The lessons of COVID-19: facilitation for meeting sustainability goals

By Frédéric Baron

When the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was in Bogota on a work mission, living the last moments of what some could now consider a “normal” professional life. I returned home to Barcelona early and impassively observed how the world was dramatically changing, with a feeling of being useless in the crisis and disrupted in my personal work. Since then, the pandemic has harshly impacted all populations around the globe, in terms of health, of course, but also economically and socially. 

We cannot overlook the impact of the pandemic on the environment too, and the management of natural resources. In Colombia, of the 62 protected areas that fall under the National System of Protected Areas, 25 were engaged in ecotourism, as were 33 of the 59 protected natural areas in Ecuador. Their financial sustainability has been affected as national and international public investments were diverted towards managing the pandemic. There’s now a rising risk of criminal activity such as illegal logging, as resources for forest management decrease and ranger patrols are suspended. At the same time, a lot of cooperation projects aimed at reducing deforestation or improving biodiversity conservation have suffered delays and breaks in their activities. 

Most actors and experts involved in these programmes or working on environmental solutions – including the EU REDD Facility – need to work at a distance, and mostly from home. For everyone in this field, this situation has required creativity, not just to maintain workflows but also to generate tangible results for those who were vulnerable even before the pandemic. As an expert working in international cooperation, this panorama has forced me to reconsider and rethink the modalities and methodologies of our day-to-day work.

New technologies as threat and opportunity

One of the biggest personal lessons of these challenging last 18 months has been the urgency of reconnecting actors and stakeholders that are more isolated than ever. Facilitators and/or facilitation skills are greatly necessary if we want to make 2021 and years ahead not “lost years”, but “opportunistic or transition years” in achieving sustainable development goals and Nationally Determined Contributions targets. With or without a pandemic, environmental and social challenges cannot wait until “normality” returns. 

Another lesson has been the potential for information technology and virtual connections. The pandemic accelerated a major modern phenomenon: the rise of the virtual. We have all experienced the massive improvement and democratisation of social media and internet technologies, allowing us to connect and exchange information faster, from long distance, and at any time. But this is just one edge of the sword. All technologies can also serve bad intentions. We can be quantitatively more informed, but qualitatively less so. We may be connected to more people, but maybe less well connected. With the pandemic having generated global fear and insecurity, the misuse of virtual technologies contributed, in some cases, to compromising trust amongst people, organisations, and governments. What we call “common sense” or consensus may now seem harder to achieve. Now more than ever we see the need for well-informed and open dialogue, and processes for facilitation. If used correctly, social and information technologies can afford great opportunities.

Central African rainforest by Travel Stock

Dialogue and consensus through facilitation

Within the EU REDD Facility team, I’m focusing on our Latin America partner countries, Colombia and Ecuador, along with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When looking at the complex nature and diverse drivers of deforestation in these countries, there is general agreement that there are no “silver bullet” solutions for national REDD+ objectives. Rather, what’s needed is mechanisms that provide flexibility and the capacity to adapt to different sectors, local contexts and actors. 

Through my work in Colombia, I’ve supported the development of local intercultural land-use governance mechanisms in the Amazonian area of Caquetá, where significant deforestation occurs. This project took place over several local administrative areas known as “veredas” of the Solano municipality, just at the deforestation frontier. The main challenge has been dialogue between indigenous Inga people and local cattle ranchers, to develop consensus on land-use management and reducing deforestation while ensuring a decent living income for farmers. What struck me from the beginning is that the real bottleneck preventing dialogue – and thus consensus on action and co-management of the territory – wasn’t discrepancies in visions and culture between communities. Rather, it was ignorance and lack of knowledge and understanding of each other. Once the first steps of the facilitation process allowed both communities to come to know and better understand each other’s perspectives and governance mechanisms, a dialogue became possible. 

The lesson here has been that negotiations, dialogue, and consensus can be achieved if a facilitating third party can ensure this first layer of knowledge and understanding. It does not mean that the way towards a final agreement will be easy, but certainly easier and possible. 

