Here comes the science bit...
13.10.2007 -17 °C
If any of my friends, family or colleagues ever wonder in passing what I am up to at any given moment between now and the middle of November, the likelihood is that I am crunching my way through a forest track, slithering down a hazardous mountain path, or cutting grass in a verdant cloud pasture for the farm goats or horses. We live literally all of our time outdoors here in this stunning landscape of no seasons.
The way it goes is, if the sun is out, it's hot, and if the clouds are down, it's raining. But always balmy at La Hesperia. Only in the higher altitude of Quito, and other locations throughout the Andes, is it cold. The lower you get, the warmer the climate. And with climate change, nothing is forecastable. It's been raining here even though it's still the dry season (until November) and who knows, it may be dry during December. We had an earth tremor last week. I was in bed when the volunteer house started to shake. It lasted several minutes. Your mind goes through all sorts of explanations as to why your bed is moving- and an earth tremor is way down the list. But that's what it was. Part of everyday life here.
With all this in mind, I thought I might put down some facts about this beautiful and unpredicable country and its cloud forests. The problems which exist in Ecuador, environmental and social-political, I will write about another time soon.
Ecuador straddles the northern and southern hemisphere. Bordering Columbia, Peru and the Pacific ocean, it covers Amazon, highland, coast and the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is a multiethnic, multicultural nation with a population of 13 million, comprising 14 indigenous groups. It is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, its extreme geographical and climatic variations facilitating the evolution of thousands of species of flora and fauna.
Eduador has 10% of the world's plant species (25,000 species of trees); c.8% of the world's animals and 18% of the planet's birds (c.1,640 bird species, 4,500 species of butterfly, 350 species of reptiles, 375 species of amphibeans, 1,550 species of mammals, 800 species of fresh water fish and 450 of salt water fish). The country has 46 ecosystems, from sea level to 6,400 metres in a total area of 256,370 km sq. Despite its tiny size, Ecuador is home to rain forest, cloud forest, mountains, islands, deserts, valleys and snow-capped volcanos.
La Hesperia is in the western range of the Andes at an altitude of 1,100 to 2,040 metres: 814 hectares in the middle of the Rio Toachi - Chiriboaga, an IBA (important bird area) and is part of two important bio-regions: the tropical Andes and the Choco Darien of Western Ecuador, one of the top five bio-diverse hotspots on earth.
La Hesperia contains three types of forest: pre-montane evergreen, low montane and high montane (cloud forest). The reserve is home to 287 species of birds; 40 mammal species; 63 butterfly genera; and a huge diversity of epiphyte plants. Several species of endangered trees are reproduced in the nursery here. In Tropical Montane Cloud Forest (TMCF) clouds cover the vegetation most of the year round, enabling it to capture moisture (horizontal precipitation). This phenomenon allows the forest to flourish even in the dry season.
In TMCFs and their surrounding area, horizontal rain provides up to 50% of the water for the hydrological cycle that humans, animals and vegetation depend on. Ecuador's TMCF has an altitude range of 1,400-3,500m. Its enveloping cloud reduces solar radiation and vapour deficit, wetting the canopy and suppressing evatranspiration. TMCF also conserves water by consuming it over a long period of time. This results in a high proportion of epiphytes (bromelias, orchids, lichens, mosses, fungi and filmy ferns) and a corresponding reduction of woody climbers.
Reasons to preserve TMCFs:
- Their biodiversity is comparible to tropical rainforest, but cloud forest has not received equal public attention.
- Endemism: TMCF has a high level of endemic species; ie, species found only in specific ecosystems, which therefore do not occur anywhere else in the world.
- Climate change: special characteristics of TMCFs make them excellent sites for monitoring the impact of global climate and air quality change.
- Ecological sensitivity: TMCFs are highly susceptible to disturbance; if their ecosystem is disturbed, it takes longer for them to be restored than lower altitude forests.
- High deforestation and habitat loss: TMCFs are disappearing at the alarming rate of 1.1% per year, which is 0.3% higher even than rainforest loss.
- Insufficient research: we do not know half of the benefits of TMCFs. However, we do know that they inhibit erosion and that horizontal precipitation is an important part of the hydrological cycle.
Current threats to TMCFs:
- Expansion of subsistance agriculture by local people.
- Wood harvesting for fuel.
- Commerical logging.
- Introduction of non-TMCF species.
- Tourism and recreation.
- Telephonic/media station construction.
- Unlawful development.
Much of Ecuador's forests are in need of preservation and restoration. 22% of the national territory is under governmental protection through the national parks and reserves programme. There is more forest in private reserves covering another 78,000 hectares or so, but much of this needs better monitoring and protection. Public and private sectors need to be incorporated in more diverse endeavors. The government alone cannot do it - it must be a shared responsibility.
La Hesperia's goals:
- To preserve the biodiversity of TMCF.
- to protect the local watersheds and existing forest through reforestation; monitoring human impact; and environmental education.
- to protect the existing forest.
- To maintain the reserve as an important bird area.
- To work toward sustainable development.
- To create community development programmes.
- To restore degraded areas both inside and outside the reserve.
- To educate the public in conservation and ecologicy.
- To share the reserve with locals, volunteers, research students and visitors.
La Hesperia is also striving to become a model of integrated farming where agripractice works with forest preservation. It also seeks to promote environmentally friendly economic activities which also benefit locals.