Ecuador, in Search of Natural Balance


In Search of Natural Balance


On the world's waistline, the trees drip not only with rain but with treasures in feathered form. Like a kaleidoscopic plasma, a mixed feeding flock expands and contracts through the treetops-40 or so green gold, red, blue, purple, and yellow birds flipping, flitting, then doubling back through patches of dense foliage. Neither steady rain nor parasol-sized leaves slapping to the ground distract them from their quest for small fruits, insects, and nectar. Scanning steadily back and forth with his binoculars, Sam Woods sifts through the flock until he zeroes in on a busy, pencil-length bird that appears to have been dipped in tomato juice. "There it is! Get on this bird. That's the scarlet-breasted dacnis. It's found in few other places in the world," he quickly whispers, jabbing his finger toward a bustling tree crown.

Then, as quickly as it appeared, the dacnis and its flock mates vanish down a slope. "They'll be back," Woods tells me. He knows the program: Throughout the day, the restless flock does laps around the 71-hectare Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary in northwest Ecuador. This swatch of lowland rainforest protects not only birds but a wide variety of wildlife now crammed into a forested island surrounded by a spreading sea of pasture and oil palm plantations. The area was purchased in 2005 by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (MCF), an Ecuadorian nonprofit organization supported by both locally raised and foreign funds. In addition to purchasing more acreage, the foundation is working to reforest small patches of pasture cut out of the property and to cooperate with local landowners to create habitat links that may eventually join the sanctuary to two large conservation areas nearby.

Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary sits within the Chocó region, an area running from western Colombia into northwest Ecuador that is home to 87 bird species found nowhere else-the largest concentration of restricted-range endemics anywhere. The sanctuary is one of a growing constellation of small, threatened, and irreplaceable parcels packed into this United Kingdom-sized country. Saving such ecologically rich real estate comes at a price, but one that many conservationists now believe that Ecuador's wildlife will help pay. Conservation efforts such as those spearheaded by MCF aim not only to secure a future for Ecuador's biodiversity but also to capitalize on a rising tide of ecotourism that brings much-needed revenue to a country burdened with an oil-dependent economy, contentious politics, and high levels of poverty.

Carbon (Living and Dead) and Money

From its Pacific coast to its Andean spine and down into its steamy Amazonian lowlands, Ecuador is a microcosm of South American landscapes and cultures. Birds are but the most visible slice of its striking biodiversity, a resource that more than 200,000 foreign visitors flock to view every year. This natural bounty, however, is in decline in many parts of the country, leaving a generous portion of the world's biodiversity hanging in the balance. Ecuador is smaller than the state of Nevada, but it boasts plant diversity rivaling that of the entire United States. Some areas contain among the greatest recorded tree and insect diversity on the planet. It ranks third in amphibian diversity and fourth in birds, with around 1,600 species, or about 17 percent of the world's total. Ecuador also has the eighth-richest collection of reptile fauna in the world. And spectacled (Andean) bear, jaguar, Andean condor, and harpy eagle persevere in the country's lingering wilderness areas-species now vanishing from many parts of their once-extensive South American ranges.

Since large oil companies struck black gold in Ecuador's Amazonian east in the 1960s, this once-agrarian nation has hopped on an unrelenting economic rollercoaster ride. In 1999, Ecua­dor faced its worst economic crisis to date, brought about in good part by plummeting oil prices and damage done to infrastructure by El Niño-related extreme weather. Its currency is now the U.S. dollar, adopted in 2000 in a desperate attempt to stabilize the economy. Since then, Ecuador's economy has steadied somewhat but remains extremely vulnerable to oil price fluctuations.

Ecuador's political scene has been equally unstable. Since 1996, the country has been governed by seven presidents. Corruption, collapse, and cronyism are words that have accompanied many of the fleeting administrations.

While attempting to boost oil production and bolster its economy, Ecuador has sought to attract other industries to help diversify its portfolio. Petroleum is the country's top foreign money earner, but Ecuador is still not a major world producer; although output has doubled since 1980, it still only produced about 420,000 barrels a day in 2003, compared with 3.1 million in Canada, 3.8 million in Mexico, and 8.8 million in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Over the past 20 years, tourism (most of it nature based) has grown to become the third-largest foreign income earner, after oil and remittances from Ecuadorians living and working out of the country. According to the Banco Central del Ecuador, tourism brought in $367 million in 2004 and averaged $383 million annually over the last seven years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Galapagos Islands, which lie some 960 kilometers off the coast, drew most of Ecuador's foreign visitors. Today tourists visit not only this fabled archipelago but a host of Andean retreats and Amazonian lodges.

