Dispatches from the Field & Project Summaries
April 24, 2009
Santa Lucia Ecolodge & Resort actually has its beginnings in another project we’ve documented, the Maquipucuna Foundation. Former Maquipucuna employee Francisco Molina and local community members were able to save an area of Ecuadorian rainforest and create income for their community through hope and hard work.
High on a mountaintop in the cloud forest sits Santa Lucia Lodge. The trek up there is almost a rite of passage in itself–you ascend 500 meters, but do so over 2,000 meters of fairly steep switchbacks. For guests who can’t make the journey, mules are available to carry them and their luggage.
The facility has one main house that sleeps 20 people and includes the lodge’s kitchen, office, and main dining hall. There are also 5 individual bungalows available for families or those who desire more private quarters. Each bungalow has an entire wall of windows facing a gorgeous vista of misty mountains enshrouded in clouds.
Many of the eco-projects at the resort, like the composting toilets and organic garden, were started by volunteers who stay at Santa Lucia for a small fee. The composting toilets have been a very successful project and in just a few months time, they create compost for the garden and trees. Volunteers are also working on a reforestation program, which currently includes 20 hectares of planted trees. The property itself sits on 700 hectares (80% of which is primary forest and 20% is pasture for cows and coffee plantation).
One source of income for the lodge is ecotourism. The people of Santa Lucia needed to earn income without cutting the forest down, so 12 families pooled their land and funds together to create an eco-lodge. They teach the local kids that ecotourism can be sustainable and earn income without a flashy hotel and big swimming pool; that an eco-lodge can fit in with the surroundings and still be beautiful.
The lodge also promotes community development. It provides jobs for locals to manage the lodge, cook meals, lead tourists on hikes, and bird-watch. Local farmers realized the terrain was degrading and wanted to protect the land, so they banded together and found ecotourism to be the best way to keep their land and still make money. The food prepared at Santa Lucia is a blend of local food (popcorn on your soup, anyone?) mixed with international fare. Ecuadoreans who come here for vacation don’t want to eat the same stuff from home, so the lodge creates a blend of new and old dishes.
The lodge itself is run mostly by a few solar panels. On evenings when the batteries run low, guests are given candles and flashlights to get around.
Conservation is very important at this lodge. School children from the area are taken up to the lodge and shown all of its eco-friendly features. They recognize the need to keep this place in good working order because if it does not succeed, members of the co-op will be forced to find other means of work. This would more than likely mean a return to previous jobs in logging or agriculture. Ecotourism isn’t just a way for people near Santa Lucia to protect their land–it’s how they sustain their community.
April 23, 2009
Maquipucuna is a great example of a lodge aiming for the triple bottom line and hitting it out of the ballpark. Maquipucuna’s story is based on luck and a big desire to do something to protect the rainforest. Originally, the goal for Rebeca Justicia and her husband was to purchase 100 hectares of land. Then they found smaller, 80 hectare plots for sale as part of a larger unit. The couple decided to raise $25,000 to purchase the entire 2,500 hectares up for sale. It was a tremendous amount of hard work and luck, but they managed to meet all of the right people in the nick of time and come up with the money.
Next the couple had to figure out what to do with their huge swath of rainforest. While the two were looking for grant money, one of their friends from grad school heard about their project and contacted Rebeca about doing research in the area. She knew it was a potential hot spot for species, but since little to no research had been done in the area, she really had no idea what she was in for.
When the friend arrived at Maquipucuna, Rebeca told her to get accommodations because they would be there in a few months with researchers to begin studying the area. The friend needed help, knowledge, resources, and experience to construct the buildings, but the community members were hesitant. They were concerned about this newbie coming into their area to buy up all of their land and were convinced that a local timber company would give them better jobs. However, slowly but surely, Justicia won local trust and hired community members for various jobs. In this way, Justicia found ways to support the community while protecting the rainforest.
