Rewarding experiences

Rewarding experiences

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I was in Ecuador for a total of 43 weeks between July 2010 and April 2011 during which time I was volunteering for the Jatun Sacha Foundation eight hours a day, five days a week. Due to the fact that I was a long term volunteer I was able to move between each of the stations with one month off to travel the country.

The first reserve I volunteered at was the Foundation’s first and second largest. It is located at the southern margin of the Upper Napo River.

The station protects over 2,200 hectares of primary and secondary forest. There are usually around 10 – 15 volunteers at any one time. As well as students from around the world, there are scientists, bird watchers, university groups and occasionally Ecuadorian government officials.

The first project I was involved in was to create a new organic garden in the reserve’s Amazon Plants Conservation Centre (the APCC). This new garden would serve two roles, firstly it would provide sustainable organic food to the station and secondly it would serve as a working example to local communities currently struggling to harvest enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle. Many children in the region suffer from malnutrition due to their diet of fruits from the forest and rice.

The first task was to make a clearing in an area of secondary growth forest. Machetes were used to clear all the trees and then spades and hoes were used to dig up all the remaining roots. Roughly two acres of cleared land was turned into an area of raised beds and open area to grow Yuka trees. Seedlings, some of collected from the forest such as pineapple, watermelon and yucca and some brought in such as spinach and beans were then planted. Compost had to be brought in from compost sites around the reserve. Wood (grown for use on the reserves) was cut down and used to create an outer fence to protect the beds from animals. The garden then had to be maintained by the volunteers by controlling the weeds, mending the fences and replenishing compost. It was very rewarding when the garden started producing good results. We then began experimenting with other fruits and vegetables to see how successful they were.

After this we moved on to a new project in the nearby small community of Chichicarumi which supported a community of around 500 people. Most of the men work the land collecting fruits, fishing and hunting. Some own small herds of cattle in cleared pasture land and some travel to the nearby city of Tena for work. We set up a new scheme where once a week we would go to the community and teach an environmental awareness class at the school. Afterwards we helped construct a new organic garden in the heart of the community. The community were very enthusiastic about this and keen to help, especially the children.

The next project involved collecting bamboo to plant shoots which could then be sold to a nearby farm to act as a wind break. This involved long hikes through the forest looking for bamboo trees. We then had to chop them down and transport them long distances back to the forest nursery at the APCC. In total over 1500 bamboo shoots were planted and then sold. The money raised went towards purchasing new chickens for the station to provide eggs and meat.

Another ongoing, large project was to re-roof all the station buildings in the traditional. This involved collecting palm leaves called paja toquilla, a very useful plant that is used for many things in South America such as making hats, roofs and baskets, the process involved crossing the leaves over one another in order to thatch the roof. The plants recover from this very quickly and the new roofs will last for at least 3 years and are completely waterproof. The collecting of the leaves took a total of one week and the re-roofing a further two weeks.

Whilst the reroofing was being completed we were also involved in other, smaller projects. The banana and cacao plantations had to be constantly maintained. Seed collection involving long hikes around the reserve was done each week as well as the consistent monitoring of flora and fauna species. The other main objective was to patrol the reserves to deter illegal loggers and hunters.

Previous volunteers had been involved in creating a new cabin at the furthest edge of the reserve where it is under the most threat from logging and hunting and I spent a week there doing regular patrols of the northern edge of the reserve as well as making and maintaining a new organic garden for the men who lived out there working for the Foundation to protect the reserve.

We created trails through the forest and improved and cleared existing trails making steps at steep sections to make it more accessible to visitors and scientists. We went on regular night walks in the forest to monitor amphibious life on the reserve, recording snake, lizard and frog sightings. For two weeks an American scientist was there to study the butterfly species on the reserve and we helped him collect data. His survey recorded many different species in a very small area and helped enhance the station’s ecological importance.
The Amazon Plant Conservation Centre also has a live collection of useful plants of the Amazon basin including many medicinal plants. It is extremely important that these plants are still grown, as many of them are becoming very rare. Volunteers help maintain this collection and new plants are added when found. Volunteers also teach visitors and local school children the uses and importance of the plants found here. Here I learnt a lot about the local plants and their uses.

Other ongoing projects that I was involved in at this station included precipitation and temperature data collection, general maintenance and improvement of the sites and teaching English once a week at the local schools.

