Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province, or “emerald” in Spanish, is one of the lushest regions in the world, receiving up to 200 inches of rain per year. Part of the Chocó-Andean corridor, one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots, it is home to a variety of ecosystems including mangroves, rivers, rainforests, and stunning beaches in the lowlands and humid cloud forests, sub-Andean slopes, and páramos in the highlands. This range of ecosystems holds extremely high levels of species diversity and endemism and provides important over-wintering habitat for migratory birds, including the rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus), and the red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus).
Accompanying this rich biological diversity is a number of distinct indigenous cultures. There are Afro-Ecuadorians, whose ancestors arrived in Esmeraldas in the 1600s via wrecked slave ships or by escaping Colombian sugar plantations. Their settlements are mostly along rivers. Other indigenous groups include the Chachis and the Awá, who largely live along the Pacific coast. The combined total of these indigenous settlements cover approximately 1,976,000 acres (800,000 hectares).
Contrasting such biological and cultural riches, Esmeraldas is one of the most economically depressed provinces in Ecuador. Many Afro-Ecuadorians still face economic and social discrimination and have sold their land rights to owners of oil palm plantations and forestry enterprises and migrated to cities, where they struggle to find jobs. The result is a vicious cycle of poverty and deforestation. Additionally, farmers are converting forests to cattle pastures, as well as to sugarcane fields to meet the increasing demand for ethanol production.
Fundación Maquipucuna, an Ecuadorian NGO, is working to reforest degraded areas and connect forest fragments in the Chocó-Andean corridor to help increase habitat for Neotropical migratory birds. With funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, Fundación Maquipucuna has partnered with the University of Georgia and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia to form the “Our Shared Forests” project, which is working with farmers to implement sustainable shade coffee and cocoa production; conducting a bird monitoring program in various habitats throughout the corridor; and creating a bi-national migratory bird education program in Ecuador and in the U.S. state of Georgia.
Cocoa has been grown in Esmeraldas by Afro-Ecuadorian communities since colonial times, but production fell due to a debilitating pest invasion in the 1900s and never quite recovered. To help restore this cultural heritage as well as important forest cover, Maquipucuna chose cocoa as its conservation tool of choice in the corridor’s lowland areas.
To help improve the current land tenure situation, Fundación Maquipucuna gained the support of the MacArthur Foundation and signed an agreement with the “Cabildo”, or ruling body, of the Comuna Rio Santiago Cayapas, the largest Afro-Ecuadorian community group in the region to secure the title to 98,800 acres (44,000 hectares) of communal lands. Rebeca Justicia, the organization’s founder and president emphasizes, “We’ve been navigating hard waters and are finally getting somewhere by helping the Comuna secure a land title. It comes with the agreement that as long as we are successful in providing sustainable development alternatives, such as organic bird-friendly cacao production, they won’t sell the land, because it is hypocritical and unrealistic to ask them to not cut their forests unless we provide alternatives.” Maquipucuna is working with APROCANE (Northern Esmeraldas Cocoa Producer’s Association) to help its members gain organic certification and increased access to international cocoa markets.
To increase habitat for birds and other wildlife in the corridor’s highlands, Maquipucuna is working with farmers to restore degraded coffee farms and adopt sustainable, shade-grown farming techniques. As part of a prior World Bank project and with financial support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Municipality of Quito, more than 50,000 coffee trees have been planted in the corridor since 2000. Additionally, the organization helped 25 farmers to obtain BCS-Oikös organic certification; and helped form the Thousand Faces Coffee roasting company in Georgia; and created the Café Chocó-Andes label in order to ensure that coffee farmers have suitable market incentives to continue restoring their farmland.
Fundación Maquipucuna is working with researchers from the University of Georgia and local communities to monitor birds across a variety of land uses in the corridor, including forest, pasture, and coffee and cocoa farms, which will provide a picture of how different land uses and altitudinal gradients affect bird species distribution. The project has produced a report entitled “Bird Species Diversity in Rustic Cacao Plantations in Northwestern Ecuador.” The project has also produced a bird monitoring software that will help analyze long-term data, as well as an extensive GIS database of environmental variables and socio economic issues in order to develop a map of bird conservation priorities in the corridor.
Our Shared Forests is currently developing a bi-national, bilingual environmental education program for children in Ecuador and Georgia to teach them about their shared migratory bird species. Anne Shenk, Director of Education at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia says that through the program, “Teachers in both Ecuador and Georgia introduce students to the forest in their own backyards and its similarities and differences to the ‘sister’ forests, with a particular focus on 10 birds that migrate between Georgia and Ecuador, including the summer tanager and the Blackburnian warbler.”
The program’s curriculum teaches children that conserving birds and forests are interrelated concepts, and introduces bird and forest ecology principles, bird flight and migration patterns, research techniques such as bird banding, and the importance of shade grown coffee and cocoa. A Web site featuring the program’s curriculum in both English and Spanish will be available in 2008.
In Georgia, Our Shared Forests holds “science night” events, featuring kits that introduce children and their parents to basic science concepts, including migratory bird conservation, through 24 different hands-on activities. In Ecuador, the first Migratory Bird Festival was held in January 2007 in the Quito Botanical Garden, using the same science night materials; staff from the State Botanical Garden of Georgia attended the event and introduced teachers in Ecuador to the Our Shared Forests program.
According to Justicia, children in both countries are beginning to get enthused about sharing experiences with each other. “One school in Georgia sold our coffee and raised the funds to buy a digital camera that they sent to a school in Ecuador, so that the children can share pictures, she notes.” Shenk adds, “The kids took pictures of their forest habitats and birds and shared photos of themselves and their schools.”
Contacts: Rebeca Justicia, Fundación Maquipucuna, Quito, Ecuador. tel: +593/2250-7200, fax: +593/2250-7201; tel: +706-2479374 in the US; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.maqui.org. Anne Shenk, Director of Education, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, tel: +706/542-6158, email@example.com, www.uga.edu.