Several of the community members had been working in ecotourism at Maquipucuna for years. One of the guides used to work in agriculture, sugar cane, and cattle farming, all of which are industries that destroy the rainforest. In this role, he felt guilty and didn’t make much money to support his family on. He now leads people around the forest daily and has gained pride in his work. He gets to be closer to his family rather than traveling all the time. He has also noticed that local attitudes towards the natural environment are changing for the better. He hopes ecotourism continues to grow because it offers people a chance to stay in and build their community rather than leave it for other locations to make money.
The lodge was built entirely out of local materials, mainly bamboo since it’s very strong and grows quickly. Guides, cooks, and a variety of other skilled workers were needed, so more community members were hired. The researchers treated all of the locals with respect and even included them in research, which went a long way in building solid relationships. After researchers proved that there were valuable resources near Maquipucuna, they carried out an environmental assessment to quantify threats to the area.
In their assessment, researchers discovered that the neighboring community of Yunguilla was stable, but residents were cutting the forest for charcoal. The Maquipucuna Foundation began to throw out a wide net of ideas for how to help the community. One important mission of the lodge from day one was to put guests in touch with the rainforest, but also provide for and build up the local community. The Maquipucuna staff thought about building a restaurant for all of the tourists, but there was not enough interest. They decided to build their own eco-lodge and allow community members to sell their wares to the lodge and its guests, erasing the need to cut the forest to sell charcoal.
Now Justicia has her sights set on bigger targets. The community of Esmerelda in the north, for example, is under heavy attack by timber companies who continue to buy thousands of hectares of virgin forests. This is the only place in the Pacific corridor that connects land running from the mangroves up to the snowcapped mountains. Researchers are just now beginning to understand the connection and influence between plants in the mangroves and those in the mountains. All of this logging means there is almost no connection left. Researchers proposed planting shade-grown coffee throughout this corridor to create some sort of connection between the lands. There is a group working in the area that has managed to secure 44,000 hectares and is developing a sustainability plan for the area. They are also producing cacao in this region–some of the best in the world.
Like many of the projects we visited, the key to success for Maquipucuna was (and still is) to put a dollar value on the forest. Reforestation alone is not profitable; few organizations will pay communities to plant trees. Maquipucuna is aware of this and looks to projects like shade-grown coffee and carbon credit sales to generate income. By mapping the biomass in the area, Maquipucuna can use this information as a baseline for generating carbon credits for continued preservation. Research also helps to put this place on the map and make politicians wary of just handing the rainforest over to timber and agriculture. Studies done in the area have shown that there are over 1,900 plant species in this area (17,000 in all of Ecuador) and ¼ of all bird species in Ecuador live here as well (370+). Working locally, activities like restoring orchids poached from the forest and creating organic gardens to feed guests and the community help to build partnerships between community members and the lodge.
Eco-research has also shown that pastureland needs intervention and reforestation because it can’t return to its previous jungle status without some help. One option is to restore the land to pastures of bamboo because its hearty, fast-growing nature is profitable enough to pay locals for carbon sequestration. Maquipucuna plans to continue working with communities to develop means of income: ecotourism, ecolodges, handicrafts, etc. By working together with the community, Maquipucuna not only strengthens its own venture, but also makes the entire rainforest strong, sustainable, and valuable to future generations.
April 22, 2009
The horns were honking early this morning in Quito and it was time for the guys to pack their bags and head off. We made the hand off with Christian Roche joining the team and me saying adios for now. Best of luck guys and see you back in the states!
April 21, 2009
We didn’t have much time left (and the light was quickly fading thanks to all of the clouds) so we scrambled to get shots and organize our last few interviews this morning. While everyone was running around, I took the chance to sit down with Rebeca Justicia, President, Owner and Founder of the Maquipucuna Lodge and Foundation. What a fascinating person!! Looking at all that she has accomplished over the last 20 years, and learning that it was just from the desire to do something to help her home country – buy 100 hectares and preserve them – and now seeing that she is shooting for 5 million hectares, as well as helping families in communities all over central and northern Ecuador, is just inspiring.
