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Local Stewardship of a Natural-Cultural Landscape

The environmental issues that confront the northern Andes of Ecuador are multiple and complex.  To frame the problem as one of "conservation" takes the subtle and rich complexity of the landscape outside of its cultural roots and attempts to impose values that come from a western cultural perspective.  For the amphibian fauna of the region, habitat degradation is a strong concern, but the only way to address it is within the complex set of issues that surround the entire landscape, including both its human (or cultural) and wild (or natural) features.  

(Aficha de los asuntos del paisaje en espaņol)

The cultural background

The Northern Andes of Ecuador have a rich cultural history that extends well back into pre-Colombian times.  The area represents the northern-most extension of the Incan Empire and has always been a traditional cultural cross-roads, reflected to this day in the unique mix of Native American, Black and Mestizo heritage that is encountered in the area.  Farmers in the region are proud of their productive potato and dairy lands which supplies over forty percent of Ecuador's national potato crop (from a region that represents just a few percent of the population).  In the Eastern Cordillera, where the AmphiCensus project works, very little public conservation land has been designated.  The AmphiCensus study sites reflect the typical land tenure in the area and include a combination of strictly private, cultivated farmland as well as semi-public forest and high lands.  Forested lands may be partially timbered and are sometimes under lien for municipal water sources  The high alpine grasslands or paramo may be included within private land titles but is now protected, if not outright expropriated, by the federal government.  .


The natural heritage

Wild species biodiversity in the region is impressive, especially given the high altitude.  Levels of endemism are striking and a consistently uniquely northern Andean flora and fauna breaks into micro-geographically diverse species composition.  The combination of a strong human presence alongside a unique and impressive biodiversity has led to the consistent ranking of the northern Andes among the world's most important conservation "hot spots."  The wealth of amphibian diversity that the AndinoHerps 2000 survey, and subsequent AmphiCensus activites, have uncovered is astonishing given the easy access and long-term human presence in the region.


Agricultural Habitat

The effect of industrialized technologies, such as mechanical traction and agro-chemical use, on human and environmental health form the principle environmental concern in this habitat.  Intensive, cash-cropping of potatoes rotated with pasture for dairy cows is the predominant production mode.  Small to mid-size land holdings (2-20 hectares) with rich loamy soils that are supplemented with intensive fertilizer application are the norm.  Plowing is done mostly by hand, but occasionally with oxen, and, with increasingly frequency, by tractor.  Intensive pesticide use accompanies potato production and humans live on or near their farmland throughout the region.  Potatoes, rye-grass, fava beans and peas are the predominant plants in the environment, but almost all fields have a diverse, several-meter-wide hedge row that contains a mix of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.  Strong and consistent anecdotal evidence for amphibian population decline comes from the absence of Jambato frogs (genus Atelopus) and the extreme rarity of marsupial frogs (genus Gastrotheca) when compared with the previous common prevalence of both in and around fields.

Forest Habitat

A stunningly beautiful classic tropical montane forest or "cloud forest" is encountered on the sloped hills above agricultural lands (see the World Conservation Monitoring Program cloud forest database).  The forest is striking for the size of its trees at high altitude (30 meter trees above 3600 meters), the age of the older trees (500 years or more), and the record-setting biodiversity that has been encountered in any of the groups of plants or animals that have been investigated.  Encino (Weinmania sp.), Yalta (Ocotea sp.), Guandera (Clusia flavifolia) and melastomes dominant the arboreal diversity.  On-going human presence is minimal, but many larger trees have been cut for fire-wood and charcoal, as well as home construction, over the last 50-200 years.  The agricultural frontier is continuously expanding up-slope as new lands are cleared for potato production, which is said to be best on recently cleared forest land.  Almost all of the frog species known in the region are found in forest habitat, although most extend into one of the neighboring habitats as well.   


This uniquely Andean alpine grassland is a cold environment, but without the very harsh winter-time conditions that would be found in the temperate alpine.  Snow is unknown within the study zone.  Moist marshes are interspersed among dryer grassland and the unique, 2-3 meter tall, tree-like Frailejon (Espeletia) is the dominant feature of the paramos in the northern part of the study region. Bunch grasses and carpet plants are the other predominant species, but very little organized botanical study has been conducted.  Soils are moist but, in the absence of rain, dry sufficiently to allow firing.  Humans have a transient presence, generally for transport to and from fishing grounds.  Previous to the last century and, perhaps in pre-Colombian times, the paramo may have been an important trade and agricultural region.  Without a doubt, the largest issue facing the paramo is the role of fire and whether the paramo is, in fact, a naturally pyrogenic environment.  In modern times, the paramo has been fired regularly, in some areas under the belief that firing will bring back a richer grass growth, and in other areas under the belief that firing will bring rain.  The diversity of frogs found in the paramo is nothing short of astonishing given the harshness--due to both cold and firing--of the environment.   

Agricultural Frontier

The agricultural frontier is the well-defined, and constantly moving, boundary between agricultural lands and cloud forest.  Forest is continuously being cut to open new fields, but the rate of forest conversion is unknown.  The predominant issue here is the trade-off between long-term sustainable agricultural production and the apparent need for new farmland.  The loss of forest is full of unknowns:  Will forest re-invade farmland?  What is the role of forest in the health and well-being of the environment and humans in the area?  And, in the case of the amphibian fauna, how and why do frogs cross this very distinct boundary between two extremely different habitats?  In many ways, forest conversion to agricultural land defines and dominates the dynamics of the natural-cultural landscape--this is true from both a local farmer's viewpoint as well as an international conservationist's.  This is where quality information that will lead to solid local stewardship of the landscape and rational land planning is most important.  

"Alpine" Tree Line

The alpine tree line is the boundary between forest and paramo.  The most important issue here is the extent to which human activity determines the location and form of this tree-line.  It may be that comparison with the traditional temperate "timberline" is inadequate and that firing and other human activities, and not the physiological impossibility for tree growth, determine the location of this boundary.  The uncanny straightness, the full growth forest at the boundary (no dwarfing), and the many evidences for firing suggest a strong anthropogenic component in controlling this tree-line.  Again, it is difficult to understand how and why frogs cross this abrupt boundary between two such different environments.