The influx of international tourists does not escape the attention of the national, provincial, and local governments, as illustrated by the country's first nature-oriented scenic route. Scenic overlooks, road improvements, and bright new signs mark the newly minted Paseo del Quinde ("Hummingbird Stroll"), which resulted from a marriage between private and government interests, including the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism, the provincial government of Pichincha Province, ecotourism businesses, and the project's creator, the MCF. Linking scenic and natural areas from Pichincha Volcano just west of Quito, through Mindo and west to Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary, the route targets Ecuadorians seeking natural getaways from nearby Quito as well as international tourists. The Ministry of Tourism is eyeing the success of the new route, with hopes of establishing others elsewhere in the country. Also, in a focused bid to elevate mainland Ecuador to a top ecotourism destination rivaling Costa Rica and its own Galapagos Islands, the government asked the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation to draw up the National Strategy for Birdwatching Tourism, an effort financed by the Netherlands. The push includes funds for marketing birding tourism in the United States and European countries, among others.

While the government is interested in touting Ecuador's natural treasures, its actions do not always favor conservation. As in many other tropical areas, Ecuador's biodiversity survives at the mercy of its growing human population of 13.4 million. Poverty levels are high-in 2001, 45 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, up from 40 percent in 1990, according to the World Bank. The per capita gross domestic product was $2,180 in 2005, nearly 20 times smaller than that of the United States. Rural communities are among those living in the deepest poverty in Ecuador, including indigenous people, who make up 25 percent of the nation's population. With a desperate need to finance social and education programs in a topsy-turvy political context, Ecuador's government has not adequately protected its vast national parks and reserves, nor in many cases conducted timely environmental impact statements, as dictated by its law, for oil development projects and other industrial activities.

Green Awakening

Its political, economic, and administrative weaknesses aside, Ecuador is a country that values education. About 90 percent of the populace can read and schools embrace environmental education. Public awareness of environmental concerns, from rainforest protection to pollution and watershed conservation, is on the rise. Many Ecuadorians now see their Amazon jungles and mountain forests as natural assets, whereas a few decades ago they were considered frontiers to conquer.

"I think it's changing and improving. There's definitely a growing awareness," says Marta Echavarria, a Colombian-born environmental scientist who settled in Ecuador 10 years ago. "Public opinion is turning toward environmental issues. You can see it in the number of articles in the newspapers. Every day you see something. In this case, the media reflects growing public interest. The private universities in Quito now offer programs in environmental studies, in applied ecology. I also notice it with my own kids-I see how much they learn in school-and also with the kids of the people who work on our farm."

While international headlines might lead one to believe that achieving environmental progress in Ecuador's uncertain political and economic climate is unlikely, many living in the country don't see it that way. "The political instability has definitely generated a lot of noise," says Echavarria, "but day to day, you don't feel it. Things keep going somehow." Echavarria now runs a butterfly farm in Mindo, shipping 1,000 butterflies a week to educators in the United States and Canada. Her enterprise employs 11 Mindo residents and a technician from Quito.

Other nature-oriented businesses, including nature lodges, now thrive along the Mindo road. "When I arrived in 1995, there was nothing," she says. "Now, I can't keep up. Mindo is booming and everyone in town has moved to ecotourism from agriculture. There's now a feeling and understanding, at least in the northwest, that this area is better off as a conservation-oriented place rather than an agricultural one." This attitude seems to be pervading many areas where foreign support joins with local will to change land use practices. This is happening not only at Río Silanche and Mindo but across the country.

Under the auspices of other nongovernmental organizations and private land owners, a broad spectrum of habitat protection and regeneration projects is under way. These efforts complement the government's chain of protected areas-14 large national parks and reserves established from the mid-1970s into the 1980s that together account for about 12 percent of the country's area. Not far from Río Silanche but higher in the Andean foothills lies the Bosque Nublado Santa Lucía, some 650 hectares of cloud forest protected by land-owning campesino families that run an ecotourism venture and encourage volunteers to help them monitor and reforest their property. Nearby, expatriate Australian and British landowners in the Tandayapa region run nature lodges that employ local families. The lodges are a small local industry that is helping to bring back the surrounding cloud forest cover as cattle raising fades as the predominant local money-earner.

In the country's far south, a rare dry forest has been purchased by a consortium of local and international conservation groups with the aim of helping local communities protect a watershed and wildlife by replacing grazing and tree-cutting with medicinal plant and fruit harvests and other sustainable forest uses. The Washington, D.C.-based American Bird Conservancy works with the Fundación Jocotoco, which since its establishment in 1998 has acquired and begun to protect a reserve network that encompasses about 4,700 hectares at six properties scattered across the country. The sites are among the last homes for highly localized wildlife such as the Jocotoco antpitta, a deep-forest bird discovered in 1997. Much of the funds for these efforts have come from foreign donations, but most future support is expected to come from ecotourism. Already, revenue generated by international and in-country tourist visits pays the salaries of two of the most popular reserves' locally hired wardens.

Tourism ventures are not only linked to specific conservation projects, however. Universities now offer hospitality degrees and many small family ventures are popping up. Renato Carrillo is planning a new one. The 30-year-old Quito resident has guided tourists to the Cotopaxi volcano-at 5,366 meters, the highest active volcano in the world-and other natural sites for more than 10 years as part of his small tour-guiding business, Tato's Tours. Wearing a red and white jacket that broadcasts his allegiance to his favorite soccer team, Carrillo enthusiastically lays out his plans while driving his van through the outskirts of Quito: "With my family, I have two hectares quite close to the site of the planned new [Quito] airport. We have enough land to have agriculture and a hotel. That's my idea for the future-agri-tourism, the joining of farming with tourism."

