Ecuador trip – Summer 1991
By Charlie Butterworth
It was raining heavily as I left the airport and looked for a taxi to transport me and my baggage to the hotel. Quito felt cold after the heat and humidity of Caracas. It was almost five years since I was last in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and it felt quiet and familiar. I knew that, although at this time at night Quito felt deserted, by day it would be a bustle of people and motor vehicles. This was the start of my three month visit to Ecuador and I was looking forward to travelling the country looking at the botanic gardens and nursery projects, and doing a short ethnobotanical study.
Ecuador is the smallest and most northerly of the archetypal Andean countries and lies on the equator with Colombia to the north, Peru to the south and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Andes form a single chain running north-south, bisecting Ecuador, in a similar way as the Pennines do in England. The Andes are, however, much higher and reach 6,000 metres. This has quite an effect on the climate. As one travels eastward from the coast the climate is initially hot and humid, but this gives way to temperate cloud forest which hangs on the steep slopes of the Andes. The central highlands have an average altitude of around 3,000 metres and are the most densely populated areas of the country having a pleasant temperate climate.
It had been my intention to study aspects of the ethnobotany of the Shuar and Colorado Indians of Ecuador and after speaking to staff at the Herbarium of the Catholic University, I realised that three months was too short a period and that recent transport problems made travelling to some of the more remote parts of Ecuador difficult. Instead, it was suggested that seeing as I was intending to spend some time at the Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve in Amazonia, a short study of the medicinal plants used by the Quijos-Quichua Indians would be much more viable.
Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve has only been established for about five years and is directed by Dr. David Neill, a botanist from Missouri Botanic Garden. It is located to the east of the Andes in the upper reaches of the Amazon drainage basin. The forest in this area has mostly been felled, but remnants prove to be extremely rich in both flora and fauna, with 1,400 vascular plant species identified so far, of which 160 species are orchids, and around 350 species of birds. The reserve itself comprises of just over 300 hectares of primary forest and 100 hectares of secondary forest and, lying at 450 metres above sea level, receives 4,100mm of precipitation annually, which is distributed more or less evenly with a slight maxima from April to June and a drier period from November to January.
The area around Jatun Sacha is populated mainly by Quijos-Quichua Indians who live in small, widespread communities, many only reachable by canoe. At a guess, I would say that disease is not quite the problem as it is in many of the hotter areas of Amazonia. However, diseases such as Malaria and Tuberculosis appear to be reasonably common, judging from the amount of plants used to treat these ailments. Modern medicine is available throughout Ecuador, although it is quite costly, and antibiotics are popular along with medicines that are banned by many countries. This being the case, Shamanism is still one of the most widely used methods of medical care in this area.
I had two Shaman informants: Domingo Andi and Sebastian Albarado (Shahuaco). Domingo Andi lives about 4 kms from Jatun Sacha, whereas Sebastian Albarado lives on an island in the river around 8 kms from the reserve. Sebastian only knew the Quichua language and an interpreter was required to translate into Spanish. On my visits to the Shaman I was accompanied by Magdalena Ponce-Martinez, an enthusiastic final year botany student from Quito, whose main interest was the use of Palms by the Indians of the area. One thing that I learned from my visits was the importance of getting out of bed early as, in order to reach the Shaman before they left their house meant getting out of bed well before 6 a.m. and setting off on the hour or so walk to their abodes as promptly as possible, often in the pouring rain!
I managed to identify around 25 species of plant used by the Shaman and I am hopeful that by delving into literature regarding the ethnobotany of Ecuador, I may be able to tentatively name quite a few others. With many of the plants the Shaman used, parts of the plants were available from which to make an identification, but many were just mentioned by their vernacular name and their uses. Amongst the plants used were Laurus gratissima known as Palta Cara which is used as a general health tonic, Myroxylon balsamum locally called Balsamo and is reputed to be good for spots and pimples, Minquartia guianensis known as Huambula, the bark of which is crushed and used alongside tobacco as treatment for Tuberculosis. I was also shown the renowned Aya Huasca, Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana which is used to make an infusion, which when drunk by the Shaman causes hallucinations. In this way the Shaman can communicate with the spirit world. Domingo Andi uses this liana as an ultra scan method for pregnant women. He can examine the unborn baby in the womb and if there are problems can either call in the midwife or send the mother to the local hospital.
