Can the Ecuadorian Amazon be saved?

Jun 23, 2021 | 3 comments

Editor’s note: Time is running out for Ecuador to save its Amazon rainforests — areas which have 10,000 times the biodiversity of the Galapagos islands. Ethno-ecologist  Adam Gebb looks at the problems and possibilities in this seven-part series about wildlife, people, and the rainforest itself. 

By Adam Gebb

Ecuador’s Amazon is on the brink of the most drastic biodiversity crash in history because of road building incentives and the lack of development controls.

The children of the Ecuadorian rainforest deserve to live in a clean environment. (Photo by Mark Fox)

The Amazon is being developed fast and there’s no plan to maintain its pristine ecosystems which hold far greater wealth if left intact.

Who would have thought that one of the most highly biodiverse ecosystems on the planet that took a hundred million years of evolution to create could be destroyed in just 50 years.  And yet the region could be saved if action is taken now.

The complex natural communities of the region have been resilient and literally bursting with new life forms because the giant untouched ancient landscapes offered amazingly varied geography where species could move to while climate continually changed.

The minimum area needed to maintain the functionality of Ecuador’s Andes Amazon biome is likely over 10 million acres. That might sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite small when you consider that an area hundreds of times larger was in pristine condition with no roads for the last 100 million years. Entire forest communities migrated into the Andes during warmer epochs and back down into the Amazon during glacial epochs. The lowest altitude the glaciers of the Andes reached was about 6,000 feet which always left the lower Amazonian areas to prosper.

The forest fragments that remain are mostly under a million acres with just a couple exceptions and the pressure to develop is increasing. The main culprit is road construction. While some talk about how new roads will spur local economies, the truth is far from it. Most areas in Ecuador experience the extermination of local ecosystems followed by poverty within 15 years of a new road.

Deforestation follows roads. (Google Earth satellite image)

The reality is that when natural resources become easily accessible, they are put into trucks and sold in markets close by and around the world. The fast pace of ecosystem removal that roads allow for is anything but sustainable. When all that is left is cow pastures. Millions of species and the native human cultures that used to coexist are gone forever. This enormous loss can be avoided.

The solution is education and conservation land use planning before new roads are even considered. There is room for population growth and the extraction of some natural resources, but this requires that both native peoples and the central government be open to new ways of thinking about and using land.

Tapir prefer large roadless areas. (Photo by Wild Republic)

Economies based on conservation and ecotourism are much larger than areas with unplanned removal of natural resources. Biodiversity is a real sign of natural wealth that can be maintained if there is a plan to do so. How diverse are Ecuador’s Amazonian forests? A University of Wisconsin study found 100,000 different species of tree canopy insects on just 2.5 acres.

That doesn’t include mammals, plants, amphibians or the countless other species that inhabit soils, rivers and wetlands. This biodiversity is so great that it can’t truly be understood by humans. If a team of scientists did a three year study of a small forested area, it would be a different natural community in just that period. Migration of entire forest communities is beyond human comprehension and there are millions of acres needed to allow for the continuation of ancient evolutionary processes.

The answer is to have biocorridors that allow for species movement in a way that mimics an area’s ancient migrational rhythms. A biocorridor can be defined as: “A geographically defined area which provides connectivity between landscapes, ecosystems and habitats, natural or modified, and ensures the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological and evolutionary processes.”

In Ecuador, maintaining evolutionary processes requires that we reconnect the Andes mountains and the Amazon basin. They are inseparable parts of the same ecosystem.

Ecuador has a world reputation for biodiversity and the Galapagos Islands are a shining example. The Ecuadorian Amazon has at least 10,000 times the biodiversity of the Galapagos. Large scale conservation in this area would create a globally competitive ecotourism attraction that could greatly increase the country’s tourism numbers by getting Galapagos visitors to see the mainland as well.

In article two of this series we will look at how indigenous nations are in the best position to make large scale conservation of the Amazon a reality.

Adam Gebb is Executive Director of the Andes Amazon Conservancy.