Why You Should Learn Spanish

I have really been enjoying my time in Ecuador. I mean, it’s hard not to be really happy and having fun when you are surrounded both by wonderful people and an incredible landscape. Most of my blog posts talk about how amazing the Intag Valley is because it is hard to ignore and not appreciate the natural beauty of the area. I have always been deeply connected to nature, preferring to spend most of my time wandering aimlessly in the woods or trudging up mountains, and the cloud forest covering the slopes of Intag was exactly what my soul was craves. This love for the landscape was not unique to me or my classmates but shared by most people graced to be in the valley and is apparent through interactions with community members the past few weeks.

Although the majority of the people living in the area are “poor” (monetarily, by the western sense) and work as sustenance farmers, there are many people that we were fortunate enough to meet through mingas and farm tours who were very invested in protecting the environment and fostering practices that allowed them to be less harsh on the land that they were farming. Not only were a lot of people investing their time and energy to build more sustainable livelihoods but quite of few also spent a lot of time introducing and implementing their techniques in the community. One notable farmer who was very invested in building a more sustainable farm gave us a tour of his biodigester which was so neat. He has several pigs that he collects the manure from and is able to turn that and other waste into biofuel which he burns as a gas stove in his kitchen and fertilizer which fulfills all his farm’s needs. It seemed to be super cool and I am really excited by the idea but unfortunately I feel that a lot was lost on me due to the language barrier.

Not knowing Spanish has been the greatest obstacle for me on this trip and has really influenced my experience and my general reflections on the work that we have been doing the past few weeks. This class is called “community-partnerships in Ecuador” and thus is based off of working directly with community members on projects. But there is no language requirement, only that knowledge of Spanish is preferred. As I have discovered, international work should never be considered unless you have a fluency in the language of the area. Yes, I was able to rely on my classmates to translate and help me along (which they were great at doing) but why is it their responsibility to have to do such a thing? Also hearing a community partner tell long stories in Spanish and then having the English translation be, “well basically he is saying this”, made me feel that a lot of the subtle inflections and personal soul of the story was lost in a simple explanation. I felt that I was not able to participate in a lot of the work that we did such as teaching the water cycle at schools or talking with our great in-country partner, Don Julio, since I lacked Spanish. Honestly, I would not recommend taking this class unless you have enough of an understanding of Spanish that you are confident at solo interactions.

Reforestation and Water

We had another reforestation minga but instead of maintaining trees, we actually got to plant new saplings along the slope.  It was another steep and muddy hike to the site but this time we also had to carry boxes of baby trees.  We planted two different types of trees, one was native and fixed nitrogen while the other was non-native but able to out-compete the tall grass that covers the hillsides and usually chokes out native plants.  The tall grass that covered all the hillsides was actually introduced from Africa and planted to reduce soil erosion on the slopes while keeping pasture land suitable for cattle.  Something about combatting a non-native plant with another non-native plant is a red flag to the ecologist within me.  But the long term plan is to eventually weed out the non-native trees and replace them with endemic species once the forest is established and the grass is eradicated so it won’t out-compete the saplings.

A lot more people showed up at this minga and there were not only men but rather a few women and children this time too.  A bunch of people dug holes in rows, as everyone else followed and planted trees.  There were a lot of people helping so the work was done in a few hours.  Overall we has planted 500 trees, adding to the 60,000+ trees that had already been planted over the past 10 years, or so.  It was pretty cool because we were able to see the trees that had been planted the past two years since the class started.  They have grown fairly quickly from tiny saplings to trees that are taller than a person.  The community hopes to eventually reforest the whole slope.

