number one problem faced by residents of Jamboé Valley. Because Jamboé Valley is a rural area, employment opportunities are mostly limited to agriculture. However, since deforestation and cattle-raising has depleted the soil over time, the land is no longer productive enough for agriculture beyond small subsistence plots.

There are no jobs, one can’t live. What do you eat? As a result, the majority has left to do other things. They’ve left to the city to find work in construction or something else. And they’ve left the countryside.”

The lack of productive land leads most families to rely on other economic activities. All the families interviewed plant subsistence crops and raise small animals such as chickens and cuy (guinea pig). Most also own two to twenty cows, with most owning around ten. Many male heads of households work in cattle pastures, tending to either their own cattle or the cattle of other families. Families regularly sell cows for about $300 each. Many male heads of households also find temporary contract work in mining or construction, sometimes commuting far away for months at a time.

Lack of long-term, stable jobs

Out of 21 families interviewed, only 7 had one or more family members with a long-term, stable job.

We are unemployed because sometimes we don’t have enough schooling, or because we don’t have the ability to move to the city and live there. No one hires us.”

Jamboé Valley is located an hour and a half bus ride away from the nearest city of Zamora. As a small town, Zamora offers few employment opportunities for the families interviewed, especially because most residents of Jamboé Valley don’t have a degree and have difficulty getting hired by institutions. The 7 families with a reliable income expressed the importance of prioritizing and maintaining their long-term jobs. The 14 families interviewed without a reliable source of income tend to depend much more on contract work and cattle-raising.

Challenges with current livelihoods

Logging: No longer viable for most

Many of the families interviewed used to rely on logging as a main source of livelihood. However, at the time of this study, only one family continued to log wood. One reason families stopped logging was the stricter enforcement of environmental laws under the Rafael Correa presidency (2007–2017), which regulated logging areas and required loggers to buy permits. Another factor was the depletion of trees, as the area of forested land decreased and access to viable wood became increasingly difficult.

Logging is also dangerous and difficult work. For one participant, a lifetime of logging led to a hernia.

Imagine that you’re logging down trees, you have to use a lot of force. So much force you have to use for those trees so that you can profit, and now I have a hernia. This affects my health. It hurts.”

Many other families also expressed that given the choice, they would not log wood because logging is very dangerous. A few participants also cited how logging has a negative impact on the environment. The one family that continues to log wood perceives almost no issues with logging.

Contract work: Separated families and unstable income

Several families that rely on temporary contract work expressed frustration with the need to separate families when the male head of household travels to find jobs. Contract work in mines, construction, or other venues often requires travel for days, weeks, or months at a time.

It’s difficult because we’re no longer together with our children. As a result, they aren’t happy about having only one parent because they ask me: ‘where is he?’ or ‘when is he returning?’”

Several families also described contract work as challenging due to the instability of income and unpredictability of finding a job.

Cattle pastures

Almost all of the families interviewed maintain cattle pastures and raise cows. Although a few families commented on the challenges of cattle-raising, including the need to vaccinate cows and regularly cut down trees to create more pasture space, most didn’t express strong feelings. While almost all families own cattle, for most families, contract work or long-term employment provides a larger source of income than cattle.

We are abandoned”

Desire for institutional support to address unemployment and livelihood needs

The majority of participants expressed a desire for the government, non-profit organizations, or other institutions to address the issues of unemployment and lack of sustainable livelihoods in Jamboé Valley. Several residents specifically noted a need for technical support to improve the productivity and quality of the crops grown and cattle raised.

The authorities don’t help us. There are other countries, other provinces where many authorities help them…[with] agriculture, cattle ranches… They give them resources so that they can improve the quality of the cows, and improve the quality of crops.”

Other residents expressed a desire for more development projects or “más proyectos para todos trabajar” (more projects so everyone can work). Some pointed to the achiote project as an example of an initiative that allowed everyone to gain a livelihood using the resources of their own land. One participant pointed to the example of the bread oven initiative, in which the government and an international Catholic humanitarian organization called Caritas helped a women’s association in Numbami (a village in Jamboé Valley) create a business baking and selling bread.

Perceived value of the environment

When asked about living in Jamboé Valley, six participants explicitly mentioned the beauty of the natural environment. They spoke of the trees, the clean air, and how the trees provide oxygen. By and large, they prefer living in Jamboé Valley to living in the city.

[Jamboé Valley is] very beautiful due to the mountain, the landscape…very good land.”

