The last leg of the bus ride from Terminal La Ofelia, in the north of Quito, to the village of Chontal, located in Ecuador’s northern highlands in the Intag Valley, is winding dirt road that takes you through small, cloud forest villages, sometimes overlooking precipitous drops to little silver ribbons of river far below. In spite of the many bus trips I’ve taken in Ecuador, I’ve never gotten used to this dizzying view. My version of the law of diminishing returns always gnaws at me: the additional factor of production (more bus rides on winding mountain roads) may well result in smaller increases in output (additional years lived). It is better to look away and not dwell on such things.
Seeing some of my fellow passengers making the sign of the cross at the beginning of a journey can be disconcerting, but I admit at times making it myself, mentally. In foxholes and Ecuadorian buses there are no disbelievers. When you make it to your destination (to be fair, overwhelmingly the case—Ecuador has an extensive, efficiently-functioning bus system) you are grateful for another breath of God’s fresh air and, often, a glimpse of earthly paradise, which is what I experienced at the Los Cedros Reserve, near the village of Chontal.
La Reserva Biológica Los Cedros is a remote, pristine wilderness of roughly 4,800 hectares situated at one of the few southern access points to the Chocó, an extended stretch of rainforest on the western slope of the Andes that runs to the Darién Gap in Panama. Los Cedros (the cedars) is mostly primary growth bosque nublado (cloud forest), and is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet.
Though declared a Bosque Protector (protected forest) since 1994, there has been a vigorous effort, starting with the populist government of Rafael Correa, and continued by the current neoliberal regime headed by Lenin Moreno, to open the doors to industrial scale metal mining projects in Los Cedros, expanding on the policy of “inclusive agenda of development” initiated during the Correa administration. Despite the regulations prohibiting these mining activities in Bosque Protectores, the Moreno government takes the position that these rules no longer apply, citing the economic windfall that will supposedly result from extraction, benefiting all, companies and campesinos alike, and, as always, accompanied by the soothing refrain that the latest mining technologies will minimize environmental damage to virtually zero—the fiction of Immaculate Extraction.
Given the economic poverty of the majority in Ecuador, especially in rural areas, the inducements for ordinary Ecuadorians to work in these industries are powerful. Oil and mining companies and government officials make promises of improvements to infrastructure and educational and health services to go along with steady employment. It has usually been the case that these promises are wildly inflated, especially in the Amazon region. “Improvements” are rudimentary and poorly funded and, frequently, after some initial fanfare and hope, abandoned. I have seen some of these projects in the Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon region. It is a depressing spectacle, with the worst of all possible outcomes, environmental ruin and cultural deracination. Thousands of miles away, shareholders and CEOs in the corporate boardrooms of giant mining and oil companies count their profits.
Ecuador’s politicians and oligarchs are also pleased, of course, with the few shekels they obtain by selling their country’s invaluable natural heritage, its precious environment, to the highest bidder. At least Correa could point to the structural and social improvements he made in the country as a result of his extractive policies. Moreno can make no such claims. He has carved his country’s pound of flesh and handed it on a platter to the IMF, with its demands of structural adjustments and austerities, and has supinely offered international mining companies carte blanche to have their way with the few environmental treasures remaining in Ecuador, the country with the worst record of environmental destruction in South America.
How Los Cedros came to exist as a nature reserve is an interesting story and if you go there, which I strongly suggest, you might get its manager, José DeCoux, to tell you about it. José has been a fighter his whole life, his latest and most important struggle the legal battle to protect Los Cedros from the depredations of mining companies. These companies are indefatigable in their push to explore the reserve for copper and gold, assisted by Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Mines, and the national mining company, ENAMI (Empresa Nacional Minera del Ecuador), created in 2010 by former president Correa. The costs in defending Los Cedros, financial and emotional, have been severe.
A recent decision in a provincial court has upheld Los Cedros’ protected status (Bosque Protector), but the government, acting through the aforementioned ministries, has appealed the decision to Ecuador’s Constitutional Court. Joining José in the fight to save Los Cedros are CEDENMA, a national environmental organization, CEDHU, a national human rights organization, and OMASNE, northwest Ecuador’s mining oversight committee. The outcome is uncertain. Incentives for financial interests are powerful. Mining industry analysts estimate the potential earnings to be around $7.9 billion in 2021. BMI Research indicates Ecuador as a mining investment “hot spot” with its relaxed regulatory framework and whole-hearted embrace of neoliberal economic policies by the Moreno government. As we have seen with the Chevron debacle in the Amazon, money usually wins. The fate of Los Cedros, and the few remaining places like it in the country, hangs in the balance.
My first day at Los Cedros, Martín Obando, my able and affable guide, asked if I wanted to visit a waterfall or hike to a spot that offered an opportunity to see some monkeys. I chose monkeys. There are three species at Los Cedros, howler monkey, capuchin, and the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey. After an hour on the trail, we heard, behind us, from the forest, a deep animal roar. I looked at Martín, who said, “Puma.” He was joking. There are cats at Los Cedros, but this was the roar of howlers, not far away. We doubled back, walking quietly on the muddy trail. After a few minutes we came to the spot. About fifty yards from the trail was a troupe of seven howler monkeys, including two babies, up in the trees, eating fruit and cavorting, fully aware of our presence, the males occasionally roaring, as males will do. They stayed for half an hour and moved off.
I spent a week at Los Cedros and saw no monkeys after that, though I heard their distinctive sounds every day. I also saw four species of hummingbirds (there are more), including the stunning Andean emerald hummingbird, toucans, both the plate-billed mountain toucan, and Choco, Andean pygmy owls, beautifully-colored thrushes, parrots, parakeets, the crazy-looking great curassow (Crax rubra), but never, alas, the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus), which is out there somewhere. Martín’s well-trained eye always spotted birds way before I did, and he was quick to supply the local, and, generally, the scientific name. Martín is a brilliant fellow. Insects abound, many brilliantly colored, and some, startling large. I saw three different types of millipedes, all about six inches long. There are five species of cats and the Andean (spectacled) bear. There are snakes (some venomous, but rarely seen), spiders, and a marvelous contingent of frogs, croaking and clicking away through the night. But most extraordinary of all is the prolific, staggering array of plant life. One literally cannot comprehend the immensity and complexity of what one is seeing, of what surrounds you, a great, variegated sanctuary of epiphytes, orchids, trees, flowers, and plants almost suffocatingly entwined in a continual cycle of growth, decay, and competition. I kept reminding myself that what enveloped me was not a dream, that it was real, but I sometimes had trouble believing it. We walked in the clouds. It rained. There were waterfalls and streams. There was silence. Writing this, it seems even more dreamlike. Did I really experience the cloud forest? Does it exist? Will it exist? Will we?
We are at a critical moment in history when the accelerating destruction of the natural world, caused by human expansion and increased competition for resources and profit, is threatening the viability of life on this planet. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson, in his book Half-Earth, advocates setting aside existing, specified areas, such as the Amazon River Basin, the grassland of the Serengeti, and others, totaling half of the planet, as nature reserves for the preservation of the bio-diversity we need in order to exist as a healthy and spiritually sane species. What José DeCoux and his allies are doing to preserve Los Cedros, therefore, is nothing less than fighting a critical battle in the war to preserve a livable environment. The battle for Los Cedros is of the utmost importance. If you can’t visit, make a contribution, become an ally, join the fight.