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The Ecuadorian Chocó: birdlife and chocolate

Actualizado: 8 sept 2021

What will you do first when the COVID-19 quarantine is over? This question appeared on countless articles and social media posts. The answers were varied: go back to the gym, visit my parents, eat at my favorite restaurant, jog at the park, book a trip. In my case, the first thing that I looked for was a “forest bath”.

Basically, forest bathing is spending time outdoors in conscious contemplation
of the forest or under the tree canopy. There is scientific research that shows the benefits that humans get from being surrounded by trees, such as lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety and stress, and better body oxygenation. My shaman was right when he prescribed me “hugging a tree” if I felt under the weather.

In Ecuador, we have identified 82 ecosystems in the mainland—according to the categorization that was published by the Ministry of Environment in 2012—of which more than half are forests with specific characteristics. Evidently, a primary forest (untouched forest) will be more resilient and productive than a secondary forest (intervened forest). Reforestation will never be equivalent to protecting a primary forest. However, the socio-economic reality of the communities demands a management plan that does not only preserve but also uses the resources efficiently. Ecosystem or environmental services are ample—in simple terms, the forests conserve water, purify the air, give us food and provide construction materials. Nowadays, forests are essential as climate regulators by capturing carbon, that is, they mitigate the negative environmental impacts of climate change.

Of course, they are worth conserving for aesthetic and spiritual reasons.

Likewise, nature tourism is very important for Ecuador. One of the fastest growing niches is birdwatching, thanks to the over 1,600 species of birds that we have. Birding is an activity that can easily turn into an addiction, even if you are not an ornithologist. Personally, I was not fond of birds until I found Jocotoco Conservation Foundation, an Ecuadorian NGO that since 1998 has protected threatened species, primarily birds, and that currently has 16 private reserves across the country.

The first Jocotoco reserve that I visited was Yanacocha, only an hour from Quito, behind the Pichincha Volcano. Their hummingbird garden is the highlight, being the sword-billed hummingbird my favorite. Later, I went to Chakana, a reserve next to Antisana Ecological Reserve where, unquestionably, the Andean Condor is the star. Then, I joined a group of birders to travel south to Zamora Chinchipe province and stayed at Tapichalaca reserve.

The main attraction is the jocotoco antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi), an endemic bird of southern Ecuador. Not far from there you find Palanda town, famous for its good coffee, though equally interesting is the archaeological site of the Mayo Chinchipe culture, where they found traces of a variety of cacao that was used since 3,300 B.C. Hence, it is said that the origin of cacao is both Ecuadorian and Amazonian.

The peak of my amateur birding experience happened in January 2020. I traveled to Esmeraldas province to visit Tesoro Escondido reserve, home of the bird queen: the harpy eagle. Its habitat, a remnant tropical forest of the Chocó—an incredibly rich ecosystem—is endangered. The hike to see the eagle was demanding, I felt like an explorer carrying my binoculars and sharpening my vision.

We reached the observation point and not even 15 minutes had passed when my guide said: “There it is, on its tree!” The excitement that I felt when I saw the bird in all its splendour, wild and free, is something that probably only other birders or ornithologists will understand. It stayed perched above me for a long time and I could not take my eyes off it. Despite habitat destruction, there remains some patches of pristine forest where fauna still persists.

On our way back to Quito, I discovered another source of hope: Washu Chocolate. With their slogan “Eat chocolate, save the rainforest” I was immediately mesmerized by their chocolate bar. Their umbrella species is the brown-headed spider monkey, called washu in the cha’palaa language of the Chachi people. The Washu Project, a NGO that leads all conservation efforts, uses the money

from chocolate sales to invest in community development, environmental education, scientific research and rehabilitation programs for the monkeys that were victims of illegal trafficking.

Though saving the Chocó is not as simple as eating chocolate, endorsing this initiative is easy—and delicious!

The Ecuadorian Chocó is part of the Chocó-Darien region that extends from eastern Panama to northwestern Ecuador. It is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and therefore, one of the key conservation sites. In this context, it is remarkable that in July 2018, UNESCO designated the Andean Chocó Biosphere Reserve, an area of 286,000 hectares inside Pichincha province that comprises three municipalities and three Conservation & Sustainable Use Areas (ACUS in Spanish).

The Andean Bear Corridor is contained within the protection zone, as well as several private reserves. As soon as I was able to leave the city in mid-September 2020, I visited ACUS Mashpi, including Pambiliño reserve, where they offer experiential tourism, and Mashpi Amagusa, a haven for serious birders and beginners alike.

We invite you to choose destinations where you can learn while having fun and where you can foster social and environmental awareness, so crucial in these post-pandemic times. Adopt healthy habits, such as forest bathing, birdwatching, and eating dark chocolate. Habits or addictions, it does not matter under this context, because you will be supporting the conservation of a natural gem:
the Ecuadorian Chocó.

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