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Trails of Mashpi: The beginnings of a great adventure

My name is Felipe Andrade, Coordinator of Carbon and Biodiversity Management of Fundacion Futuro. I will take a tour around Mashpi and tell readers about my time in the Andean Choco region.

My name is Felipe Andrade, an engineer in biotechnology. I have a lot of experience working in ecology and conservation. I’m the Coordinator of Carbon and Biodiversity Management for Fundacion Futuro. I will take a tour around Mashpi and tell readers about my time in the Andean Choco region as I develop and implement strategies to promote sustainable, successful, and environmentally-friendly alternatives.

My adventures begin in the Andean Choco region, a flourishing cloud forest located 120 Km from the capital city of Ecuador. This magical forest was declared a Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO in 2018 as one of the most species-rich areas per square kilometer in the world.

Photograph: Mashpi Reserve.

El río The Mashpi river runs through the heart of the reserve that bears its name. It is greatly appreciated by the locals because of the life it hosts, its beauty, and its potential to attract tourists. The community of Mashpi, home to around 40 families, is built next to this rushing river, and more families have settled on surrounding farms.

The homes are made of wood using simple architectural styles. The people who live here are colonists, the majority of whom arrived to the area 50 or 60 years ago. Some of Mashpi’s first colonists are still alive and are happy to talk about the days when they first arrived. Today, the population living in the area consists of second and third generation inhabitants.

Mashpi’s inhabitants come from different places, but they all have something in common: they are warm and open.

Mashpi’s inhabitants come from different places, but they all have something in common: they are warm and open. In the town, there are people from Latacunga, Esmeraldas, Loja and Carchi. The outlying farming communities are inhabited by families from Costa Rica, Italy, France and Spain. Mashpi is unquestionable hotspot of megadiversity, which applies even to its people.

 

It was one of these farms that welcomed me in when I first arrived to the area. I stayed at the ‘Chontaloma’ farm, home to some highly educated people who have Master’s Degrees in sustainability and conservation. They purchased their land, which had been deforested to raise cattle or plant palm heart, and transformed it by carrying out landscape renovation and sustainable management projects.

The farmers at Chontaloma are living proof that the wealth of Mashpi’s forest, combined with sustainable agriculture, can yield incredible results.

It was amazing to see the work that was being done on this farm. On the experimental plots that they set up, they are developing alternative production methods with the purpose of forming a symbiotic relationship between plants to better control plagues. This innovative system cannot be found in the palm-heart plantations that previously dotted the zone and ended up degrading the land due to the use of agrochemicals.

The farmers at Chontaloma are living proof that the wealth of Mashpi’s forest, combined with sustainable agriculture, can yield incredible results. On the farm, local fruit species are grown, as well as other species brought in from other tropical regions. They harvest highly diverse products, some of which are even exotic such as cardamom, a spice with medicinal properties that is native to Tropical Asia.

 

Photograph: Cardamom plant.

Another pleasant surprise when I visited the Mashpi Reserve for the first time was seeing how organized the community was. This is a community that was threatened by deforestation from logging. Now they stand together against the latent threat from mining companies and, together, leverage their natural resources in a sustainable manner to unite as a community.

I discovered many tourism, research and educational initiatives here. There are “Nature Schools” that have their students not only see and hear, but also experience nature, and harvest and cook the products grown in the area. This is a very experiential activity for the children, and helps them understand the logic of conservation and develop a love for this incredible natural reserve.

Photograph: Girl from the Mashpi community.

The amazing diversity of the plants found in the Mashpi Reserve is practically unfathomable. The soil in this tropical area is extremely fertile, and its flourishing ecosystem is home to countless native plant and animal species. I have spent time in many other forests where it is easier to see animals, but they are also silent. In this forest it is harder to see them, but it draws you in with its concert of falling rain, mystic fog, and sheer biodiversity. The loud sounds of birds, frogs, and insects come together in a stunning symphony of nature. It’s simply impossible to compare the forest of Mashpi with any other.

Part of the magic of Mashpi comes from its birds. There are many that I had never seen before. When I sat down to eat in the middle of the forest, a toucan flew in and perched on a tree near me. Toucans are notoriously difficult to see in other parts of the world. This was something that could only happen in Mashpi.

Generally, it is not easy to be stuck in the middle of the forest. Arriving to Mashpi, such a small place that is home to a forest bursting with life, and being in constant contact with nature, is truly indescribable. The small homes of Mashpi are comfortable, but above all are very hospitable. Living alongside its people is, unquestionably, an enriching experience.

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