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Willem Lange: Ecuador Shows Promise and Challenge of Embracing Ecotourism

Minfo Cloud Forest, Ecuador

I crossed the Equator yesterday in a pickup truck, heading north, and wouldn’t have noticed, if Brian, who was driving, hadn’t pointed out the monument beside the highway north of Quito. I briefly regretted not checking the rotation of the water running down the drain back at the hotel, but returned to anticipation of the adventure ahead.

An adventure is what it turned out to be. Brian, an expat from the state of Washington, has apparently been studying the Ecuadorean driving style, which involves going as fast as possible on any given part of every road. Never mind that a serious curve, with minimal guard rails, a long drop and a blind inside corner is approaching, marked by a sign reading, “Reduzca la velocidad – ¡Ahora!” (Reduce speed — Now!); he attacks the remaining straightaway as if it were a mile long, brakes hard at the entrance to the curve and carves around it like Bobby Orr. It helped to reflect that he knows the road well. I maintained as casual a posture as possible, even turning my head now and then to take in the unfamiliar scenery, which was magnificent.

We climbed out of Quito through dry country and crossed a height of land at Calacali, which Brian mentioned is a prehistioric Quechua fort now buried by a gas station and convenience store. After passing a toll booth, we rocketed downward around the curves high above the deep valley of the infant Rio Blanco. This apparently had been till fairly recently a mule path through the mountains, and then a rough dirt road for trucks. With the increasing need for a good highway between the Pacific coast ports of Ecuador and the capital, Quito, this great two-lane highway was built through the mountain pass. On the map, it resembles a fish worm hit with an electric shock; on the ground, it had me wishing for a Ferrari, or at least James Bond’s DB5.

That was yesterday. This afternoon, the New Hampshire Public TV film crew is out with a bird guide filming as many exotic species as they can find — toucans, manakins (which you’ve got to watch to believe), yellow-rumped tanagers, golden-rumped euphoniae — nothing like what we get at our bird feeders at home. I’m sitting on a rustic veranda, open on three sides, with a hummingbird feeder on each. There are about 16 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador, several of which obviously feel very much at home here. You could sit from twilight to twilight, all day, and listen to their wingbeats all around you. Occasionally one flies across the veranda, either past my face or my legs, threading its way at supervisual speed through the chair legs and patterned railing lattice. Very calming. So far I’ve identified the Sylph (very long, spearlike tail), the Jacobin white-necked (spectacular white tail, like a Spanish lady’s fan), and the sword-billed, the only bird whose bill is longer than its body, allowing it to sip nectar from large flowers that hang straight down. The hummingbirds here go through about a gallon of sugar water every day. Luis, the caretaker, washes and fills the feeders each morning, while his avian audience watches impatiently from the nearby trees.

Over my left shoulder, if I stay alert, I can spot a mother toucan bringing food to her kids, whom I can hear squeaking and crawking inside the woodpecker hole that’s their home. Steve, the videographer, was earlier able to film her with an ingenious camera gismo that recorded the four seconds previous to his leaping up and hitting the “Record” button whenever he saw her coming.

Increasingly, the countries of Latin America (where Dan Quayle famously lamented he didn’t speak Latin) are switching from finite resource extraction — like mining and logging — to a growing source of renewable income: tourist dollars. Costa Rica, deservedly or not, has gotten a reputation as the “greenest” Central American nation, and many expatriates have flocked there for retirement. When this morning I asked an expat from Kansas why he chose Ecuador over Costa Rica, he said, “Too many gringos there.” Countries seeking popularity with gringos are letting unproductive farm land grow up to forests and designating them preserves for birds and wildlife.

This one where I’m sitting, the Mindo Cloud Forest Preserve, is in what appears to be a mature forest, but only seven years ago it was open fields. It’s not like planting a sugarbush in New England that your descendants will tap someday; things grow really fast here.

One challenge is persuading local farmers and loggers to switch from subsistence dairy farming and logging to preserving land for ecotourism, building guest houses or lodges for birders and nature-lovers, and becoming bird guides, which usually means learning English, at least. This is just as difficult as it sounds. But the Mindo Foundation is trying to do just that, and has had some success. We’re here this week not only to film tropical birds, but to watch locals and a few foreign exchange students get ready for the traditional Christmas bird count.

Begun by Frank Chapman of the Audubon Society in response to a perceived depletion in populations of North American birds, the first count in 1900 included a band of birders in Keene, N.H. It’s been a tradition ever since. It records fluctuations in populations, and helps to raise the awareness of non-birders. It can also stir the competitive juices. The tiny village of Mindo was, a couple of years ago, the world champion in numbers of species counted in one day. If you’ve seen the movie The Big Year, you’ve watched Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black trying to beat each other in species counted in a year. Meanwhile, here in Ecuador more privately owned hectares each year are dedicated to ecotourism, and some contiguous small reserves are combining to form larger ones. Is it possible that birds, those gentlest and most easily damaged of species, may turn out to be a powerful influence in restoring the environment and giving us a renewed sense of stewardship of our land?

Willem Lange’s column appears here Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.