According to Cuenca city officials, UNESCO may announce next week that a large area of the Cajas mountains, west of the city, will be decalred an International Biosphere reserve.
The 976,000 hectare area, about three times the size of Long Island, New York, is the western flank of the Andes in southern Ecuador. Part of Cajas is already protected in the Cajas National Park.
The larger Cajas area being considered for biosphere status straddles the provinces of Azuay, Cañar, Guayas and El Oro, and is home to 850,000 people. It emcompasses the national park, as well as the National Recreation Area Quimsacocha, and a small part of the Pacific coast shoreline.
Water from the Cajas region produces about 51 percent of Ecuador’s hidroelectric energy and is the water supply for Cuenca and several other communities.
The team that proposed the Cajas as a potential biosphere reserve highlighted the importance in this region of balancing the needs of communities, conservation and development.
Cuenca’s mayor Paúl Granda said UNESCO’s designation recognizes the responsible management of water, industry, farming and social activities in the area.
According to UNESCO, biospheres are sites established under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program to promote sustainable development based on local community efforts and sound science.
According to UNESCO, biospheres are “places that seek to reconcile conservation of biological and cultural diversity and economic and social development through partnerships between people and nature, they are ideal to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainable development from local to international scales."
Not directly related to the biosphere consideration, officials at the Cajas National Park are considering limiting traffic on the highway that traverses the park and that serves as the primary route between Guayaquil and Cuenca.
Traffic on the Cuenca-Molleturo-Puerto Inca highway reached one million vehicles in 2012, almost double the number making the passage two years earlier.
For park director Alfredo Martinez, the increase is unsustainable and puts a heavy burden on the park’s environment. He says that heavy transport vehicles have increased 40% since 2010.
“These numbers violate the rules imposed in January 2003 that sought to minimize environmental impact in the area,” Martinez said. “Because of the extra traffic, we are seeing more leakage of oils and fuels that pollute the water.” He added that an increased number of traffic accidents on the highway are significant source of pollution.
Martinez says that pollution is not only a problem for the park itself but for the city of Cuenca, which receives its water from the park. Cuenca’s water is the cleanest in Ecuador and has been rated the best in Latin America in an international survey by water quality engineers.
Wilson Muñoz, chairman of a committee considering the pollution issue, says he is considering re-routing traffic that currently travels thorugh the park to Cuenca-El Tambo-Duran highway, that runs to the north of the park route.
Bus and transport companies oppose the change of route, claiming it will add an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive time to the Cuenca to Guayaquil trip.
Photo caption: The Cajas Mountains may be designated an International Biosphere area by UNESCO.