It was neat because one man from the community guided us up to the top of the hill to show us the trees from past years and, as we hiked, he also pointed out interesting plants and also told us a little bit about the past of the area.  His great-grandparents (the great-grandparents of the community) has arrived to the area and immediately began clearing the land for farming and pasture without thinking about the fact that it is much easier to cut down a forest than to regrow one.  After the trees were cut, many of the water sources dried up so the whole village and most of the surrounding villages pipe their water from a single water source which is essentially a tiny trickle of a stream that runs through a small patch of forest that is left over on the hillside.  We actually saw one of the pipes that travelled across the ridge line and down in to the neighboring valley for communities on the other side.  One of the dreams of the reforestation project is that it will eventually re-establish the eater sources that have since dried up from the deforestation.

Minga and School Visits

The four teams finally split up to do group work with their community partners.  Coffee team is stationed with us, the conservation team, at the thermal pools of Nangulvi.  It is a pretty nice hostel on the edge of Rio Intag and it has a bunch of hot mineral baths that are kept at hot tube temperature by thermal activity.  Although we have the temptation of the baths, we have been keeping busy with our work.  The first day here, we had a minga up in La Florida Reserve which is near the community of La Esperanza.  To reach the area, we had to take a truck up into the mountains and then had to hike 2 hours up some very steep and muddy terrain.  To make it even more strenuous, we each carried about two liters of personal drinking water and also took turns carrying one of the two 6 liter jugs of water we brought, just in case.  Minga is a term for a community gathering where people come together to work on a project that benefits everyone.  Families usually send a person to help with the work and a person to help prepare lunch.  A young woman named Suzanna, who lives part way up the mountain and is a friend of the team, provided lunch for us.  When provided food, you are expected to finish everything given to you although the proportions are huge! If you do not eat all of your food , you run the risk of either offending the woman since you must not like your food enough to eat it all or worrying them because you must not be okay if you cannot eat it all.  Sometimes the woman will tell you that you will not be able to have kids if you do not eat well and finish your food.  By the end of lunch, we were all uncomfortably full.

The work we did consisted of managing trees that were planted a year or two ago in an attempt to reforest the slope.  We used machetes to clear the tall overgrowth around the trees and we replaced some of the trees that had died.  I am not sure how much we actually helped but, if nothing else, we were definitely a source of entertainment for the guys as we swung our machetes around.  Right away, it was obvious that we were the only girls helping out with the work.  For the most part, all of the guys were fine with us helping out and they gladly taught us how to cut the weeds around the trees.  There was just one man who appeared to be quite displeased with our presence and leaved shortly after we arrived.  Apparently while we were introducing ourselves, he ordered one of us to fetch him water but luckily most of us either did not hear him or chose to ignore him.  Gender dynamics have been interesting so far.  Although gender roles are very much evident in the culture and daily life here, I personally have not had too much of a problem while working with our in-country partners.  That being said, there have been a few instances that our team (which happens to be all female) has felt that we have not been given the same attentiveness or even the same amount of time while presenting our work in a co-gendered group setting.

Another day was spent visiting school and teaching kids about the water cycle.  We spent the first half of our lesson drawing out and explaining the cycle after which we would take the children outside to play a few related field games to reinforce the class work.  It was a lot of fun to interact and hang out with all of the kids.  The first class we visited was fairly large and had kids whose ages ranged from 5-12 years old, all of which were taught in the same room.  The second school’s class was much smaller and did not have as obvious of an age gap.  The resultant difference in education was observable; the kids in the second school seemed to generally be more knowledgeable on the water cycle and were more receptive to answering questions.  Overall, it seemed that the children really enjoyed getting out and playing the games and it was interesting to get a look at the local school system.

