My study abroad experience with the SIT program in Ecuador “Comparative Ecology and Conservation” is one that I am never going to forget. Ecuador is one of the most diverse places on earth, but sadly enough, it also has the highest rate of deforestation in South America due to agriculture, livestock, growing populations, etc. I am currently in Quito, inhabited by nearly two million people nestled in a valley among four huge volcanoes.
I just returned from a weeklong excursion in el bosque nublado en Intag, the cloud forest. We had an eight-hour bus ride, and an hour walk to the cabins where we stayed. We studied the flora and fauna of the forest during our daily long hikes. We saw a large variety of orchids and learned about a lot of trees and plants with medicinal uses and were able to catch birds in mist nets as well as observe them in their natural habitats. The rivers, waterfalls and mountains of the area were absolutely breathtaking. They were home to so many interesting birds, animals and plants.
The cloud forest is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth but it is also one of the most vulnerable. The settlement of Junín is currently fighting a Mitsubishi Corporation open pit copper mining project. Previous mining projects had destroyed several streambeds, cleared forests, allowed for easier access for loggers and dumped dangerous toxins and raw sewage into the rivers. There is also the concern of the destruction of the natural habitat of the endangered spectacle bear, the cock-of-the-rock, the spider monkey and the ocelot.
These companies violate the rights of the people of Junín who want to protect their land. It has been a long and hard fight for the people of Junín including violent confrontation with paramilitaries of the mine. The mining companies in the past were able to convince the people to agree to the project by giving them gifts and modernizing their town with promises of better education and better living conditions.
The highlight of our excursion was our rural homestead. We stayed with women of an organization that raises money to be able to finance the education of their children and other needs so they do not have to rely on the money from the mining companies. The women sell amazing hand crafted bags and other things made from cabuya, many of which I bought and helped make!
The students that come to visit have donated computers to the school and given money towards transportation so that the kids don’t have to walk. The kids that I stayed with were so smart and happy to go to school every day. It was great to know that I could do something to help save the destruction of habitats and land as well as help the community.