The next station I visited was Bilsa biological station. This is the biggest reserve with over 3,000 hectares of primary forest. It is a remote location situated on the coastal hills in northwest Ecuador. Due to its remote location it is one of the least popular stations attracting only 3 – 5 volunteers at any one time despite having the highest counts of flora and fauna species of all the reserves and many rare plants and animals can be observed daily.

At this station there is a permanent team of scientists who are currently monitoring flora and fauna species on the reserve. Volunteers often help them with this research. When I was there I helped with the monitoring of the Umbrella bird. This involved long walks to suspected mating sites of the bird and collection of data. If rare and endangered species are found in a reserve it immediately improves the status of the reserve as a sanctuary for important wildlife and it can attract more funds.

The other main project at Bilsa is reforestation and this involved the collection and planting of seeds of several native trees in nurseries situated around the reserve. Once they became seedlings they were then transported and planted on the edge of the reserve on previously deforested areas. In order to make sure each new area of forest looked as natural as possible much research was done to establish where each tree should be planted.

We also went on long walks around the reserve to observe changes, this sometimes involved staying overnight in remote communities at the far edge of the reserve. The station has set up schemes with these communities and we helped them to build organic gardens, and taught them about the ecological importance of the forest. Volunteers also participated in general maintenance and improvement of forest trails which included clearing fallen trees and branches with machetes and constructing steps in steep areas to improve accessibility. Also regular clearing of the orchid garden and the banana plantation was needed.

The next station I visited was Guandera which is also in a very remote location. The station sits high in the Andes in the north of Ecuador, the reserve ranges from 3000 to 4000m above sea level. It consists of a large forest area which naturally turns into the paramo grassland at a higher altitude, covering a total of 100 hectares. Due to the altitude, cold and lack of electricity and other basic amenities it is also one of the hardest stations to live and work on. There are usually only 2-4 volunteers here at any one time.

Due to the fact that the land around the station is very steep and unstable, the trails around the forest needed to be constantly cleared of landslides and fallen trees. Every Wednesday we hiked down the valley to the nearest village where we maintained an organic garden that had been created by previous volunteers, here we also taught English to the local children. The food harvested from this garden was given to the local families in the community.

The Foundation also set up a new income generating scheme, collecting orchids from each reserve and selling them. Many of the reserves have hundreds of orchids that can be sold at up to $200 per plant.

We also went on many hikes around the reserve recording flora and fauna species for the stations inventory including hikes up to the highest peak at over 4000m to record the activities of the rare spectacled bear. I was also given the role of collecting temperature, precipitation and wind data so the station can monitor any key climatic changes.

Together with the volunteer warden at the station we made plans as to how to create and promote eco-tourism in the area, which has hundreds of beautiful waterfalls and views from the paramo stretching over huge parts of the Ecuadorian Andes and into Columbia.

The last station I volunteered at was on the northwest coast of Ecuador on a shrimp farm. The reserve consisted of a fully organic working shrimp farm, a large area of mangrove forest and a large forest of secondary growth recovered form farmland by the foundation.

The area of forest behind the station is also very productive, it has a large bamboo, cacao and banana plantation as well as an area of forest fruits, all of which are regularly harvested and brought back to the station by the volunteers for food and also as an income.

The first project I was involved in was collecting bamboo from the forest and transporting it to the local village where we made play equipment such as swings and monkey bars at the local school.

Volunteers spend a lot of time litter picking on the beaches and in the mangroves. They take the litter back to the station where it is taken away and recycled. This recycling system was put in place by the Foundation and is supported by the local communities who often come to help.

Volunteers also help with local schemes planting new areas of mangrove forest, as well as helping at local organic shrimp farms. Once a fortnight we worked at a local Cacao drying factory which produced organic farmed cacao beans. Other work included the general maintenance of the station, teaching English to the local children, building a new community centre in the village and picking fruits and vegetables from the forest.

As I write this I was reminded of so many other projects and activities we did such as building an important river crossing bridge for the local community,laying foundations for a new church and making signs containing information of important Amazonian plants for visitors. I also helped out with the domestic side of living in the stations, making dinner (rice and beans!), washing up and socialising with the locals and other volunteers, in many different languages and the very basic equipment made leading the groups quite a challenge.