Definitions of Wealth and Our Introduction to Intag

Consumerism has been heavy on my mind since Christmas time and all of its hallmark commercial glory. Our in country partner, Carlos Zorilla, gave a talk to our class, while we were staying at his farm, that was very interesting. The talk was centered around the history of the mining conflict in Intag and interestingly enough, it was started by NGO organizations like USAID and the western concept of wealth. When asked what was the first thing we thought of when we heard the word wealth, 99% of the class said “money”. We viewed being wealthy as equating to having a lot of money. When USAID and similar organizations came into the valley of Intag, they brought with them this association of wealth and money. So when they saw all of the subsistence farmers living and working in the area, and the lack of commercial businesses and hospitals, the aid workers told the people that they were poor. Before this point, nobody realized that they were poor or that this lack of money and material goods meant that they were not living well. Wealth wasn’t defined by money or abundance but rather community and family which the farmers had plenty. But in the eyes of the aid groups they were poor and in need of economic help so that they could become “developed” like the states or Europe. Thus, mining was suggested as an economic alternative without any thought as to how it would impact other aspects of people’s lives.

My question is when did wealth equate to money? Why do people feel the need to have money past the need for living to living in abundance? What good is excess money besides for buying material goods? Why is there a desire for material goods past the need for living; to show class/status? In the end, why does status matter? It is just a mean for other’s to perceive you and define you? Why do we allow these perceptions to play into our personal perceptions and definitions? How did this societal perception come to be? And now we are back to the beginning of the circle of questions. I do not have any answers for these questions beyond that people seem to be attracted to pretty rarities such as gold/jewels and the general effects of colonialism. But it is worth thinking about one’s relation with wealth and the affects of consumerism on everyday life (we had a cultural safety talk on one of the first days and the woman related the independent model of living in the states to consumerism. I am personally still digesting the idea so I cannot make any remarks).  Also another question that is worth thinking about is, what exactly is development?  A long debated question that probably does not have one answer.

Intag is an absolutely beautiful place. Carlos’ farm is nestled in the cloud forest in the hills of the valley and you have to hike in to access it. We brought all of our gear on packhorses. Everything that they fed use (besides grain) was grown on site. They have set up their gardens so that it is a polyculture agroforestry/alley-cropping system and it is so diverse that they don’t have many issues with pests or diseases.  They also use the composting toilets, food compost, and chicken manure for all of their fertilizer needs. They have bees for honey and also a black soldier fly colony for insect protein! It just got me so excited seeing it all because it is such a self-sufficient lifestyle (not to mention the surrounding area is beautiful!).

We have been doing a lot of hikes combined with birding and herping. We set up two camera traps in the high forest, one at ground level for mammals and one up in the trees for birds and the olinguito. Green bananas were used as bait so that they would ripen slowly and that any human scent would be gone before they were totally ripe. Also anise scented sticks were used to hopefully attract some spectacled bears. I saw a really cool tree snake that I still need to identify (probably a Green Sipo), along with a few frogs. There were also so many cool plants in the forest, many of which have different medicinal/health uses, which were really neat to learn from Roberto, a local who knew a lot about the forest. I wish I were able to remember half of the information that I learned and that I generally knew more about plants. There are also a lot of exotic tropical fruits that I have never heard of previous of this trip. Overall, the valley of Intag and the cloud forest is a beautiful natural gem and I cannot get enough.

Welcome to Ecuador!

After 24 hours of travel we finally made it to Otavalo and were able to collapse in the hostel for the night. During travel my phone randomly shut down and ceased to work. I took it as a sign from the universe that I am supposed to enjoy m experience free from distraction caused by endlessly searching for wifi and just have a simpler time in the moment. I am honestly grateful this far into the trip that I do not have such easy access to the internet for those reasons and it makes it a fun challenge to scout out ways to update my blog!

We came into Otavalo at night so it was a surprise waking up the next morning when the sun was out. The first thing that really struck me was the natural beauty of the area. The town is nestled in the Andes so it is surrounded by mountains and volcano peaks. The day was spent exploring the town and attending team meetings to orient ourselves in Ecuador and test some of the equipment that we brought, such as cameras for camera traps. We went to the daily market and right away I noticed that the shopkeepers and stall attendants did not push to sell their goods as much I have seen in many other countries, they did not follow you down the streets with their products trying to bargain. But looking around the city, I also noticed that there did not seem to be the same degree of poverty that is usually linked to markets with such atmospheres. That being said, this association is based off of my personal experiences (a sole outsider’s observations and perspectives) so could potentially lack the understanding of cultural influences within the market and the actual degrees of poverty faced by the owners.

