Treasures in the Ecuadorian Andes
High in the Ecuadorian Andes are cloud-covered peaks that no satellite has ever observed and no cartographer has ever mapped. Up there somewhere, rumour has it; the Incas hid their treasure when Spanish conquistadors invaded 500 years ago.
Treasure-hunters have so far failed to find the hoard. But botanical adventurer Lou Jost has uncovered a different kind of wealth: an ecological El Dorado of orchids found nowhere else on the planet.
Jost gave up life as a quantum physicist to take up botany. He has spent the last six years living in the Ecuadorian Andes, collecting dozens of new orchid species in the remote cloud forests and valleys. Most of his collection comes from Pastaza valley and mountains that surround it - home to one of the highest concentrations of endemic orchids on the planet.
The Pastaza River, a tributary of the Amazon River, has carved the deepest, straightest valley in the eastern Andes, running through the mountains across Ecuador and Peru and on to the Brazilian rainforest. Every afternoon a hot, wet wind blows up the valley from the Amazon. It brings huge volumes of moisture that evaporate to form near-permanent clouds over the precipitous mountain ridges that flank the valley.
"Each ridge has its own microclimate in the clouds," Jost says. "The first ridge west of the rainforest is the wettest and windiest. The next is slightly less wild and wet, and so on. Every one offers a unique environment, and that usually means unique orchids." Jost has so far identified 90 orchid species, and he sees no sign that the discoveries will stop.
Ecuador is a hotspot for plants, and the Pastaza valley is the heartland of this diversity. Current records show more than 4,000 plant species endemic to this small country, with 197 of these endemic to the Pastaza valley - more than found on Ecuador's other biological treasure house, the Galapagos Islands.
Besides plants, the valley is home to some 240 species of birds and more than 50 species of bat, one of the largest ranges anywhere on Earth. Pumas, ocelots, mountain tapirs, and spectacled bears also live in the region.
However, this biological richness is in danger. Eighty per cent of Ecuador's endemic plant species are threatened with extinction. The Pastaza valley's bats are threatened by unregulated activities, and some 30 per cent of the valley's bird species are sensitive to habitat disturbance. Twenty per cent of the valley's mammals are endangered, including the spectacled bear, the only bear species in Latin America.
But the promise of a new kind of wealth for the Pastaza valley also offers hope for preserving its natural wonders.
Faced with decreased income from farming and becoming wise to the health risks of agrochemicals, the valley's farmers, or campesinos, have set off in a bold new direction: developing ecotourism as a way of making money.
Xavier Viteri from Fundacion Natura, WWF's associate in Ecuador, says it is a critical moment. "If farmers press on with trying to make a living the traditional way, then they will clear ever more of the valley's surviving forests, and the prospect for an ecotourism industry will be gone for good. But if they choose a new path, then they could be richer - and the wildlife can be saved."
Enthusiasm is high. "Ecotourism is my life now," says Patricia Guevara, the energetic vice-mayor of BaÃ±os, the main town at the head of the valley and a growing centre for trekking and adventure tourism. She is also president of the Tourism Commission and runs one of the town's many small hotels. Her husband manages a small tourist lodge at Rio Verde, an hour's drive from BaÃ±os.
Down the valley, William Batallas, mayor of the small former oil-exploration town of Mera, wants to entice some of the tourists who currently stay in BaÃ±os to visit his town and see the spectacular local bat caves. And Klaus Diaz, mayor of Palora in the east of the valley where few tourists currently go, says that "tourism is the way to make money."
The initiative received an extra boost last December. The mayors of BaÃ±os, Mera, and Palora as well as other political leaders declared 42,000 hectares of the valley an ecological corridor, linking the two mountainous national parks on either side, Llanganates and Sangay.
The mayors accepted an environmental management plan for the corridor, drawn up by Fundacion Natura, that aims to protect biodiversity, encourage ecotourism, and promote environmental education among the locals. WWF recognized the initiative as a Gift to the Earth. And the declaration was sealed at the city's annual festival just before Christmas.
But Patricia Guevara believes the future of the valley is not just in the hands of the municipal authorities - it's in the hands of the campesinos too. It is their land and energies that must be turned over to catering for a new breed of tourist - the sort of people who stay in her hotel, who want to know more about the local ecology, and eat organic produce grown locally.
And the signs are good. The campesinos of Rio Negro have already put up a sign in the street advertising the "The Ecological Corridor, Amazonia". Every able-bodied person here spends a day a week working on community projects, and tourism is top of the agenda.
"In the past the campesinos have seen nature and the environment as a symbol of their poverty," says Guevara. "But scientists coming here and talking to them about the importance of nature have introduced them to the idea that it is actually something to be proud of. Now they see that it is important to preserve nature. And they tell me that WWF declaring their area a Gift to the Earth makes them feel important too, not poor worthless peasants. They think it is like having valuable jewellery.'
Fred Pearce is a freelance writer. A Gift to the Earth is a public celebration by WWF of a conservation action by a government, a company, or an individual which is both a demonstration of environmental leadership and a globally significant contribution to the protection of the living world. The Sangay-Llanganates ecological corridor in the Pastaza valley was recognized as a Gift to the Earth on 16 December 2001. This article is reproduced with kind permission from WWF International.Image Orchid, Sangay National Park, Ecuador, Â© Fundacion Natura/Eugene Martin, courtesy WWF.