Inside one man’s 30-year quest to save South America’s forests

Giving back to local communities

In return for their efforts to restore threatened habitats and conserve birds and other wildlife, local communities receive help from Acción Andina to secure their land titles, which provide legal protection against exploitation by timber, mining and oil companies.

Aucca and his team have also created protected areas, brought doctors and dentists to remote mountain villages and provided solar panels and clean-burning clay stoves to communities to improve their quality of life.

A man talking to three other people
Vast swaths of the Andes were once covered in Polylepis trees, but today only 500,000 hectares of them remain after decades of deforestation. Photo by UNEP/Diego Rotmestrowski

Oca’s vision for ecosystem renewal extends beyond his native Peru. In 2018, the Andean Ecosystems Association and the non-profit organization Global Generation of American Forests created Andean Action to scale up the community-led reforestation model in other Andean countries.

As president and co-founder of Acción Andina, Aucca now oversees plans to protect and restore one million hectares of critical forests in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, as well as Peru, over the next 25 years with the support of Global Forest Generation. His work embodies the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration’s call for global action to prevent, halt and reverse ecosystem degradation.

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Studies show that restoring 20 million hectares of degraded ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean could generate $23 billion in benefits over 50 years. Thriving ecosystems are also essential to keeping global warming below 2°C and helping societies and economies adapt to climate change.

At the heart of Aucca’s work lies his deep connection to his own Inca heritage and the Inca principles of “Ayni and Minka,” a deep commitment to working together for the common good, which runs through plans to expand reforestation in other Andean countries as well.

A man is walking along a steep mountain road
As head of Acción Andina, Aucca now oversees plans to protect and restore one million hectares of critically important forests. Photo by UNEP/Diego Rotmestrowski

“Once in South America we were the greatest empire, united by one culture, the culture of the Incas,” Oca said. “It was the first time we all came together. The next time we came together to create a movement was to free ourselves from the Spanish yoke, and to seek our independence. We are now meeting for the third time. Why? To protect a young tree.”

About the United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth programme
UNEP’s Champions of the Earth program honors individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. The annual Champions of the Earth award is the United Nations’ highest environmental honor. It honors outstanding leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector

About the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 to 2030 the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the United Nations Environment Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations along with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems around the world. It aims to revive billions of hectares, covering terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade brings together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to scale up restoration at scale.

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