These first few days have been really exciting between trying new foods (I went from being vegetarian to eating blood soup) and fruits to hiking in the highlands and experiencing the craziness that is New Year’s Eve in Ecuador, which was probably the most memorable New Year celebration of my life. A few things about New Year: 1) people make an effigy of the old year (it could be based off of an important family event, a specific person, political leader, TV character, etc.) which they display in the streets with a note attached to them, starting around mid-day 2) guys dress up as the widow of the old year by usually wearing drag or masks and they dance in the streets to music that is blasting out of many of the buildings and they stop cars, by doing this, to ask for coins 3) At midnight everyone burns their effigy and there are many traditions such as eating 12 grapes (one for each month of the year) during the countdown and making a wish with each one, or wearing gold of red underwear for wealth or love in the new year, respectively.   Walking through the streets right before midnight was a lot of fun because people would pull you into the street to dance with them. At midnight when everyone began to set their effigies on fire, we lit our dummy of Martin. The streets were quickly filled with dozens of small fires and smoke choked out he air. From the outside, it might have looked a lot like a warzone as firecrackers exploded and what appeared to be bodies burned in the streets. But in reality, it was a really family friendly event. There was no point during the night that I felt unsafe or threatened by the events around me (maybe excluding when one of the homemade firecrackers started shooting into the crowd as we walked by). I try to think of how a similar celebration would fare in the states and I feel that inevitably the police would get involved and that many people would use it as an excuse to go too far (excluding fire regulations) possibly because our sense of community/social structure id different, especially in urban areas.

The surrounding environment and its natural beauty is probably the thing that calls out to me the most on a personal and spiritual level. My team was lucky enough to get to visit the Paramo, which is the name of the highlands (elevation: 3500 plus meters). It is a really cool alpine ecosystem that is essentially a grassland type habitat with many types of grasses and a few shrubs that relies on cycles of burning. We spent the day hiking around the volcanic lakes that are nestled in the shadows of huge jagged peaks and it was a beautiful time appreciating the organisms and enjoying the views.   I feel really lucky and grateful that I have the opportunity to be in such a lovely place and I really look forward to actually starting our work in Intag soon.

Ecuador Approaches!

During these weeks of stressful finals, I dream of the time when they all will be complete and I will be on my way to Intag.  I am really excited to explore the cloud forest and hopefully see some cool critters.  It would be super cool to find some of the reptiles and/or amphibians I have been researching all semester.  I am also really excited to experience the culture and learn from, not only our community partners, but from everyone I get the opportunity to meet and talk to while travelling.  I am a little intimidated since I truthfully do not know much Spanish; I worked to learn some introductory language skills but am far from being able to hold any meaningful conversations and unfortunately all of my years studying French will probably not be of much help.  But with the help of my fellow teammates, I will manage and will most definitely have plenty of opportunity to expand my Spanish skills.  Speaking of my teammates, I am also thrilled to be able to continue working with such a great group while in country and to see our maps and education materials put to use.

This semester I have been working on developing a list of all of the species of reptiles and amphibians in the region of Intag based off of habitat and elevation data.  Working on this project has been a lot harder than I was expecting at the start of the semester.  I did not realized just how many species of amphibians I would have to narrow down or the fact that there are not too many reliable resources with information on current species and data on their habitat/elevation ranges and conservation status.  But I have really enjoyed learning about so many new species of herps, although I am saddened by how many of them are endangered in Intag.  While in Intag we will be hiking, bird watching, and setting up camera traps in the hope of spotting some of the endangered species of the area and as we do these activities I hope to be able to spot and keep track of any herps that cross our path (no worries, I have been doing my research on the few venous snakes of the area and will generally avoid catching herps unless I want to I.D. them and am positive on their safety).  Also I hope that while in Intag, our community partner, Carlos Zorrilla, and other members of the community will be able to suggest further species that they know to exist in the area but may have been left of the lists.

