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Combining negotiation, legal backing and orchids to create ecotourism reserve

  • In Ecuador, the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation has worked with local landowners to create conservation agreements and sustainable ecotourism ventures in areas otherwise fragmented by intensive human activity.
  • After nearly 20 years, the impacts of two small, family-based initiatives are rippling outwards into the rest of the Andean cloud forest and coastal dry forest.
  • Negotiation, relationship-building, and transparency helped Ceiba earn the landowners’ trust and enable the success of the initiatives.

On the 650-hectare (1,600-acre) El Pahuma Orchid Reserve in Andean cloud forest, you can find over 300 species of orchids, and even a handful of endangered spectacled bears. If you had visited the area, in the northwestern corner of Pichincha, Ecuador, 20 years ago, you might not have imagined that this landscape, heavily affected by logging and agriculture, would have become part of an ecological corridor. But time and negotiation have had a positive impact. El Pahuma’s owners used to make their living cutting down timber, and they now run a successful ecotourism business.

Ceiba’s founders Catherine Woodward and Joe Meisal (center) with the Lima family at El Pahuma Orchid Reserve in 2000. Image by Catherine Woodward.

This unlikely transition came about as the result of a chance encounter. Joe Meisal and Catherine Woodward, (the founders of Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation and biology professors at the University of Wisconsin- Madison) stopped to look at a waterfall that they had spotted during a visit to Ecuador in 1997.  When they met the landowner along one of the trails, he asked, “Would you like to see my orchids?” He showed the biologists his garden, a small collection of orchids that he had collected from fallen trees, and asked them if they thought tourists would be interested in visiting the forest.

Woodward and Meisal agreed to meet with the landowner, Ephraim Lima, a week later. When they arrived at the meeting, they found that four generations of the Lima family had turned out to meet with them. In the four-hour conversation that followed, Woodward and Meisal agreed to look for legal solutions to help the Lima family conserve their land.

Woodward and Meisal explored the option of forming a conservation easement. This legal figure (‘servidumbre ecológica’ in Spanish) was uncharted territory in Ecuadorian law. It was the first time that a nongovernmental organization and a private landowner entered into a legally-binding conservation agreement. Woodward told Mongabay that this was both a help and a hindrance: it meant that they had to craft the legal framework from scratch, but it also gave them the flexibility to tailor the agreement specifically to the landowner’s needs.

Woodward herself wrote much of the original document, with the help of an environmental lawyer. The land was carefully divided up into usage zones. While most of the land was designated as a conservation zone, another section of the land was designated for trails and tourist cabins, and a final patch of land was left to the Lima family, zoned for residential and agricultural use. Woodward said that there was a lot of dialogue back and forth about which parts of the land would be designated for what purposes. The Lima family knew the terrain well and offered suggestions as to which places would be good for trails, lookout points, and bridges.

The Stanhopea napoensis orchid from Ecuador. Image by Andreas Key via Flickr. CC 2.0.

They took three years to work out the final agreement, which stipulated that the Lima family was obligated to leave the conservation area untouched –no logging, no hunting –for 25 years. (While most conservation easements in the United States are negotiated for perpetuity, Woodward said that such long and definitive time frames are rare in Latin American easements, which tend to range from 25 to 99 years.) In exchange, Ceiba agreed to invest in the infrastructure needed to build an ecotourism business, which would allow the family to make a sustainable income from the land.

With the guarantee of a signed easement backing their conservation goals, Ceiba was then able to approach potential donors. The San Diego Orchid Society and Fauna and Flora International funded the next phase of the project: outfitting El Pahuma as an ecotourism destination. The foundation hired a guard and a local project manager to oversee the building of trails, signs, bridges, cabins, and an interpretation center. The Lima family learned book-keeping and management and even received training on how to take care of the orchids, to keep them from flowering too often.

Within five years of the initial investment, El Pahuma Orchid Reserve was up and running, and within 10 years, it had become a self-sustaining operation with thousands of visitors.

With a successful business in their hands, the family was able to apply for a bank loan to build a restaurant across the highway from the reserve’s entrance. Woodward credits the visibility of the reserve for part of its success in ecotourism: El Pahuma is located less than an hour outside of Quito, along a major highway that many travelers take to the coast or to other tourist destinations like Mindo.  They now receive local tourists escaping from the capital city, foreign tourists who visit as part of a tour package, and study abroad students sent by Ceiba to learn about tropical ecology.