[Jamboé Valley is] all free of contamination. We would say pure air due to the nature.”

ii) Experiences with the Achiote Project

Motivations for participating

Additional source of income

Most families joined the achiote project to gain an additional source of income (Figure 2). For families that lack a stable source of income, the achiote project appeared to address an important need for more sustainable sources of livelihoods.

Because you know that we are unemployed, and with this we have a resource.”

For families with a stable source of income, achiote presented an opportunity to gain more income and begin saving extra money.

I thought that if I wanted I could save a bit of money.”

Fig. 2. Motivations for participating in the Achiote Project.

Fig. 2. Motivations for participating in the Achiote Project.

Reforest and fertilize lands

A few families were motivated by the potential to reforest and fertilize the degraded cattle pastures in Jamboé Valley.

The motive was to reforest. To address the air contamination, all this. So it’s good that the trees produce clean air.”

Word of mouth and peer influences

For a few participants, seeing the benefits nearby families had obtained from achiote convinced them to also participate.

Some neighbors were planting over there…they talked to us about their achiote and for this reason we began to plant.”


For one participant, the achiote project was appealing because of its potential to conserve nature and reforest Jamboé Valley, rather than continuing deforestation.

I liked [the achiote project] a lot because the ongoing destruction of nature wasn’t good. I realized that I couldn’t cut down trees anymore. It’s better to care for the trees and nature.”

Perceptions of the Achiote Project compared to previous development projects

Projects similar to the achiote project had previously been implemented in Jamboé Valley. One example is a government-sponsored initiative in 2010 to grow coffee in Santa Cecilia, one of the villages in Jamboé Valley. Unlike NCI, the government did not find a market to sell the coffee in, nor did they follow up with residents when the coffee plants failed to grow well.

They just gave us everything but never followed up with us nor supported us like they did with the farming of achiote.”

Compared to previous development projects such as the coffee initiative, families perceived the way NCI went about implementing the achiote project very positively. They expressed appreciation that NCI not only provided seeds and technical assistance, but also found a market to sell the achiote in by creating partnership with ILE and helped with selling achiote. A few families also noted positively that achiote, unlike coffee, is native to Jamboé Valley.

Something is something”

Effects on livelihoods

Table 1. Household achiote holdings and income.

Year Planted # of Achiote Plants Income from Achiote Last Year
2012 100 $165.00
2012 300 $100.00
2014 800 $180.00
2014 900 *
2014 300 *
2014 110 $36.00
2014 300 $20.00
2016 800 *
2016 100 *
2016 300 *
2016 150 *
2016 400 *
2017 300 *
2017 350 *
n/a 350 $200.00
n/a 200 Sell processed achiote for $30.25/week (1)
n/a 500 $300.00
n/a 400 $125.00
n/a 800 “Algunos dolaritos” (2)

Notes: * indicates that the household had not yet harvested any achiote. n/a indicates that this information was not provided in the interview. (1) This family is the only household that does not sell their achiote harvests directly to ILE. Instead, they process and sell their own achiote products in the nearby town of Zamora themselves, for a profit of approximately $30.25 per week for the weeks that they sell achiote. Exact numbers on total profit for the whole year were not provided. (2) This household described their income from achiote as “some dollars”. Exact numbers for income earned was not provided.

As shown, 9 out of 19 currently participating households have not yet harvested any achiote. This is either because they recently planted achiote and the plants have yet to mature fully, or due to labor and/or time constraints (see: Challenges with Achiote).

For almost all participants, the income earned from achiote harvests does not significantly affect their livelihoods. This is mostly due to the low price Industría Lojana de Especerías, or ILE, pays the farmers for their achiote. Most families have an attitude of “something is something, and nothing is worse”, regarding the effect achiote has on livelihoods.

Achiote on one hand gives us a little bit of economic help, even though they [ILE] are paying us very little.”

For the participant who earns the most income from achiote ($300), achiote earns just enough for a month of food for his family.

The achiote is very little…I imagine that it’s very little because right now I’m harvesting around 1000 kilos and 1000 kilos brings me barely $300. And in one year, $300 per year, it’s gone with one month of food.”

Support for children’s education

Several female heads of households commented on the benefit achiote provides for their children’s education. Because there is no secondary school in Jamboé Valley, families must pay for their older children to take the bus to Zamora every day to attend class. With the income from achiote, families can support this transportation cost and other miscellaneous expense for school.

With these resources…working there, picking the seeds, I have a benefit for the help of my children…books, notebooks, and apart from those, transportation.”