I have tried not to develop too many expectations about the trip beyond that of being excited to see the beauty of the country and to learn from our partners.  But I do expect to learn a lot about the region and its rich biodiversity and culture.  Also I expect to hear firsthand stories and thoughts about the mining proposals and how it will potentially affect the area, since we are the conservation team and many of the people we will be directly working with have been in the front of the anti-mining campaigns.  As far as the expectations that our community partners may hold of us, I am not sure.  But I would imagine that they expect us to be willing to work and learn since all of us are taking this class out of interest/passion for the subject rather than as a requirement.

As you may be able to tell from my ramblings, I am super excited to have this opportunity to work alongside community members of Intag and DECOIN.  I look forward to see what experiences and learning opportunities our month in Ecuador has in store for us!

The Interesting Case of Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are colored pigments or colorants derived from a variety of organic sources such as plants, minerals, or insects/other invertebrates (shellfish).  Whereas synthetic dyes are not from a natural source (hence synthetic) but rather are manmade compounds which were first synthesized out of the phenylamine, Aniline, and are now made out of a variety of organic azo compounds.  The organic compounds that makes up different colorants for some natural dyes can also be duplicated synthetically to create the same color but with less production costs when produced on the large scale.  The advantage of natural dye is that fibers can be dyed a variety of colors using common and locally available plants so it is readily available to the common person and can be used to easily dye home produced fibers.  Although more research is necessary, natural dyes also tend to be less toxic than synthetic dyes.  Aniline, the organic compound basis for the first synthetic dye created and many latter dyes, is a fairly toxic compound and its other uses are in rocket fuel.  Less toxic dyes are important for both the consumer who will be directly exposed to the dye while wearing the fabric and also the environment which will receive dye residues through water run-off after washing laundry.  A drawback of natural dyes is that they are often not as economically viable for large scale operations, as compared to synthetic dyes that can be easily made in large quantities.  In order to produce natural dyes, cultivation of the natural dye source is often needed and in order to extract the colorants in high enough concentrations, a lot of the source has to be used.  Also natural dyes usually have low affinities towards the fabric so in order to make the dye stick and not wash out; it often has to be mixed with a mordant which is chemical that “fixes” the dye.

Due to the creation of synthetic dyes, natural dye production dropped dramatically since synthetics are a lot more economically viable.  But natural dye is slowly starting to regain popularity as a section of the population becomes more aware of what they put in or near their bodies and the potential hazards posed by synthesized chemicals (these are often the same type of people you commonly encounter around Ithaca).  Natural dyes are also still used in many food colorings and by drug companies to color pills since they tend to be less toxic (or at least the common held belief is that they are less toxic).  Natural dyes also appeal to craftsman and farmers that produce and sell their own fibers such as wool because natural dyes are held to be of higher quality than synthetic and their use in homemade products tends to appeal to the consumer.  We read an article for class titles, PAST GLORY AND PRESENT STATUS OF COCHINEAL by Daniel W. Gade which was an interesting article about the historical use of an insect, cochineal, to produce red dye.  The author concluded that although natural dyes will never be as popular as they once were the industry is still profitable and due to become even more profitable with the recent rise of interest in naturally produced dyes.  According to him the production of dye can be an economically viable solution for poor farmers in the Andean mountains.  I agree that a new agricultural good that is of such high value can be an important crop that can assist poor farmers’ livelihoods.  What I do not agree with is the author’s choice of wording which states that if demand rises for the dye, it can be produced in great quantities in Peru where “many highland valleys still have supplies of cheap peasant labor needed for the long hours of collection, drying, sifting, and bagging the delicate cash ‘product.”  The production of the dye should not be viewed as a successful colonial style industry as the author suggests but as an economic alternative for independent farmers and people of Peru.

