- In their rural Ecuador town, bird watching promises to be an economic and conservation lifeline for the Basantes family and the biodiversity on their land.
- Located just outside the capital city of Quito in Pacto province, the family’s 336 acres is at the southernmost tip of the dense rainforest called the Chocó-Darién region.
- Convinced that the region’s biodiversity is more valuable than its timber and grazing land, Sergio Basantes has worked hard to convince his family of the same.
- Today, the family’s land is a hotspot for bird watching, but power struggles over its future continue between Sergio and his father.
QUITO, Ecuador – Five years ago, Sergio Basantes and his wife Doris made history when they decided to turn their lush finca just outside of Quito into a hotspot for bird watching. It’s the first bird tourism site of its kind in the Ecuadoran province called Pacto, which rests at the southernmost tip of 65,000 square miles (167,000 square kilometers) of the dense rainforest called the Chocó-Darién region.
It took decades for them to get this far.
Basantes’ father tried to clearcut trees in the 334-acre (135 hectares) cloud forest to start hosting cattle and planting crops like corn when they first acquired the property in 1985. Basantes was five at the time. As he grew so did his appreciation for nature, driven by the surfeit of colorful birds zooming between the trees across the finca.
By the time he was in his thirties, he had taken a stance on preservation. Three years ago, at the age of 34, he hiked down to the bottom of the reserve to find his father as he was preparing a plot of the terrain for harvests and cattle. “When I found him down there, I took the machete from his hand and told him ‘Stop clearing, stop clearing,'” he said.
Six months after the encounter, his dad began another campaign to clear the land.
“I talked to him again. I was crying, and told him I was going to distance myself from him, but he didn’t care, he kept cutting.” Basantes returned to the family and convinced his mother and four of his 11 brothers, who stood alongside him as he embarked on a tumultuous, years-long campaign to get his father to recognize the exceptional biodiversity endemic to the region.
The changes since then have become both a source of pride and income for the young family.
They’ve been hosting international bird tourists from as far as Japan since opening as the Mashpi Amagusa Reserve in 2012.
“Before, we never thought that tourism would come this way,” Basantes said. He’s standing at one of the site’s two observation clearings, leading a small group of tourists from both Quito and abroad as they quietly scope out the birds and guess their species as they near. “It’s been a success,” he adds.
Ecuador is currently home to an estimated 1,620 species of birds, or about 17 percent of the world’s known bird species, according to the American Orthinologists’ Assocition. That means it has the fourth highest number of bird species among South American countries. In Basantes’ pasture-turned-natural reserve alone there are an estimated 125 breeds.
Plans for the reserve would’ve likely fallen flat without the tourism infrastructure that recently sprouted up near his home. In 2012, former Quito mayor and businessman Roque Sevilla opened a luxury eco-lodge in the heart of the Pacto cloud forest, called the Mashpi Lodge. The debut brought international tourism to the region for the first time, and Basantes and two of his brothers were hired by the resort and trained to become guides and bird spotters for Mashpi’s guests.
Mashpi Lodge charges over $500 a night, which includes meals, nature hikes and ultra-modern rooms with full amenities. Basantes, on the other hand, charges anywhere from $10 to $20 for a day spent on his property.
“Tourism doesn’t come because you want it to come—it’s about your love for the area. It has to come from the bottom of your heart,” he said, adding that he and Doris “liked the theme of bird tourism more than anything else.”
Their terrain is in the process of becoming legally recognized by the municipality of Quito, but they’re already receiving outside funding for their model. They were recently one of nine ecotourism models out of an application pool of more than 60 that got awarded a $1,500 grant by a national non-profit promoting good environmental stewardship.
Logging is also now illegal after the region hosting Basantes’ terrain, which is called the Mashpi-Guaycuaycu-Sahuangal forest. It was labeled a protected zone in 2011. In a 2015 study on Ecuador’s portion of the Chocó-Darién forests, environmental non-profits like the Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, or CONDESAN, and the Imaymana Foundation highlighted the Pacto province as having a “great potential for bird tourism.”
“I’ve always said, ever since I was little, you have to preserve nature,” Mrs. Basantes said. “The economy here is part of the land.”
The case of Mindo
Mr. Basantes and his family are following in the footsteps of similar reserves that have appeared in regions like Mindo, a watershed and cloud forest at the foot of the Andes mountains. It is home to rare birds, orchids and waterfalls. Residents in that region began turning their machetes in for binoculars after it was named an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, an international coalition of conservation groups, in 2000.
Now more than 200,000 tourists visit Mindo every year.
Carolina Dávalos, who works at the Secretary of Environment office in Quito, says they’re hoping more of the municipality’s rural populations take up similar models. Seen as model for ecotourism, Mindo is also a reserve forest, thus highly regulated by the government.
Unofficial reports suggest environmental impact of tourism is low because majority of tourism is ecotourism, but as those numbers grow, there are officials who worry that visits to the region without formal or trained guides could risk a negative impact on the area.
“One of the main problems facing forests in the northwest of Quito is the stress that production economies create,” she said, referring to agriculture, livestock and logging. “There’s been an increase in these types of projects [like the Amagusa Reserve] in recent years, but it’s a process that isn’t moving very fast because it’s been difficult to change the mindset of land owners.”
With the grant money they’ve recently won they want to start on a few lodging spaces, a kitchen and more observation plateaus. According to Basantes, his father is still warming to the ecotourism plans, and one of his brothers would rather use the area for hunting.
These days, he’s thinking bigger than the stubborn members of his family. “Above everything this is a good focus to have, seeing the themes of global warning and the economies of Ecuador,” he says. “There really can be a change. All of this, we’re going to help recover.”
With additional reporting by Silvia Vimos.
Banner image: Basantes readies his motorcycle as he prepares to lead a group of tourists to one of the Mashpi Amagusa Reserve’s birdwatching areas. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/Mongabay
Johnny Magdaleno is a freelance journalist partially based in Ecuador.
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