Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“At first, some owners did not appreciate us, they didn’t want us walking on their lands, they didn’t understand what their plants and trees had to do with our work, and they said that one bear more or less didn’t matter.”
Every day at eight in the morning, Remigio Orellana leaves home to travel around Sangay National Park, one of the most biodiverse protected areas in Ecuador. He checks that his GPS and cameras are charged, carries maps of his route and lunch for the day, and keeps his eyes wide open to catch any crimes against nature.
His daily route covers about 6.2 miles (10 km) in the southern area of the park, key habitat for the Andean or spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), whose population is declining due to deforestation, misuse of grasslands, hunting, and conflicts between the bears and humans.
Orellana is part of a group of ten local people who work with Program Don Oso, a project established by the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the local NGO Fundación Cordillera Tropical (FCT) in 2002 to help protect spectacled bears. The program includes educational and environmental awareness activities, scientific research, interventions to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife, and local capacity development.
In 2009, FCT recruited Orellana and his nine colleagues to receive training in species monitoring, mapping, and the handling of technical equipment. The group, which represents seven indigenous and Mestizo communities, has trained some 55 teachers, gave environmental talks about spectacled bears to hundreds of local children in the Quechua language, and participates in field research. We spoke with Orellana about the group’s adventures as environmental advocates.
Question: How did you first become involved in the Don Oso Program?
Orellana: Before participating in the program, I spent two years supporting conservation projects and studies on mitigation and environmental impacts with other biologists I knew. This is something I have always liked to do, so I didn’t hesitate to participate when the FCT was recruiting people.
Q: Have you had formal training or education in scientific research and conservation work?
Orellana: I only attended high school for two years. I learned how to do monitoring, use equipment, and raise awareness by teaching myself, by working in the field, and through the training that FCT initially gave us. My colleagues also have only primary or a few years of secondary education, but this has never been a problem. In this type of work, not everything is theory or technical; a lot of knowledge is needed that local people may better understand than “professionals.” For example, some researchers may have GPS technology but they do not know the terrain, local realities, and the climate like a local resident would. We know how to travel in the field, we know the common names of animals and plants, and we know where to find them. The most important thing is the collaboration between the professionals and the locals, because we learn from each other.
Q: What kind of work do you do for FCT?
Orellana: We help with camera trap monitoring in Sangay National Park, so we can see how many spectacled bears there are and learn about their behavior. We also participate in the Don Oso education program, visiting schools around the park to train teachers and explain to children that the bear is not an enemy and actually contributes to nature — for example, it spreads seeds and opens clearings in the forest that help the seeds to germinate. We explain that we should respect their habitat. Another part of our job is working with communities so that they reduce activities that deteriorate bear habitat, such as deforestation and cattle grazing.
Q: Has it been difficult to work with the communities?
Orellana: Yes, very. The southern part of the park was not part of the protected area until 1992, and so there are many private landowners. At first, some owners did not appreciate us, they didn’t want us walking on their lands, they didn’t understand what their plants and trees had to do with our work, and they said that one bear more or less didn’t matter. It has been difficult to make them understand that everything is linked like a chain, and that apart from the bears, we are protecting other species that live in the forest. Little by little, we have made progress in explaining and enforcing environmental laws to prevent hunting and indiscriminate logging. We taught them about alternatives to cattle grazing and created corrals to prevent bear attacks on livestock. We have also explained that we are the ones who have invaded the bears’ habitat.
Q: What changes have you seen in local residents’ behavior?
Orellana: A major decline in deforestation for making charcoal and extracting timber. Now, more and more people ask for our opinion and sometimes even for our permission before taking a tree! When that happens, we explain that we do not grant permits and we steer them to the respective authorities. In addition, burning has decreased by about 90%.
Q: What has been the most difficult behavior to change?
Orellana: Probably cattle grazing on the paramos (high montane plains). The problem is that this grass is also an important food source for the bear, so we provide options for better grassland management, such as planting other types of grasses and rotating grazing areas. We’re also promoting government programs such as implementing home gardens to provide economic alternatives to cattle ranching.
Q: With your colleagues, you launched the Micro-business Association of Rangers for Nature Conservation. Why did you start this group and what does it do?
Orellana: The ten of us were brought together when FCT formed this project. Two years ago, we decided to form a small company to sell services to groups that want to conserve the environment. For example, we work with government agencies such as the Electricity Corporation of Ecuador, the telecommunications company ETAPA, and the Municipal Public Company for Potable Water, Sewage and Environmental Sanitation for the district of Azogues. Today, we have 15 staff members, and we cover 84,000 acres across seven protected areas. Our goal is to expand to 123,000 acres over a three-year agreement with the companies.
Q: The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund just gave the Rangers for Nature Conservation a “Conservation Heroes” award. Congratulations! Did you ever imagine that one day you’d receive such a prestigious, international award?
Orellana: No, never! One could expect our efforts to be recognized locally, but we never expected this. It was a complete surprise! FCT invited us to a ceremony in the Azogues district, and we attended without suspecting anything. That’s when they told us that we had been declared “Conservation Heroes.”
Q: What does this award mean to the group?
Orellana: We have been motivated to work even harder and continue moving forward. We also received a cash prize that we invested in our micro-business.
Q: What are your goals over the next few years?
Orellana: We want to continue working hard with the Don Oso Program and someday obtain a designation of a protected area set up exclusively for bear habitat conservation, land that no one can touch. With regards to the micro-business, we want to make ourselves known to the world as the first environmental promotions company. We want to be an example that the responsibility of caring for nature is not for the government alone, but that it can be done by forming micro-businesses like ours to care for our unique natural treasures. I would like to finish my high school degree and go to a university to learn more about conservation.