Catherine Woodward with students at Lalo Loor reserve. Image courtesy of Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation.

In the case of El Pahuma, the conservation easement helped to buy time. Now, in 2019, there are other opportunities and mechanisms in place that encourage conservation. Since 2015, the Lima family has received an economic incentive from the Ecuadorian government’s Socio Bosque program, and the dozens of other reserves and ecolodges that have popped up throughout the cloud forest are evidence of the growth of the ecotourism market. But in the late 1990s, none of these options were available to rural landowners. By working with Ceiba, the Lima family was able to take the lead, becoming ambassadors for conservation in the local community.

In 2018, Ceiba was also able to support the Mancomunidad del Chocó Andino (Andean Chocó Commonwealth) and the Maquipucuna Foundation in a petition to declare the Northwestern Pichincha Corridor as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, protecting over 280,000 hectares (690,000 acres) of cloud forest ecosystem.

Expanding to other areas

Ceiba has more recently applied similar efforts to a family reserve in an entirely different ecosystem, the tropical dry forest in Ecuador’s coastal province of Manabí.

This 200-hectare (500-acre) tract of primary forest is one of the best-preserved semi-deciduous forests in northwestern Manabí province. It’s home to several of this ecosystem’s threatened species, including the critically endangered Ecuadorian white-fronted capuchin (Cebus aequatorialis) and the grey-backed hawk (Pseudastur occidentalis).

The Ecuadorian mantled howler monkey is one of the threatened species that lives in the coastal dry forest ecosystem at the Lalo Loor Reserve. Image courtesy of Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation.

Eduardo (nicknamed “Lalo”) Loor, a dairy farmer, inherited hundreds of hectares of land from his father. When he found that this patch of primary forest was among them, he decided to leave it as it was. “My father is a nature-lover,” Mariela Loor, the landowner’s daughter, told Mongabay.

When Ceiba approached him in 2000, he welcomed their suggestion to designate the land for conservation. There was not as much urgency here as at El Pahuma. The Loor family had another livelihood and had no desire to cut down the forest. Ceiba hired a local guard and local ranch hands to work on the trails, and signed a notarized (but not legally-binding) agreement in 2004, stipulating that the Ceiba would manage the reserve and give Loor a percentage of the revenues. In 2008, Ceiba received a grant to build the visitor’s center and dormitories.

The reserve now receives a variety of tourists, volunteers, interns, and students who stay anywhere from a day to a semester. This year, the reserve is transitioning to family management, with Mariela Loor taking over day-to-day operations at the reserve. In addition, this year her father will sign a 30-year conservation easement with Ceiba.

The entrance to Lalo Loor reserve. Image courtesy of Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation.

Woodward said that on both reserves, time and relationships have been important factors. “Building a relationship of trust with the landowner is critical. You can’t just show up and ask someone to sign the rights to their land away.”

Building a conservation corridor

The Lalo Loor Reserve sits at a meeting point between two major ecosystems: the Tumbesino tropical dry forest coming up from Peru and the humid Chocó forest system coming down from the Pacific Coast of Panama. The unique mix of plant and animal species native to the area have earned it a designation as a “biodiversity hotspot.” But sustaining the delicate balance of this ecosystem is an uphill battle here on the coast, where the growth of cities and monocultures have left the forest badly fragmented.

Carolina Toapanta, Ceiba’s executive director, based in Manabí, is spearheading the foundation’s next conservation project, collaborating with county and provincial governments: an ecological corridor that will knit together the remaining patches of primary forest in the area. Ceiba hired a team to map out 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of conservation area in the counties of Pedernales, Jama, San Vicente, and Sucre. The ACUS (Área de Conservación y Uso Sostenible — Conservation and Sustainable Use Area) agreement will be enforced by local government through zoning restrictions. Toapanta is convinced that working with local people and institutions is the best way to ensure a lasting impact.

The El Pahuma and Lalo Loor reserves both started out as small projects –helping a single family find a way to make conservation sustainable. But as the influence of the local families ripples outwards, an entire region begins to come together to work for solutions. Toapanta sees conservation work as a way of empowering the community by helping them think in a different way. “We’re really passionate about seeing that change take place in Manabí.”

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