Into the Amazon

Far east and over the Andes from Mindo and Río Silanche, the Amazon region of Ecuador contains some of the country's worst poverty, most of its oil wealth, and its largest remaining indigenous communities and wilderness areas. Local communities have worked-and occasionally risen up-to force oil companies to provide them with better support and compensation for the environmentally damaging activities that draw and transport oil from their region. Meanwhile, far from the current oil hotspots, lie the pristine lowland rainforests of the southeast, where a bold effort to protect nature and the Achuar indigenous culture has taken wing.

"As my Achuar friend Domingo Peas said, ‘We are not business people, we never did it in the past...but we must learn in order to protect our territory and our forest,'" says Paulina Rodriguez, operations manager of the Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve. The lodge bills itself as the largest community-based project ever developed in Ecuador and helps protect 5,000 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest. The late Ecuadorian entrepreneur and journalist Carlos Pérez Perasso, who founded Ecuador's El Universo newspaper, started the lodge in 1993, working through his travel company Canodros and with the Federation of the Achuar Indigenous People. Perasso's goal was to keep the Achuar people, their rainforests, and their way of life safe from oil development and other unsustainable and disruptive activities. Perasso invested more than US$2 million in the venture and hoped to hand it all over to the Achuars. Today, more than 70 percent of the hotel's staff of 32 are Achuar, including guides, cooks, housekeepers, waiters, canoe drivers, and maintenance workers. Combined, the Achuar staff receives US$70,000 in salaries each year.

The reserve remains free of roads; tourists arrive on chartered flights. For the privilege of staying and viewing pink river dolphins, squirrel monkeys, and other wildlife, each visitor pays between US$175 and US$290 a night. In addition, the community collects an average of US$16,000 per year in entrance fees, and Perasso's company Canodros pays the federation more than US$50,000 per year to rent their land. Currently, the lodge reaches the break-even point each year but has yet to produce much in the way of revenue. Because goods only arrive via aircraft, costs are still too high. The Achuar Federation is now looking into creating its own small aircraft service to lower these costs and increase revenues-a pressing need, as the federation is about to give up its rental income from Canodros. "In 2011, the entire lodge with all it has inside will be transferred to the Achuar people without any cost for them," says Rodriguez. "We are working to train the Achuar people to be able to manage the lodge by 2011." The exact transfer process will be decided by the Achuar Federation's assembly, which may choose to manage the property or hire a small professional team to help them handle the business.

There are other Amazon lodges in Ecuador, and many provide a primary source of income for local communities. The Napo Wildlife Center, owned by the Quito-based NGO EcoEcuador, is one. The local indigenous Quichua community of Añangu, which inhabits part of the vast and poorly patrolled Yasuní National Park in northeast Ecuador, receives 49 percent of net profits from the ecotourism lodge, funds that are used to support education, health care, and other needs. At least 85 percent of the lodge's employees hail from Añangu. In addition to their accommodation fees, all lodge guests pay park entrance fees, which go to the Ministry of the Environment. The center, meanwhile, provides protection for 212 square kilometers of the park's lowland rainforest, which in other sections is barely under surveillance. Not far off, the Sacha Lodge employs members of 100 local families and protects a private reserve of 2,000 hectares of rainforest. Small groups of well-paying foreign tourists visit many of these lodges, some of which now host more than 1,000 visitors a year. The future of this rising industry depends upon fair partnerships with local communities, ethical behavior within protected areas-and upon steady visitation.

Our day at Río Silanche ends as it began, with fleeting glimpses of the returning flock in the darkening tree crowns: more tanagers, a blue-whiskered here, a scarlet-browed there, barbets, warblers, honeycreepers. Sam Woods walks me past a 14-meter cinderblock and metal tower that, when fully constructed, will give visitors a bird's-eye view of the daily feeding frenzy. "They'll charge $10 or $15 admission. That should cover the fruit that will be put out to draw in the birds, and other expenses," Woods tells me. That admission price will be for foreign visitors; Ecuadorians will pay a lower fee, as is the case in many of the country's parks.

Small creatures like the tiny dacnis, just 13 centimeters long, have the power to lure in visitors from around the world who crave glimpses and snapshots of Ecuador's effulgent wildlife. This interplay may, with careful coaxing, help smooth Ecuador's rocky road, drawing in a steady stream of foreign exchange that benefits local communities and fuels a growing appreciation of-and a firmer commitment to-the imperative to conserve the country's irreplaceable biodiversity.


Howard Youth is a former Associate Editor at Worldwatch. His work has previously appeared here and in Worldwatch's Vital Signs series. He also wrote Worldwatch Paper 165, Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds, and the chapter "Watching Birds Disappear" in State of the World 2003.