Effects on the environment


Many participants had a difficult time identifying how the achiote project had affected the environment. However, several participants noted that achiote reforested the degraded cattle pastures.

All of this land that is achiote, before it was bare, empty land. And now, it’s forest.”

A few also commented on the benefits of fertilizing the land with the phosphorus-rich achiote husks.

Challenges with Achiote

Low market price set by Industría Lojana de Especerías (ILE)

All participants cited the low market price set by ILE as the number one challenge of farming achiote (Figure 3). ILE currently pays families $0.30/kilo for achiote buds, and $0.70/kilo for achiote seeds. Many families commented that the current price makes farming achiote unprofitable, especially given the labor demands and labor/time/land constraints detailed below.

We don’t have a market other than ILE. It’s difficult to find another market that we can compete with. Because they pay us very little. Maybe there’s another option. If the price were just 10 cents or so higher, it would benefit all of us.”

Most families expressed frustration with the fact that they currently have no other option other than selling to ILE for this low price. A few families said that their preferred price would be $1.00/kilo, for both achiote buds and seeds. However, even a slight increase in price would make achiote more profitable for families.

Fig. 3. Challenges with Achiote.

Fig. 3. Challenges with Achiote.

Labor intensive

Exacerbating the issue of the low price are the high labor demands of achiote. Manual labor is required to plant, trim and maintain, and harvest the achiote trees. Additional labor is required to pick out the seeds to sell achiote in seed-form. Families also noted that because ILE will only purchase organic achiote, farmers must exert more labor to compensate for a lack of pesticides or other chemicals.

Achiote is quite a lot of work because you have to care for it, you have to maintain the plants. If you don’t tend to the plants, they don’t produce.”

Labor constraints due to the low market price

Many families lack the human resources required to meet the high labor demands of achiote farming. Most male heads of households are occupied with cattle-raising, contract work, long-term employment, or a combination of the above. Most female heads of households are responsible for child-raising, cooking, cleaning, and the raising of crops and small animals for subsistence. To harvest more achiote, many families would have to hire people to help. Several families already hire workers (usually extended family members or neighbors) to help with their current achiote holdings.

However, the low price of achiote means that families often cannot afford to hire the additional help needed to harvest achiote or pick achiote seeds, among other tasks.

The price of achiote doesn’t cover the cost for a worker to help us.”

Last year, one family had to pay their neighbor to harvest all their achiote because the mother was sick and had to take care of a young child, and the father had to work in the cattle pastures. A harvest of 100 kilos of achiote buds, sold at the ILE price of $0.30/kilo, should have earned them $30. However, because they had to pay their neighbor $20 (about $10 a day for two days) in order to harvest this amount, they were left with only a net profit of $10. In the mother’s words, “no queda casi nada” “there is almost nothing left”.

Time constraints

Families have limited time to farm achiote because they prioritize more lucrative sources of livelihood. This is especially true for the seven families interviewed that rely on long-term stable employment. In one family, four members work in a gas cooperative in Zamora and earn a total of $4,000/month—a relatively high income in Jamboé Valley. Only the female head of household and one of her children tend to the achiote. Because the husband and three of the children work in Zamora during the week, they only farm achiote on Sundays. Last year, they barely harvested any achiote.

We dedicate our time to achiote on the weekends. The weekends, when I don’t have work.”

Families lacking long-term employment also prioritize more lucrative work like cattle-raising or contract work in construction or mining. Most participants described farming achiote on days off from work.

Land constraints

When asked whether or not they would plant more achiote in the future, a few families said they lack land to expand their crops.

iii) The Achiote Project moving forward

We are exploited: Most wish to expand Achiote only if the low market price rises

Most families participating in the achiote project expressed that they wish to continue farming achiote with their current holdings, due to the benefits they receive with the additional income. However, most said that they would only plant additional achiote if the price were to increase.

A few participants recognized that the issue of the low price is an issue of being exploited as a farmer who has no choice but to accept whatever price is offered for their product.

The bad fortune of the agricultural worker, of the farmer, is that one can’t name the price of their own products…All of us who produce here, we’re exploited. Exploited by the businessmen, by the middlemen, like that.”

Desire for autonomy in selling Achiote and/or more similar projects

A few participants expressed interest in obtaining resources to create their own achiote business—to sell directly to consumers rather than selling at the low price to ILE. One family already processes their own achiote and sells it in Zamora, obtaining higher profit than they would selling to ILE. Given resources to obtain a building, company registration, and materials for processing achiote, this family said they would stop all other economic activities, including cattle-raising and contract work, to run their own achiote business.