The area around Jatun Sacha has been settled for quite a period of time and forest is still being cleared. Deforestation in Ecuador, although not as high as countries such as Brazil, is still at an alarming rate. FA.O./U.N.E.P. estimate rates of deforestation to be around 3,500 ha yr’. Environmental education seems to be one of the major factors involved in creating an awareness of the need to use forests sustainably. I stress the word sustainably as I feel that forest reserves that are not used can only lead to the creation of wildlife islands amidst an ocean of deforestation. It has been shown, by Gentry amongst others, that natural forest ecosystems can be managed and used in such a way that a viable economic return can be made without too much disturbance of the wildlife.
Botanic gardens can playa very important role in education and conservation. In Ecuador there are only two established botanic gardens. The first one that I visited is located near the Pacific coast, a few kilometers from the city of Esmeraldas. The Luis Vargas Botanic Garden is co-ordinated from the university of the same name. The garden itself is quite small, less than 50 ha. The Director, Senor Arevalo, explained to me that there are 50 families represented in the garden with special collections of Palmae, Bignoniaceae, Leguminosae, Musaceae and Apocynaceae. The garden feels to be quite open, which in the hot, humid climate of the area is a bonus, yet at the same time the garden does not feel to be sparse and there are many new plantings. Five gardeners are employed along with five “professionals” and a student from the university.
Probably the most impressive aspect of the garden is the backdrop of 500 ha of primary dry forest. I was taken around the forest by a forester employed by the garden. It was the first time that I had ever set foot inside a tropical forest and I was at a total loss for words. There was such a profusion of growth to the extent that I literally could not see the wood for the trees. Alfred Bone, my guide, obviously felt quite at home in the thick forest and could see many things that I couldn’t. As we walked along he would suddenly brush aside a shrub to point out a herbaceous plant, usually Acanthaceae, although there were quite a few Piperaceae, or he would move a dead leaf to reveal a tarantula, which would scurry off for cover as ” in fear for my life started shinning up the nearest tree.
The forest has a small network of paths around which local schoolchildren are led in a effort to instill a sense of appreciation of the forest ecosystem. There is very little of this type of forest left in the area. Yet, although the forest is a reserve, such a status does not mean that it is safe. Whilst I was being shown around we came across a large stump, probably 3 metres in diameter. The remains of the tree were lying next to the stump and these I’m sure were large enough to provide enough firewood for years. These remnants of a once large forest tree were actually the bits that were considered excess to requirement by the tree poachers!
In the far south of Ecuador, near the border with Peru, is the provincial town of Loja. This town is quite small yet boasts two universities, one of which is the home of the Reinaldo Espinosa Botanic Garden. The day I visited the heavens opened (much like every other day I spent in Loja). The garden has been designed to some extent on the classical style, and has some interesting collections of temperate Ecuadorian flora, including temperate Orchids and Bromelliaceae. The Garden, however does not seem to be tended to the same extent as the garden in Esmeraldas and appeared somewhat bedraggled – maybe If I had seen this garden on a day that was not quite so wet it may have had a totally different atmosphere. One of the main problems with botanic gardens in Ecuador is that funding is a large problem. I am pleased to say that after my meeting with the garden Director, Francisco Vivar, a link has been established between the garden and Botanic Garden Conservation International, based at Kew.
Botanic gardens are of no use in environmental education if “wild” areas no longer exist. in Ecuador there is a system of national parks – the degree to which they prove successful I shall not discuss here. I was fortunate to visit Las Cajas Park, near Cuenca. The park is situated in the Andes and is very popular for walking and other outdoor sports. Access is difficult and as a result the park does not become too busy. There are two buses daily, in the early morning, which return to Cuenca during mid-afternoon. The flora of the area is alpine, the park being at high altitude (3,000 to 4,000 metres) and flowers that I saw included Werneria nubigena in the Compositae, and Halenia weddellana and Gentiana rupicola, both in the family Gentianaceae. Besides the herbaceous alpine flora, there are remnants of Polylepis and Buddleia incana forest. This area is a beautiful part of Ecuador, reminiscent of my favourite part of England, the Lake District.
Ecuador is a country that I would recommend anyone to visit. I have never felt to be in any danger whilst travelling there (commonsense suffices), in fact Ecuador is reputed to be one of the safest Latin American countries in which to travel. I am very grateful to the Kew Guild who assisted with the funding of my trip. I would also like to thank the Explorer’s Club, Merlin Trust, Rob Thompson Memorial Fund and Rochdale Ancient Parish Education Trust.