The rain didn’t let up or make our job any easier this morning or afternoon. We packed up, ate a quick lunch, took a few final shots and then stopped at a few spots on the road out of Maquipucuna to finish covering the last few details of Maquipucuna Lodge. We got to see their very large, well-maintained, organic garden, as well as their shade grown coffee. One of the farmers was on hand to explain what exactly shade grown coffee is – the coffee is grown right up next to banana trees and this helps improve the quality of the beans – the shade allows all the beans to ripen uniformly, thus improving the chances of getting a better (larger) crop. Talking with the farmers though, this winter was much longer and wetter than normal, so while we saw red (ripe) beans on the tree we also saw just as many green beans and even a bunch of flowers for beans that had yet to even sprout. The mishmash of ripening times makes for a weaker crop and less income this year.
After this trip through the gardens, we hopped back in the car for a twisty, misty, twilight ride down the mountain back to Quito. We stopped at several spots to take more pictures of the clouds and forest, and then took time to catch up on a little shut-eye. At some point we saw signs for “Mitad del Mundo.” I wasn’t sure exactly where we were geographically, but asked if we were anywhere near the equator. As we had a Spot and another GPS unit, we found out that we were indeed 8 seconds away. Around a few more corners and we saw a huge monument to that giant belt around the earth. We took a quick peek as we flew by and headed to the hotel. Getting in after dark, we took time to wash some clothes, grab a bite to eat and all it an end to another day.
April 20, 2009
The morning started out with an early hike to an area waterfall and scenic spot looking out over the cloud forest and surrounding mountains. The rain held off, and we even got a tiny bit of sun while we took pictures of the mist swirling around the treetops on the mountains. Then we hiked back to Maquipucuna and packed our bags for a much more serious hike to Santa Lucia Lodge.
One of the former employees of Maquipucuna, Francisco Molina, took his experience and opened a fellow eco-lodge at the top of a nearby mountain. We wanted to see the place for ourselves, but in order to get there we had to hike 2 hours (500m up, but actually 2km across when counting all of the switchbacks) up a rocky, mountain path. There were mules available if we needed help with our gear (or to physically help get us up the mountain), but each of us toughed it out. We got to the Santa Lucia Lodge and didn’t have much time to shoot before the clouds rolled in again; apparently they don’t call it a cloud forest for nothing. The lodge itself has a large structure built to accommodate 20 guests, as well as 5 individual bungalows for guests (or families) that need a little more privacy. The views from both the main guesthouse and the individual bungalows are just amazing. Rob remarked that the top, with its circular center (all of the bedroom doors open into the middle), would be a perfect space for a wedding, with all of the wedding party joined together. Being this high up in the mountains, the view is spectacular and you can see for miles, with views of all the surrounding mountains, as well as all of the wildlife, particularly birds that inhabit this area. The individual bungalows are very modern in accommodations (including warm and cold water), but the best part is the wall of windows in each bungalow. The buildings are spaced far enough apart that you don’t feel like you are peeking in on your neighbor, and every bed faces the back wall, which is one large window, making for quite the morning view. Several of the bungalows also have a patio deck where you can enjoy your morning coffee and tea in privacy.
The owners of Santa Lucia wanted to make an eco-tourism destination that promotes sustainability for the local community, but at the same time make a lodge that is itself sustainable and promotes these principles. Therefore, there are plenty of green features incorporated into the Santa Lucia Lodge. The main lodge has a composting toilet system and within 2-3 months, “mulch” is made and ready to be spread around the gardens and trees on the property. Each of the individual bungalows comes complete with a grey/black water system. The entire compound is powered by solar power with a battery backup system (and candles at night). They also have a thriving organic garden on the property, which helps to supplement many of the meals – not a bad idea for a property as remote as this one to produce its own food on-site. We were treated to lunch and it was delicious. The lunch included two big bowls of popcorn, and we thought, “Well that’s different, but okay we’ll go with it.” Turns out, it’s common to put popcorn in soup, particularly the creamy soups. So we jumped right in and it was not bad – the salt from the popcorn adds a little extra flavor to the soup, though the popcorn gets soggy quickly and is indistinguishable from the other vegetables.