A few other participants expressed a desire for more projects similar to achiote, but with different crops. One participant suggested selling cloud ear fungus—native to Jamboé Valley and commonly used in Chinese cuisine—to Chinese markets. Another participant suggested producing sugar cane or plantains.

In the event that there was a project like this, everyone would plant. For this to happen, they [NCI] would have to support us, from planting to obtaining a market.”


Exploring the local context of Jamboé Valley helps us better understand the social, economic, and environmental impact of the achiote project, as well as its future potential and limitations. Communities like Jamboé Valley face unique obstacles to economic and social stability due to their reliance on a natural resource for income and employment (Bailey & Pomeroy 1996). Resource depletion is one such obstacle. When there are no more trees, logging becomes less and less a viable livelihood in Jamboé Valley. Resource-dependent communities are also often vulnerable to decisions made by external actors, such as government environmental policies like the increased logging regulation in Jamboé Valley (Mejia et al. 2015, Hoelle 2011, Bailey & Pomeroy 1996). Because most families no longer log wood for a living, and previously forested lands are now bare and degraded, large-scale deforestation is no longer a major concern. Therefore, in considering the environmental effects of the achiote project, it’s important to note these important economic and ecological behavioral shifts of Jamboé Valley residents.

What the achiote project aims to achieve instead is reducing the need to deforest land for maintaining cattle pastures. Relevant to this conservation goal are the limitations of livelihood-focused interventions to reduce pressure on a natural resource. While it’s possible that with a high enough income, achiote might reduce the need to raise cattle, we also see that even Jamboé Valley residents with a relatively high, steady source of income own and raise cattle. In explaining the persistence of low income and environmentally degrading land uses in the Brazilian Amazon, Garrett et al. (2018) suggests that cultural values and social embeddedness, rather than economic reasons, might explain the persistence of cattle-raising of rural families. Cattle-raising also offers a cheap and effective way of establishing control over a large territory (Bowman et al. 2012, Hecht 1993). Cows can also extend the economic life of land: when lands go out of production after years of planting crops, grass can be planted for cows to graze on until the lands become fully degraded (Hecht 1993).

Cattle is also an important method of income diversification in regions like Jamboé Valley where income diversification opportunities are limited (Garrett et al. 2017). Ellis (2000) defines livelihood diversification as “the process by which households construct a diverse portfolio of activities and social support capabilities for survival and in order to improve their standard of living”. The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach framework suggests that sustainable livelihoods are achieved and maintained through livelihood diversification, or engaging in a range of economic activities (Scoones 1998, Ellis 1998, Appendini & Zoomers 2001). Achiote achieves its objective of diversifying local incomes by providing low-income families with another option for income generation (Hanazaki et al. 2013). Achiote can also contribute to household economic resilience by providing a seasonal source of income, as its main harvest is in April/May with another small harvesting season in November/December. Resource dependent communities can be thought of as not dependent on a single resource, such as trees, but dependent on an entire ecosystem. Relying on multiple resource bases in an ecosystem with different seasonalities, such as achiote, can therefore serve as another way to diversify incomes and promote household resilience (Marsche and Berkes 2006).

To promote livelihood diversification and household resilience, we must also examine macro-level economic trends that affect the livelihoods of Jamboé Valley residents, such as the increasing importance of off-farm employment. As of 2018, 36.33% of Ecuador’s population lives in rural areas (World Bank). For rural populations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Perez et al. (2015) found that off-farm employment was the principal income source for 68% of the population and accounted for 53% of total household income on average. These findings are consistent with rural areas around the world. Several studies note the growing importance of non-farm economic activities for rural populations in Ecuador, South America, and Asian and African developing regions (Andersen et al. 2009, Reardon et al. 2007, Ros-Tonen and Wiersum 2005, Elbers and Lanjouw 2001, Lanjouw 1999). Trends in Jamboé Valley reflect these worldwide trends, as most families rely primarily on off-farm income from employment in cattle pasture clearing, contract work in construction or mines, or long-term employment in the city. Factors contributing to the rising participation in off-farm employment in Ecuador include population growth, declining soil fertility (such as the degraded cattle pastures in Jamboé Valley), improved roads, and growth of urban labor markets (Perez et al. 2015).