Natural dyes are appealing in that they are “all natural” (a very successful money-making label for commercial goods) but more research has to be done in order to determine if they are actually an environmentally viable alternative to synthetic dyes.  The sources of natural dyes are often wild foraged plants, invertebrates such as shellfish and insects and minerals.  Foraging of wild plants is known as wildcrafting which is a notorious practice since it is often unsustainable.  So before natural dyes are pursued, it is important that the plant source is able to be sustainably cultivated instead of only foraged from the wild.  This goes for invertebrates, as well, they should be able to be farmed.  Farming material for dyes is not only more environmentally sustainable compared to collecting but it is also more economically sustainable because it allows for the greater production of dye materials.  Also the extraction of minerals for dyes is probably not a very sustainable practice since it is similar to the extraction of minerals such as copper, which is highly disruptive to the environment and is currently being fought against by environmentalists in Intag, Ecuador.

A Look into Ecotourism

We live in a globalized world thanks to the ease of travel by airplane and this is evident in the fact that tourism has become one of the world’s largest industries and one of the fastest growing branches is nature tourism.  Ecotourism is a term for nature tourism that has been coined and is defined as “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples” by the World Conservation Unit (IUCN).  Although the idea of attracting large groups of people to trample around a pristine environment seems counterintuitive in the goal of protecting ecosystems, if managed correctly ecotourism is not only beneficial in conservation efforts but also a benefit to the local economy of communities.

Ecotourism is an attractive source of revenue for local governments, businesses, and residents alike since it brings capital into the area.  Also ecotourism allows for the development of new jobs such as craftsmanship/community craft markets/shops, inns, restaurants, and guiding.  With more available capital in the community the government can build better infrastructure such as roads, community buildings/schools/medical offices, irrigation and water treatment which benefits everyone in the community.  Ecotourism can be an important tool for in sustainable development and community empowerment since it brings employment and educational opportunities, as well as, an increased capacity for building into the community.  But ecotourism is definitely not always the answer.  Not all communities want to forgo their traditional way of life in order to be tour guides for privileged foreigners who have no concept of their customs.  Also not all communities have the initial infrastructure to even begin hosting travelers who usually expect a certain level of comfort (i.e. piped water, inns, easy access by road/air).  Although ecotourism by definition is environmentally conscious, if its development is not managed correctly it can actually be a cause for environmental degradation.

If ecotourism is not managed in accordance to its sustainable goals, it can become an environmental threat as just nature travel that attracts larges masses of people that put pressure on the ecosystem and natural resources of the area.  Tourism can damage the environment through soil erosion, increased pollution (air, noise, solid, sewage and light), natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and overuse of water resources for tourist consumption, irrigation of lawns/golf course/parks, use in pools, and use by hotels.  Also studies have found that although the introduction of ecotourism in communities usually reduces negative environmental impacts such as cutting down trees, that the behavioral change did not always indicate a greater environmental awareness but rather people were simply too busy with new employment/satiated with new income to need to continue such actions.  Thus, once the local economy builds up economic funds development can grow to threaten natural resources if their remains to be a lack in environmental awareness.  Also ecotourism does not always benefit the community but sometimes just benefits outside corporations.  An example of exploitative tourism are the predominately western owned mountaineering guiding companies in Nepal that are notorious for exploiting sherpa guides.

But all in all, I believe that ecotourism is a successful and important tool in sustainable development, the empowerment of communities, and the conservation of the natural environment if it is approached and managed by the communities and with environmental awareness at its heart.

Shade Grown Coffee vs. Mono-cropping

Coffee is beloved by billions of people around the world due to its stimulating effects (and possibly pleasant flavor once you become accustomed to it).  I am sure many people reading this blog have either already had their morning cup of coffee or are currently drinking it.  Many people drink their coffee without much thought as to how it is produced because most people are very detached from their food sources.  Production of coffee, like any other agricultural product, comes with many different trade-offs depending on the system.  We read two articles in class this week, Shade Coffee: A Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity by Ivette Perfecto et al. and A global meta-analysis of the biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits of coffee and cacao agroforestry by Matthias De Beenhouwer et al. which introduced the trade-offs between traditional shade grown coffee and intensive mono-cropping sun grown coffee.

