Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a four-part series “Saving the World – One Ecosystem at a Time.”
By John Keeble
Rene Rivas is an expert in repairing the damage that waves of human agriculture have done to wildlife habitats and ecosystems. Under his skilled care, cruelly damaged environments can be restored in just one human generation.
When I visited his established and maturing forest projects in southern Ecuador, it was very difficult to imagine the planting only a decade or two earlier. Given the right conditions, nature claims back its own with incredible speed.
Rivas and his Fundación Jocotoco staff have planted more than 1.6 million trees to restore rare and fragile habitats, using endemic plants that support populations of endangered and other wildlife.
The process carries on through the year but planting is done in the rainy season to make sure the plants take root and start growing. Each project begins with testing the soil for type and quality to see if it needs resting for two years before any new planting.
Rivas and the Jocotoco team specify what plants will be needed – depending on wildlife needs, forest type, and altitude – and they grow them in the plant nursery. Finally, when the rain arrives and extra local staff have been taken on, the plants are dug in.
Usually, the team uses about 21 different plants in an area being regenerated, with an average of 1,000 plants per hectare. One of the keys to success is planting fast-growing trees to provide shade that slows grass growth and gives plants time to gain height and strength.
Even then, the areas cannot be left. The grass has to be kept very short for three years – the planting and grass cutting kick-starts nature’s own regeneration, with year four seeing wildlife and plants spreading seeds and the forest growing denser.
We went to see a new project that was grassland only four years ago. The trees were tall and the undergrowth thickening. “The trees are producing food and supporting a bird population as well as contributing to carbon capture,” Rivas said.
In mature restored forests, more wildlife species have returned and their populations are growing. They include howler monkeys, umbrellabirds, parakeets, rodents, ocelots, weasels and pumas.
“It’s beautiful to see the forests recover,” Rivas said. “It is extremely satisfying to start with seeds and then see trees growing as a result of our efforts.”
While the reforestation team repairs land brutalized by farming, invasive species, and monoculture crops, conservation reserves and ecosystems face other threats to their existence as local people and governments weigh human needs against environmental needs.
David Parra, Jocotoco’s director of conservation, said that kind of regeneration gives hope for the future despite the setbacks in saving the planet’s biodiversity.
“In Ecuador, we are losing a lot of habitat but the rate of loss has slowed,” he said. “Thirty years ago, we used to be pessimistic but now, with our work, we know that ecosystems can recover better than we once thought.
“In our Buenaventura reserve [near Piñas in El Oro Province], life is thriving. Most of the area was pasture [before reforestation]. This makes me optimistic about the future, and not just in Ecuador. People are becoming conscious of the possibilities. There is hope.”
The biggest threats to wildlife are loss of habitat with land degradation, mostly through agriculture and development, and the spread of non-native species. “In Ecuador, the new threat is mining, especially largescale mining,” Parra said. “Gains from [conservation] work since the 1980s are now severely threatened.”
The mining situation is complicated because of the money that can be made from it. “It is a good business and the government wants it,” he added. “But it is good only for the few.
“It is difficult to do anything to protect yourself and your forest from that power. In the end, your water gets polluted, you lose your land, you lose species as well as the forest.”
There are many other threats to biodiversity and even protected reserves. They range from cattle destroying natural habitats to theft of species, fires, and trash-throwing family picnickers. Usually, the threats come down to human activities. This makes education and cooperation vital in today’s conservation projects that recognize that people are part of the areas.
Eva Sarango, who leads community initiatives in the areas of Jocotoco’s southern Ecuador reserves, said: “We are pleased when people can change their minds about how they affect nature. It is most important that the people understand that we are with them – we are a friend of the community. We are here to help them [to benefit from conservation].”
She has conducted, with other staff, a series of projects to show local people how conservation can benefit them economically and environmentally, and how relatively small changes can respect nature and avoid damage to environments.
One of Jocotoco’s most far-reaching community initiatives has been suggesting and providing cash-crop trees, like balsa, to add to incomes as well as stopping cattle going too near rivers supplying drinking water to communities at lower elevations.
Another initiative has been a joint project with the community on the edge of Buenaventura reserve. Jocotoco provided roadside land and the community built modern and safe showers for everyone, including passing truckers, in an area with vehicle parking and food sales.
Among other Jocotoco community projects in southern Ecuador are:
El Oro Parakeet Program: This focused on 30 children between 13 and 14 years old from a school in Saracay near the Buenaventura reserve. The team showed the children how to study the parakeet on paper and on the reserve – and proved the children retained the knowledge, an important point at a time when the local area, and the world, needs to edge away from damaging practices and towards living in a way that protects biodiversity and the planet.
Explorers Guide Program: The aim was to raise children’s understanding and awareness through recreational activities related to environmental issues. Some 270 children from 10 schools took part.
Education in schools surrounding Cerro de Arcos reserve: About 120 children in three schools were shown screen presentations about the blue-throated hillstar hummingbird and then taken on a field trip to the birds’ habitat. The children learned about the bird and about how Jocotoco protects it.
Tourism benefits: Thirteen leaders from Guambuzari community, Saraguro, attended a day outlining tourism opportunities and sustainable land use.
Jorupe reserve field visit focused on wildlife trafficking: Thirty students learned about the most trafficked birds, the damage trafficking does, and about conservation.
Making a mural called Traffic of Species: Artists and students in Macará, Loja, painted animal victims of trafficking. The mural promotes easy access to information through the use of a QR code.
On the ground, in and around the reserves, rangers work to protect their areas and to create good relationships with neighboring farmers and landowners. They are committed to conservation and will help local people in explaining what they can do to better use their farms and other land.
This also spills into the purchase of more land for conservation, with rangers pointing out land that might be available.
Byron Puglia, who negotiates land purchases for Jocotoco in southern Ecuador, said: “Rangers report anything interesting, like what species they see, what change they observe. They are passionate about their work. They even help by telling landowners about conservation and to stop cutting forest areas.
“The rangers know their areas and help by identifying land [potentially for sale]. They know the people and that helps us make contact. The [buying] process starts with forming friendships with the community.
“We can do conservation even if we do not buy. We can work with landowners, give them education in how to help conservation, help them with new incomes, and show them how to protect their land.”
However, the best way is to buy “because then we can be more effective in restoration and conservation.”
Human demands are making purchase more difficult. People want to move away from the cities, especially after the Covid pandemic. Others have enough money for a holiday home in a beautiful location. This has driven up prices.
Despite this, Jocotoco’s work continues to grow in a world where biodiversity includes people too.
Photos by John Keeble