The scientists joining forces with local champions to protect a hidden natural treasure in the remote Chocó region of northwest Ecuador.
Tesoro Escondido (Hidden Treasure) is a remote ‘island’ of lush, tropical rainforest in the province of Esmeraldas in northwest Ecuador, a gruelling day’s travel from the capital, Quito. Surrounded on all sides by oil palm plantations, pasture and crop land, the pristine forest that remains is a prime target for loggers. Although this is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, where every visit by scientists and researchers reveals something new, Tesoro Escondido faces an uncertain future, threatened by powerful logging interests and indiscriminate land clearance.
But there is hope for Tesoro. The work of conservation biologists together with local people has led to the creation of a 2000-hectare reserve. The growing momentum to protect this exceptional place shows that conservation is about more than just science.
A hidden treasure
Tesoro Escondido is one of the most wildlife-rich and diverse forest habitats on Earth. Even amongst ‘biodiversity hotspots’ this extraordinary place stands out. Its riotous flora and breathtaking fauna have only just begun to be fully understood and catalogued. Research into species diversity and abundance, whether plant, mammal, amphibian, insect or any other, is starting to reveal an ecological variety and intactness which exists in very few other places on the planet.
Yet its inaccessibility to all but the most determined loggers and small-scale farmers meant that for a long time it was off the map for conservationists, and there was little recognition of its incredible diversity.
Tesoro Escondido is one small part of the Chocó region of northwest Ecuador, which has lost an astonishing amount of its original forest cover: it is thought that there may be as little as 5% remaining. For decades, settlers have come from across Ecuador, keen to exploit the land for small-scale agriculture – cacao, oil palm and other crops. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, prospective farmers cleared the land to prove ownership and demonstrate that land was being cultivated. To add to the pressures from small-scale agriculture, logging companies have been buying up large swathes of forest in and around Tesoro Escondido. Access roads for logging, if built, will have a catastrophic impact on one of the last remaining fragments of primary forest in a country which has one of the highest deforestation rates in South America.
Tesoro Escondido is one of the wettest and most biodiverse places on Earth
Dr Mika Peck, a Conservation Biologist from the University of Sussex, calls this place ‘a hotspot within a hotspot’ for biodiversity.
“There are 300 species of tree per hectare, so almost every other tree is a different species. Compare that to the UK which has a total of around 30 species!”
Having first come to Ecuador in 1995 with a Royal Geographical Society expedition, Dr Peck knew that the forests on the Western slopes of the Andes were incredibly diverse. The magic of what he had seen in Ecuador on that first expedition never left him, so 10 years later, he decided to return.
Looking for a research focus, he contacted Diego Tirira, Ecuador’s leading expert on mammals, who told him that there was a population of Brown-headed spider monkeys (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps) in the region, but their numbers were in steep decline. Research needed to be done to understand more about the species before it was too late. Together they applied for and were awarded a DEFRA Darwin Initiative grant for £250k for a 3-year project focused on primate conservation, and in particular, on the Brown-headed spider monkey. This project, known as PrimeNet, consisted of mapping primate populations around Cotocachi-Cayapas, an area to the east of Tesoro Escondido.
Their research eventually brought them to Tesoro Escondido, where much of the small population of monkeys seemed to be concentrated.
Dr Citlalli Morelos-Juarez began working in Tesoro Escondido in 2011 after applying to do a PhD with Dr Peck at the University of Sussex. Initially coming for one year to study the Brown-headed spider monkey, she immersed herself in the community, going out everyday to track the Critically Endangered primates come rain or shine (the Chocó is one of the wettest regions of the planet).
Being in such a remote and isolated location meant that she was reliant on the help and support of local people to carry out her work. Living with a local family, building close friendships and dependencies with many local people in the area, her enthusiasm and love of the forest began to rub off. This ‘anthropological immersion’ – being totally embedded in and dependent on a small community – was the bridge between scientific research being gathered by Citlalli and others, and the action and local support needed to conserve the forest.
Tesoro Escondido’s most famous resident
Arguably Tesoro’s most famous resident, and certainly one of its most endangered, Ateles fusciceps fusciceps – the Brown-headed spider monkey – can claim some of the credit for this region’s growing reputation as a treasure trove of diversity. In total, there are thought to be around 250 individuals remaining (a recent population reduction of 80%). Their range in the wider Chocó region has been systematically reduced by habitat loss and hunting, but this small pocket of remaining forest is home to a significant population of those that remain – perhaps around 150.