After lunch, we sat down and interviewed Francisco Molina, owner of Santa Lucia, and talked about the mission of Santa Lucia and how this coop of 12 families is making a sustainable living from eco-tourism. The rain didn’t hold off for long and we were quickly rushed back inside to wait it out and get packed to leave for our steep hike down the hill (that had now become a slip and slide ride). Once ready, we basically slid down the mountain in silence for the next hour and a half, completely drenched and trying not to wipe out too bad on the side of the mountain.
Back at Maquipucuna, we showered, warmed up and enjoyed another great meal of pasta made from scratch by one of the volunteers, and a banana bread cake for dessert. We took the evening time to interview a volunteer and Cristina Polit Moro, Co-Manager of the lodge and Manager of Volunteer Programs. Each evening at Maquipucuna is really special because it is as if all of the moths in a 50-mile radius descend on the lodge. It sounds like an infestation, but it’s really pretty magical. The moths don’t bother guests, but just cling to the walls and you get an up close view of a living museum, with a great range in colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. In addition, there was a mantis that also lived in the area and would spend the evenings “grabbing” moths to try and eat them. That guy was pretty feisty and would even come after our fingers or shoes if we gave him the challenge.
April 19, 2009
Today everyone woke up feeling much better, still weak, but able to function. We took pictures of the bugs “stuck” to the white blanket and interviewed the herpetologists about what they are finding out here and why this place is unique. Afterwards, we took shots of the property and the orchid nursery. Rebeca told us that natural orchids are constantly being poached from the area and then sold to connoisseurs in Quito. So, as one solution, the staff at Maquipucuna is hoping to establish an orchid nursery to help repopulate the jungle with more orchids, sell orchids to locals so they won’t have to poach the natural ones (also creating jobs for people in the community growing orchids by establishing a market for them), and is working on getting certified to allow guests to the lodge to take “baby” orchids in-vitro home with them as a unique keepsake and memory from their time in Ecuador at the Maquipucuna Lodge.
We got a few more interviews in before lunch and then regrouped and planned for the rest of the afternoon. Rain seems to be a bit of a challenge during this trip and started up shortly after lunch. Chad and Kristin retired again to rest up, while Alex and Rob drove into the local town to find out more about what the Maquipucuna Foundation is doing in the area. That evening, the staff treated us to some salsa dancing lessons and local beverages.
April 18, 2009
Arrived in Quito around 4am and took a bumpy two hour ride up to the Maquipucuna Lodge and Reserve. The sun was just coming up as we arrived, and we quickly jumped into our bunkbeds and tried to get a few hours sleep. Around 9:30am, we regrouped. Two members of the team were down for the count and pretty much out of commission for the rest of the day. Alex and Rob were left to interview a few staff members, get shots of the area, and basically pick up all of the slack for the other half of us (THANK YOU!!).
Despite rainy conditions (they seem to follow us throughout this trip), Alex and Rob ventured out with a couple of herpetologists also staying at the lodge to watch them set up traps. They have several bug traps but also a giant, white sheet strung across two poles with a light behind it to tempt insects. Even around the campsite, the walls were quickly filled with moths and other insects of all sizes. We got some really good footage of a mantis that apparently eats moths stalking a about 50 moths that attached themselves to one wall. Though he seemed awkwardly built for his job, he was rather fast and could get right up to the moths and then grab them with both front legs, almost in a hug; it was fascinating.
April 17, 2009
Travel from Puerto Maldonado to Lima to Quito. Hung out in Lima for a few hours, walked around, shopped in a local market and then got sick on dinner. Threw up in the airport and said goodbye to Lima.