The growing importance of off-farm employment has led many scholars to propose that governments address livelihood needs of rural populations by increasing access to off-farm job opportunities. One way to do this is improving access to education, so that rural communities can gain the skills and qualifications necessary for jobs in nearby towns (Perez et al. 2015, Vasco 2011). Other methods include expanding employment through public works projects or in the transportation sector (Lanjouw 1999, Ros-Tonen and Wiersum 2005). Finding off-farm employment has implications for conservation as well. A study of brazil nut harvesters in Peru found that only the poor who find work unrelated to the forest can succeed in breaking the link between poverty and forest resource degradation (Escobal 2003). Findings from interviews with achiote project participants confirm that in current circumstances, no farming activity can replace the economic importance of non-farm wage-labor or long-term institutional employment.

However, as part of a diverse portfolio of household economic activities, achiote presents great potential to contribute to the development of sustainable livelihoods in Jamboé Valley. Although many assessments of livelihood-focused projects have produced mixed results, some organizations have achieved successful conservation and development outcomes. In Bangladesh, for example, training for alternative income generating activities resulted in a 43% reduction in fishing in protected areas or during closed seasons (Rahman and Begum 2011). Several studies show that successful livelihood projects depend heavily on reliable pricing and markets (Nautiyal 2011, Sievenan et al. 2005). Ros-Tonen and Wiersum (2005) suggest that non-timber forest products can improve livelihoods if products can be harvested efficiently, infrastructure (including transportation and roads) are available for products to reach markets, products have established markets or niche markets (such as fair trade certified products), producers have the capacity to add value to products (such as through processing of food products), and producers have alliances with outsiders including development agencies or environmental organizations who may identify new markets and new donors. The achiote project already has many of these important elements, including infrastructure, an established market, and an alliance with an environmental organization. To achieve greater conservation and development outcomes, NCI may consider identifying new markets to resolve the issue of the low price of achiote sold to ILE, and providing resources for producers to process achiote food products. Results from this study indicate that participants are interested in both potential approaches to expansion. New markets for achiote may also become more viable over time, as studies continue to identify potential medicinal uses of achiote due to its anti-oxidative, anti-cancer, hypoglucemic, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties (Rivera-Madrid et al. 2016).

Although it’s important to design livelihood projects to address locally defined needs and achieve positive social and/or economic outcomes, it’s unlikely that these interventions alone will achieve desired conservation goals (Wright et al. 2016). However, building positive relationships with resource dependent communities and improving attitudes towards conservation is, in contrast, an achievable and realistic goal that can also be considered an indirect change in behavior (Wright et al. 2016). Additionally, achiote addresses many social needs of Jamboé Valley residents. For rural communities, studies have found that people often perceive a higher quality of life in the countryside, and that income is not necessarily an adequate measure of wellbeing (Macdonald & Winklerprins 2014, Garrett et al. 2017). Results from this study similarly find that achiote project participants desire to live and work off their own land in Jamboé Valley. The achiote project therefore addresses these unquantifiable needs by providing a source of livelihood for residents to continue living and working in the countryside.


This study used semi-structured interviews to capture the beliefs and motivations that underlie the behaviors of achiote project participants (Berkwits & Inui 1998). These perceptions and attitudes shape participants’ support for a livelihood project, and ultimately determine the project’s success as a result (Harvey et al. 2018). Exploring local contextual factors and experiences of participants might also facilitate the design of a comprehensive quantitative survey to evaluate the project in the future. Quantitative data will become especially useful for measuring impact as the number of participants rise over time and statistically significant data analysis becomes possible (Hammarberg et al. 2016). The more the people affected by these programs play a role in evaluating these projects, the more policies and practices will support their priorities, allowing them to achieve the sustainable livelihoods they need (Chambers & Conway 1992). As NCI looks to expand the achiote project or possibly initiate other livelihood projects, collecting feedback from participants will be key to furthering their mission of conservation and economic improvement.


This study was supported by the Tropical Resources Institute of Yale University. The author would like thank Matthew Clark and Trotsky Riera of Nature and Culture International, Dr. Simon Queenborough and Dr. Amity Doolittle of Yale University, and the residents of Jamboé Valley for their support.


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  1. Akielly Hu joined the Environmental Law Institute as a Research Associate in August 2019. She is currently involved in projects supporting compensatory mitigation programs for wetlands conservation, food waste-related actions for municipal climate action plans, and environmental public interest litigation in China, among others. Before joining ELI, Akielly conducted independent research investigating the socioeconomic and environmental effects of an NGO’s conservation and development program in Ecuador. She has also supported environmental education initiatives at a heritage site in Thailand, and researched sustainability issues of palm oil in Indonesia. Akielly grew up near Seattle, Washington and graduated with a BA in Global Affairs from Yale University.

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