A multimedia tour of Ecuador's highlands
"I want other people to see this too — this beauty, this nature, this space. We founded our organization because we realize that to keep people coming, we have to keep the nature unspoiled."
By Cara Goodman and Diego Ochoa
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Awash in tall, amber grasses and bathed in the clear, white light of the alpine sun, the Ecuadorean páramos (high Andean grasslands) and the staggering volcanoes that puncture them look much the same today as they have for thousands of years.
And Jorge Perez, director of Nature Conservancy partner Fundación Páramo, intends to keep them that way.
At 19,347 feet, Cotopaxi is currently the world’s highest active volcano. By promoting adrenaline-fueled ecotourism activities such as ziplining, horseback riding, climbing and mountain biking on sustainably run ranches, Jorge Perez and other landowners are determined to support conservation in the area and protect highland cloud forests, páramos and wetlands in the Andes.
“I think, ‘Wow, I grew up here!’ I want the grandsons of my grandsons to see what I’ve seen,” exclaims Perez. “It’s one of my motivations for protecting it. I want other people to see this too — this beauty, this nature, this space.”
Ecotourism Protects Nature and Benefits People
Cotopaxi and the montane forests and grasslands that surround its base are protected by Cotopaxi National Park and Fundación Páramo — a local organization of private landowners whose properties are located in the buffer zone and help insulate the park from encroaching threats like deforestation, overgrazing, illegal poaching and pollution.
“We founded our organization because we realize that to keep people coming, we have to keep the nature unspoiled,” says Perez. “Ecotourism is one of the ways we’re conserving this place.”
“The Conservancy is a big believer in innovative conservation solutions,” explains Veronica Arias, the Conservancy’s policy representative in Ecuador. “Our work isn’t about protecting nature from people and putting it off limits.”
“Fundación Páramo has a similar vision,” she continues. “Together, we’re working to make nature meaningful to people so that it’s in their own interest to protect it.”
Since 2002, the Conservancy and Fundación Páramo have worked together to conserve Ecuador’s highlands in a variety of surprising ways:
- Illegal poachers were violating the protected area and the private lands buffering it by fishing with bombs and hunting protected species. Although such activities are permitted in the area, they must be done sustainably, and in ways that have a minimal impact on the fragile environment. With Conservancy support, Fundación Páramo equipped local traditional ranchers — called chagras — with cameras to catch the poachers in the act and discourage them from coming back.
- The private landowners of Fundación Páramo have hired chagras for their knowledge of and connection with the land. These chagras have received training in conservation, the impacts of global warming, ecotourism guiding and land and water management. Riding the páramos on horseback, they act as park rangers on the private lands that stand as a buffer zone for Cotopaxi National Park.
- The Conservancy and Fundación Páramo are helping the ministries of tourism and environment to design, build and equip a new visitors’ center in Cotopaxi National Park. With more than 100,000 visitors a year, Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second-most-visited national park, after the Galápagos. Construction has already begun and is expected to be finished in 2009.
- The Conservancy and Fundación Páramo are working with the ministries of tourism and environment to build new trails in Cotopaxi National Park, including a 1.2-mile loop around the dark and mysterious Limpiopungo Lagoon, home to species of birds like the Andean Condor and the Andean Ibis. New trail signs are also being put up all over the park, which will help visitors stay on track and reduce the impacts of human presence on the ancient páramo.
"It's Important They See Where Their Money Is Going"
Perez’s tourism adventure activities on the private lands in the park’s buffer zone give thrill-seeking tourists a great ride — and a lasting impression of some of Ecuador’s most striking wilderness. But equally important to Perez are his tourists’ visits to neighboring Cotopaxi National Park.
“The tourists pay money to visit the park,” says Perez, “so it’s significant that they learn about its importance and feel they’ve had a rewarding and enriching experience. It’s important they see where their money is going. It makes them want to come back, not just to Cotopaxi, but to national parks all around the world.”
Innovative ecotourism activities with partners like Fundación Páramo and Tierra del Volcán in places like Cotopaxi National Park are being supported by the US Agency for International Development and the Global Sustainable Tourism Alliance.