Thus, for our 2021 support to these three countries, we decided to increase the facilitation component of our work to generate technical dialogue – first to share information and generate common knowledge, and then to identify potential solutions or mechanisms to improve governance and sustainability of land use. Of course, our plan is to do this virtually, given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Towards a common understanding and feasibility of traceability and transparency

In both Colombia and Ecuador, the cocoa sector involves several actors with varied interests. Colombia’s cocoa market is characterised by strong internal demand for chocolate (80% of cocoa produced is consumed locally) while Ecuador has a significant cocoa export market (85% of national production is exported). Both countries registered great production increases in the last years: between 2000 and 2017, Colombia’s total cocoa production has doubled while Ecuador registered almost a six-fold increase in cocoa. Ecuador is now the third-largest cocoa producer country worldwide, with 7% of global production. While cocoa is not considered a driver of deforestation in these countries, the expansion of land for cocoa cultivation has been increasing since 2007 and poses a potential risk for deforestation in the future, along with associated social and environmental risks. 

In this context, traceability and transparency systems are crucial for identifying, monitoring and tackling environmental and social issues in supply chains. 

Traceability refers to methods of tracing a commodity through the supply chain, while transparency is the disclosure of sourcing information to increase the accountability of relevant stakeholders. However, the exact definition of these concepts is not always the same amongst supply-chain actors, and the use of such systems is not always associated with the same objectives. It has led to the current situation where actors with enough financial capacity have developed their own private traceability systems, sharing only a small part of their database publically, and withholding data from existing national monitoring systems. 

COVID-19 and its related restrictions has reduced access to information and deeply modified our economies, putting many sectors in a fragile position. Ignorance and poverty are the enemy of good governance, and persistent asymmetry of information will never allow for social and environmental sustainability and justice. There is need for a common understanding and definition of concepts of traceability and transparency and what they serve. Adequate systems also need to be designed through participatory processes. If not, traceability will only empower the upstream side of supply chains where the bulk of information and data will circulate, not always for or with full transparency. For unscrupulous business operators, maintaining the ignorance of clients, competitors and even partners can be used for competitive advantage. Reducing the asymmetry of information by promoting more transparent traceability systems would lead to improved governance of supply chains.

The EU REDD Facility facilitated technical and multi-stakeholder dialogues in Ecuador and Colombia, virtually, to evaluate the feasibility and options for national traceability and transparency systems (in line with the Transparency Pathway tool developed by the EU REDD Facility). We are now finalising proposals to be used as the basis for further political dialogue and decisions.

Dried cocoa seeds by Joel Bubble Ben

Civil society preparations for DRC’s national forest policy development

In DRC’s climate change and deforestation policy process, national civil society organisations (CSOs) are officially represented under the umbrella of the national Groupe de Travail-Rénové REDD network, or GTCR-R. Created in 2013, the network has proven its capacity to improve coordination amongst its members and to some extent to influence DRC decision and policy-making processes.

However, as in many countries in the region, civil society is sometimes involved only after the design phase of a project, a programme or a policy document, during the “consultation” phase for their validation. To change this paradigm, with GTCR-R and its members, the EU REDD Facility chose to organise an “ex-ante consultation”, or what we decided to call a “concertation”. In this new process, two aims were achieved:

  • Capturing the diverse visions of CSOs, along with their propositions for the future forest sector regulatory and policy framework. 
  • Demonstrating the capacity of national CSOs to generate information and data, and to be considered as a starting partner rather than just a “validation” partner.

As in Latin America, COVID-19 increased isolation of remote actors in many African countries and it has been quite challenging to support such dialogue from a distance, with technology as our only option. However, this experience showed a better capacity to adapt than expected, and this should be reinforced in the future.

The final civil society position paper will be considered as a relevant basis for the Sustainable Management Programme soon to be launched. This programme has the objective (amongst others) of elaborating a national Forest Policy.

This concertation process amongst CSOs did not bring full consensus on the orientations and recommendations for the future policy, but it did help to nuance and somewhat soften initial and purely ideological positions, and even sometimes build bridges between positions. More importantly, by sharing the same level of information in a transparent way, conflicts over facts were eventually set aside to concentrate on needed solutions. In my view, that is already half the problem solved.

Of course, the reality of decision-making processes is complex, and does not succeed only through facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue with technical information. Even more when this facilitation is done virtually. However, having those two elements will always catalyse and prepare a solid and recognised basis, as well as generate information that is valuable and additional to what an ad hoc expert analysis could provide.

This pandemic made facilitation activities complicated, but at the same time more needed than before. We should take available technologies and virtual options as opportunities to do our best. I’m convinced that facilitation is more crucial now than ever. We cannot let global health crises like this pandemic separate us more than we already were.


Frédéric Baron

Forest and land-use governance expert

EU REDD Facility



The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the EU REDD Facility, or other contributors to this site.