Looking solely at economic gains for a farmer, a mono-cropping system of coffee is at first pretty enticing due to its initial higher yields per hectare and per unit labor since it allows the farmer to plant coffee trees at higher densities.  But after closer examination, mono-crops of sun grown coffee might not be as profitable in the long run.  Higher inputs are required for sun-grown systems due to fertilizers, herbicides and a higher rate of crop replacement.  Fertilizers are needed due to the lack of introduced organic matter from leaf litter provided by tree cover in shade grown systems which means that there is higher leaching of nitrates and phosphorous into local watersheds.  Likewise herbicides leach into water ways at a greater rate in sun-grown systems due to the increased amounts of weeds that thrive with the increased availability of sunlight.  Coffee trees mature at a greater rate when in direct sunlight which is initially beneficial for the farmer since it decreases the amount of time between planting and profit but eventually it can become more of a drain of profits due to the fact that they also age faster/stop producing much sooner so need to be replaced at a greater rate than shade-grown trees.  All of these activities require greater inputs in labor, as well, since trees often have to be sprayed with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides multiple times throughout the growing season.  Also looking at today’s market for coffee, shade grown coffee is much preferred by consumers and roasters due to its sustainability aspects and many consumers (if they are informed on production) are usually turned off of agricultural products that are grown with high chemical inputs.

In the Intag valley of Ecuador, a focus on traditional shade grown coffee would be ideal in protecting the great biodiversity of the area.  As explored earlier, Intag is a center of diversity of both flora and fauna due to its status as a montane cloud forest.  It is also an important aspect of the hydrological system both as a cloud forest and since it sits on the headwaters of many of the stream networks that irrigate communities at lower elevations.  A mixed system of shade grown coffee grown in an agroforestry setting (grown under the canopy of other production crops such as fruit trees, nitrogen fixing legumes, and timber trees) combined with rustic plantation (canopy of natural trees endemic to the area) would probably be the best system for Intag because it still allows for high yields in both coffee and non-timber forest products for the farmer but it also mimics the natural forest environment and acts as a refuge for biodiversity which is important since the cloud forests is under severe threat due to deforestation and fragmentation.  This would allow for continued agricultural profit from coffee but also benefits the farmer since it diversifies their crop allowing for a back-up in times of low coffee yields.  Not only does this benefit the biodiversity of the area, it also protects the land from the effects of erosion such as mudslide as often seen in mono-cropping systems, as well as, the soil health by allowing greater inputs of organic matter and reducing nutrient leaching due to run-off since the tree canopy slows down the introduction of water into the system due to precipitation events.  Also the greater protection of biodiversity also contributes to the local economy due to eco-tourism which would be attracted to the healthy cloud forest, so it is a win-win for both the environment and the local economy.

Initial incentive of monetary stipends/compensation from the government/agricultural extension services for farmers moving towards shade grown coffee systems might be necessary in order for the farmer to have the money to invest in seed for the canopy cover.  A monetary stipend might also be necessary so that the farmer can invest in the system but still have enough money to support their family through the period between planting and initial harvest profit which can be several years since coffee trees take a few years to mature and start producing fruit.  Past the initial investment, shade grown coffee systems come with enough local incentives from long term benefits that most farmers would surely be enticed to move to the more sustainable system.  This is especially true for Intag since a lot of people in the region are actually very well informed on local environmental issues.  Long term benefits of shade grown coffee agroforesty systems include a healthy ecosystem, increased biodiversity, decreased inputs of fertilizer/insecticides/ herbicides/fungicides, increased soil health, decreased soil erosion/danger of mudslides, and the economic benefits of growing multiple crops.

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.

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