The focus of research has been to understand more about the role of this key species in the forest: how do they move about it? What is their role in maintaining the diversity of tree species and what does their presence tell us about the health of the wider forest ecosystem?
Image: Yadira Giler
First science, then action
As the research evolved, it became clear that Tesoro Escondido was a very special place, even in the context of one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. When this initial project came to an end, Dr Peck understood that if they really wanted to conserve the Brown-headed spider monkey and counter the threats of logging, hunting and land clearance for small-scale agriculture, they would need to start working with local people to convert the scientific knowledge they were gathering into more concrete conservation action.
“In any group of people there will be some that are interested in nature, but they won’t all be. What you have to do, if you’re interested in a conservation outcome, you have to work with those that are interested.” – Dr Mika Peck
Dr Morelos-Juarez was one of a number of researchers and students who had spent time in Tesoro Escondido, studying the flora and fauna, getting to know local people and planting the seeds of curiosity about the life of the forest. This influx of researchers into Tesoro has had a profound impact on the local population. As word has spread about its rich diversity, and a research hub has begun to develop, the more involved the local population have become, as researchers call upon their knowledge, skills and resources to help them carry out their work. For some local people, the work of the researchers here has shown the forest in a new light, a place full of wonder that needs protecting.
But this was not always the case. For the most part, the people that live in and around Tesoro Escondido are settlers who began to arrive from across Ecuador in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, for many of these new arrivals, the forest simply represented potential land for crops or livestock that had not yet been cleared.
“One of the big challenges is for people to see the benefits of having protected forest because I think people regarded the forest simply as an obstacle for them growing more crops. The challenge is to change that mindset and to show that the forest brings them lots of benefits – that healthy forest is good for them.” Dr Citlalli Morelos-Juarez.
Dr Mika Peck, Dr Citlalli Morelos and local parabiologist Yulexy Villigua at the tree nursery
Dr Morelos-Juarez has arguably done more than anybody to start changing this mindset and build a new relationship between many of the local population and their forest home. Perhaps the best example of this are two people who have played a key role in the the growing movement to conserve Tesoro Escondido. Patricio Paredes, whose father – Nestor Paredes – was a wildlife warden who was instrumental in mapping existing land ownership in Tesoro, has lived in the area all his life. Though interested in wildlife as a child, partly because of his father’s job, he had never really considered it as a source of livelihood. He worked in a number of jobs, including for one of the large logging companies in the region. But then, along with his partner, Yadira Giler, he was able to start hosting some of the researchers who came to Tesoro as word of its amazing diversity spread. The location of their property has contributed to its emergence as a research hub for the region. As more researchers from both local and international universities and conservation NGOs have begun to come to this region in greater numbers, the impact on some of the local community has been profound.
“When the biologists arrived they opened a window on the place we’d lived all our lives, helping us to understand the need to protect it. It was a real eye-opener for us to start understanding the forest more deeply.”
Patricio and Yadira’s home has become the beating heart of a vibrant research community which, socially and economically, is increasingly important. This process in turn has had an impact on many of the local inhabitants, farmers in the immediate area and inhabitants of nearby villages.
“One of the best things has been meeting so many other people and through them coming to appreciate what we actually have here.. we couldn’t have discovered all the amazing things that happen here by ourselves.”
Patricio tells the story of one local man who, on seeing a large tree in the forest, used to make a mental calculation of how many planks of wood it would provide. Now that he is beginning to learn more about the forest’s species, when he sees a large tree he starts to think about how he could set up a camera trap in the canopy to record life in the treetops and find out what lives there.
“The most important is that they are happy that the reserve is here. They see the reserve as a guarantee at least of pure air and water, and the reserve protects the place from other people coming in cutting everything down.”
The involvement of local champions does not end there. Integral to the work of Reserva Tesoro Escondido is the recruitment and training of parabiologists from the local area. Working with the research team, at any one time there are at least 3 people from the local community learning the secrets of the forest.
What are the many tree and plant species and how can they be catalogued?
How to grow seedlings and reforest areas to allow them to regain their original diversity?
How can camera traps be used to understand more about the variety of animals living in the forest?
The local parabiologists undergo training to develop their knowledge of the species that live in the forest and how to conserve them. The impact of this involvement and learning cannot be underestimated. These parabiologists provide a vital social connection to the wider local community, spreading the word about what they do and the importance of the forest at home, with neighbours and in their schools.
