The Ecological and Hydrological Importance of Montane Cloud Forests

Tropical montane cloud forests are unique ecosystems that are biodiversity hotspots but not widespread around the world, it is estimated that only 1% of all global woodlands is considered cloud forest.  Although the formation of cloud forest is dependent on local climate and distance from the ocean, all montane forests are high elevation, usually between 500 and 4000 meters.  Intag, Ecuador is a remote region that falls in a primary cloud forest which has a very small altitudinal range from 1800 to 1800 meters.  The name cloud forest comes from the fact that they occur in high rainfall regions and there is frequent/daily or seasonal low level cloud cover that reaches down from the tree canopy.  This cloud formation is important very important to the hydrological regime of the area.

During times of high precipitation, rain is intercepted by both the cloud cover and the forest which often times evaporates into the low lying clouds.  This keeps the water from all reaching the ground at one time where it will just become run-off if it is a heavy rain event and the soil is supersaturated.  Water is slowly released from the clouds through “fog drip” also known as horizontal precipitation where water droplets touch plants and condenses.  Once it condenses it can either evaporate back into the atmosphere or more often than not since the local atmosphere is very humid, it flows down the plant to the ground through stem flow.  Stem flow is very important because it transfers both precipitation and nutrients to the soil.  Clouds in tropical montane forest can add up to an extra month’s worth of water to the system.  Thus, montane cloud forests are very important for water resources, especially since they occur at high elevations and feed headwater streams.

It is evident that cloud forests are very important both as a source of water for rivers both within the forest but also for communities downstream and because many species of flora and fauna are endemic only to the ecosystem.  That being said, forests are a valuable resource for people and impoverished agriculturalists who often live along the outskirts rely on the montane forests for fuel and farmland.  There are many sustainable farming practices that combine forest management with agriculture production.  Perhaps the oldest and fairly sustainable practice is shifting cultivation which entails a farmer cutting a small area of trees and then burning them in order to put the nutrients back into the soil very quickly.  The farmer then crops the new field for several years but not until nutrient levels are exhausted and then he leaves the field fallow for 40-60 years for the forest to regenerate.  The problem now is that agriculture is becoming more intensified in order to feed the high demand so shifting cultivation is not being sustainable practiced but rather has become the notorious method known as slash and burn.  Agroforestry is also a method of farming that sustainable uses forested systems.  This practice is when farmers grow non-timber forest crops such as fruits, ginseng, mushrooms, coffee and honey within a forested plot of land.  But agroforestry is not known for producing high yields and limit the farmer as to what he can produce.  Thus, alternative means for economic growth might be a better substitute for agriculture in montane cloud forests.  Since these forests are biodiversity hotspots, they are an attractive destination for ecotourism which is becoming very popular.  Thus, a good solution for generating income for families is to host tourists and show off the natural beauty of their backyards.  Ecotourism can also be paired nicely with agroforestry by selling agricultural products that are endemic to the area to visiting tourists.  Ecotourism is not always a reasonable alternative for all communities located in montane cloud forests but it is definitely a substitute to traditional agriculture that can be a successful in generating an income for locals while managing and protecting the forests.

2 Thoughts.

  1. Emily,

    Thank you for the extremely thoughtful blog post! You provided a really nice description of cloud forests and their importance, anyone unsure of what defines a cloud forest from a rainforest should totally read your first paragraph or so. Also, thanks for the comment on my blog! It’s true that biologists can look too deeply into biodiversity and not see the trade-offs that native people must face every day. I really enjoyed your last paragraph concerning agriculture in conflict with growing populations- it’s certainly a growing issue in more parts of the world than just Intag. When I worked in Guatemala with local folks, we visited two villages: one that worked together to conserve their forests for ecotourism and form a coffee collaborative, and another that parcelled land out individually. This was a poorer village, named Sebob. I met a worker who carried a chainsaw up into the mountains to harvest wood from the cloudforest. He would sell this wood in the market. I was told that there were once howler monkeys and resplendent quetzals 15 years prior, but that in less than 10 years Sebob’s cloud forest would be gone. He was a very nice man and was extremely sad to see the forest in decline, but his children and wife also needed food.

    It’s easy for a biologist like myself to forget this. Thank you for reminding me to keep balance of agriculture and food in mind! It’s easy for me to prioritize the cloud forest when I don’t have to feed my family off its resources.

  2. Nice recognition that a shift to ecotourism may not be the right choice for all communities. For many people, who they are is a farmer – not a tour guide. So should we try to develop incentive systems for landowners that include a variety of different options to encourage stewardship of the resources we value? — Especially as human populations increase.

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