The hidden treasure in the heart of Ecuador

By |2018-08-31T16:56:24+00:00November 29th, 2016|Conservation, Forests, Species|0 Comments

Q: What links a critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, an Ecuadorian NGO, a London-based Fund Manager and a University of Sussex biologist?

A: Synchronicity Earth (and chocolate).

Synchronicity Earth has recently secured a multi-year funding package from a London-based Fund Management business to support the Cambugán Foundation, an Ecuadorian NGO working to conserve the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey in an area of the Chocó rainforest in northwest Ecuador.

To the north and west of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is the Tesoro Escondido (‘hidden treasure’) Reserve, located in an area of the Chocó rainforest, one of the wettest and most diverse places on the planet. The Chocó is a biodiversity hotspot, host to an incredible variety of species, including many that are critically endangered such as the western Ecuadorian jaguar (Panthera onca), Bairds Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and the brown-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps), along with countless species of bird, amphibian, plant and insect, many of which are endemic.

Despite this biodiversity, it is estimated that over 90% of the original forest has been lost due to a combination of logging, oil palm plantations, mining and clearance for agriculture. As areas of forest are destroyed, important wildlife corridors disappear and species can no longer move freely from one area to another, jeopardizing their survival and reducing biodiversity. Tesoro Escondido is one of the few remaining ‘islands’ of biodiversity in the region, one of the last refuges for the incredibly valuable and diverse fauna and flora that inhabit the Chocó. Yet at the current rate of loss, this hidden treasure is in danger of becoming a lost treasure.

This is where the main protagonists of our story come in:

The brown-headed spider monkey:

This is a critically endangered primate, the most endangered in Ecuador, and in the top 25 most endangered primates globally. There are thought to be no more than around 250 left, of which 150 can be found in Tesoro Escondido. These incredibly rare monkeys spend most of their time high up in the canopy in what remains of the primary forest, playing a crucial role in the ecosystem: They eat only fruit, dispersing seeds as they move around, helping to ensure the continuing biodiversity and abundance of these crucial habitats.

The Cambugán Foundation: This is an Ecuadorian foundation which has been working to conserve and restore forest ecosystems in the country since 2000. Their aim is to establish a 2000-hectare reserve for brown-headed spider monkeys in Tesoro Escondido, which they will protect and monitor using local parabiologists and participation from the community. Cambugán have created a sustainable development model that uses the best scientific research and knowledge to conserve precious ecosystems and species, whilst at the same time helping local farmers to improve their livelihoods and educating local communities about the importance of the forest habitat and the species that live there. They work closely with the team at Sussex University (see below) to develop this model and collaborate with a variety of local and international partners to protect what is left of Ecuador’s tropical forests.

A team from Sussex University, led by Dr Mika Peck: The team has been working for over 10 years in the region to build a more comprehensive picture of this critically endangered population of monkeys and the threats they face. They have developed a clear idea of what needs to be done to protect them and, through training and working closely with local parabiologists and NGOs, and in partnership with the Cambugán Foundation, they have developed a strategy to:

– Create protected areas for the brown-headed spider monkey. This involves purchasing strategically important land from local landowners for the 2000-hectare reserve and identifying potential ‘wildlife corridors’;
– Train up more local community members as parabiologists to carry out research and monitoring and establish a native tree nursery;
– Reforest degraded areas to extend the habitat for the monkeys;
– Help to improve livelihoods for local cacao farmers by linking them into ethical buyers with an interest in conserving forests.

Local farmers: Effective conservation cannot ignore the needs of local communities. As the project in Tesoro Escondido has developed, it has successfully integrated forest conservation and local livelihoods. Farmers in the region suffer from extreme poverty, but one of the benefits of the Spider Monkey Reserve project is that it enhances local livelihoods by enabling forest–friendly organic cacao production, improving access to markets and revenues while promoting ecological principles.

Chocolate: Cacao is the main crop grown in the region, but although the cacao produced in this region is of very high quality, farmers have not always been able to get a fair price for it. In the past, this has led to many seeking alternative sources of income, which inevitably led to the clearance of more areas of forest. So, a joint initiative between the University of Sussex, the Cambugán Foundation and the Washu Project (another local NGO working to preserve the Chocó), has develo