“We didn’t know that certain species were in danger of extinction or why they were in danger. Why is the jaguar important? – they ask and they’re surprised. The people who live here don’t now do hunting – a few years ago, everyone did, including me. But now, if we see animals the first thought isn’t to hunt them. People are now reporting sightings of rare birds and animals that they don’t know, asking what they are.”
All three parabiologists currently working in the Reserve aim to go on to study a conservation related subject, and they all want to do more to protect Tesoro Escondido.
Local parabiologists planting seedlings
“I think my way of thinking about nature has transformed. I never really knew Tesoro Escondido before, even though I lived quite near. Many local people are surprised by what I do here – they are impressed by what I do, some even want to be parabiologists.”
Yulexi Villigua (parabiologist)
This growing appreciation of the unique value of the forest brings hope that it can be protected. But the local population need secure livelihoods, so a key focus for the Tesoro Escondido Reserve team has been to look at how they can help provide alternatives to the logging and agricultural practices that are so damaging to the forest. The goal is to help local people to benefit from the forest while at the same time maintaining its ecological health and stimulating a greater desire to protect it.
One way to do this is to involve as many people as possible in providing various services for the research station – food, resources, transport – and to employ parabiologists and hire accommodation for the various research teams coming in. This has become more significant as the research community has grown and collaborations with other foundations and university departments have increased. Yet more is needed, so another strategy to help conserve Tesoro Escondido has revolved around more sustainable cacao production. Early efforts to help farmers to grow more sustainable and higher quality cacao and to find a new market for excellent quality, fair trade chocolate eventually resulted in the creation of the Washu Project. The popularity of this programme among local farmers has shown that small-scale agriculture does not have to involve land clearance and loss of species.
This focus on involving the widest possible range of people in their work to conserve Tesoro Escondido seems to be paying off. Whether it is local farmers trying to feed their families, young people interested in alternative careers, universities and research teams, or a diverse range of funders, the momentum to conserve this extraordinary place is proof that you do not need to be a scientist to be a conservationist. Research and understanding are the starting point, but on their own they will seldom be enough to conserve a species or place.
Local parabiologists Daniel Velasquez and Gustavo Fajardo inspecting seedlings
A race against time
While the protection of almost 2000 hectares of forest supported by increased community involvement and a greater research focus is an incredible gain, there is little doubt that this place and the wider region still face very serious threats. The power of the big logging companies, and the relentless march of ‘development’ remains.
The largest local logging company in the area, Botrosa, still has plans to build a road to access new areas of forest. If this happens, it could effectively cut Tesoro Escondido off from surrounding areas of forest. This would leave the spider monkey and other species populations stranded, threatening their existence and the future of the forest and those who depend on it.
The greatest source of hope and inspiration lies in the increasing knowledge and involvement of local people and the burgeoning collaborations developing at the research station which doubles as a social as well as a scientific hub. As Dr Morelos-Juarez points out, it is about giving people the right knowledge to be able to make the decisions that will affect their future:
“My hopes would be that people get more empowered, in the sense that they can decide if they want a timber company to be there or to provide for them. That’s the difference – it’s very different if you just accept it because you have no alternatives rather than making a choice because you know the wider context.”
As knowledge of the value of Tesoro Escondido grows, people start to understand that this is a living and breathing treasure. Its value alive is worth far more, in the long term, that what can be extracted from it.
The future of Tesoro Escondido does not just depend on the conservation biologists coming to reveal its hidden secrets. Scientific research is an important piece of the puzzle, but conservation is complex. Other factors matter: the way local people make a living and their attitudes to the forest; the willingness of stakeholders such as local and international NGOs, government departments and academic institutions to work together; the faith of funders that their money can make a real difference.
There may be no single right way to conserve a place that needs conserving, but there are certain ingredients that can make the chances of success that much greater. Understanding that while the foundation of conservation is good science and knowledge, what breathes life into conservation are the people that have a stake in it. Everyone can be a conservationist. The more conservationists can be cultivated among the general population, whether farmers, parabiologists, farmers or friends, the more likely it is that some of these valuable environments can be protected.
“Now that I’m more involved with the project I’m really thinking about the wellbeing of my children. This place doesn’t have a price, I want my children and future generations to see it as it is – it makes me proud to think I can help that to happen.” – Yadira Giler
Tesoro Escondido Reserve is supported by Synchronicity Earth. The work is led by Dr Mika Peck (Sussex University) and Dr Citlalli Morelos and, of course, the local community. To find out more about and support the work underway to protect Tesoro Escondido, contact us.