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Volunteering in Ecuador: Preserving the Alto Choco Cloud Forest

By Kate Gustafson

Cloud forest

When I arrived for a month of volunteer work on the Alto Choco cloud forest reserve in Imbabura Province in Northern Ecuador, the volunteer coordinator asked me what I would like to work on. Environmental education, I suggested. "Great, you can be the head of it," she responded.

So after activities and working with other volunteers to get the materials ready, I delivered an invitation in my clumsy Spanish to the teacher at the school in the town of Santa Rosa, just down the road from the gates of the reserve. The program I had designed involved tree-planting, a scavenger hunt, an art project, games, and a snack. Since the reserve is involved with programs to help endangered Andean spectacled bears, the scavenger hunt put the kids on a quest for food, shelter, water, and hiding places that bears might need to survive. The snack was a mix of food the bears liked to eat, and the art project included coloring in cut-outs of bears.

The Alto Choco reserve is located in the Choco bioregion, which the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank calls one of the ten most important biological hotspots in the world. The forest and the species that live there are threatened by slash-and-burn agriculture, livestock farming, and logging. Currently, projects at the reserve involve preserving rare species through the development of a botanical garden, the extension of programs designed to protect Andean bears, and managing the reserve in cooperation with local communities.

I had chosen Alto Choco from among various options for working in Ecuadorian cloud forests because it was the cheapest program. Volunteers have been coming to this threatened patch of cloud forest—which is like a rainforest, only at higher elevation—for only a few years. Because it's still a start-up operation, there is some disorganization and lack of equipment, but its relatively new status allows for a lot of flexibility. Volunteers can even create their own projects, possibly setting up programs that will continue long after they are gone.

The work was varied and abundant. Aside from environmental education, I participated in activities that involved more physical labor: hoeing the botanical garden in the hot sun and cementing cinder block walls for a new office. The office was almost done in the three weeks I stayed.

Fundacion Zoobreviven, which runs the Alto Choco reserve and two others in northern Ecuador, is currently working to broaden its volunteer program. Its recently-created web site includes pictures of the flora and fauna of the reserve and examples of the volunteer activities and facilities.

The cost of volunteering at the reserve, $260 a month, covers room, a prepared daily lunch, and groceries for making other meals. The volunteers prepare breakfast and dinner for themselves in the rudimentary kitchen of "la casa," the quaint, 3-room cabin that they call home. Sleeping on wooden bunk beds, relaxing in woven hammocks on the porch, and bathing in water pumped into a showerhead from a nearby river are refreshing experiences especially so when you are surrounded by the deep green veil of vine-laden, wildlife-abundant cloud forest.

Along with the work, I enjoyed the 2-hour bus ride from Otavalo to the reserve on switch-back mountain roads, seated on top of a bag of lemons strapped to the roof of the bus; afternoon walks in the cloud forest on trails that pass by magnificent, gushing waterfalls; bathing in the icy river near la casa and sunbathing in the yard under the bright, hot sunshine that emerged when the layer of cloud burned off for the day. Living with and getting to know the other volunteers from around the world was a fascinating experience. I still keep in touch, a year and a half later, with friends from France and Luxembourg.

One of the major benefits of volunteering, of course, is the deeper, more meaningful exposure to local people, customs and issues that a work-related commitment makes possible. Along with the beautiful surroundings and the chance to meet new and interesting people, my experience was further enriched by seeing firsthand the challenges that the reserve faces. One afternoon, clambering hand over fist to the top of a steep hillside that had been slashed in preparation for slash-and-burn farming we found a local farmer and his son furiously hacking with machetes at the slender trees and vines, certain that the land belonged to them. Our volunteer coordinator, adamant that the hillside was part of the reserve, convinced them to stop slashing until she could straighten the matter out officially in the records office in Quito. As the sounds of their machetes fell silent, we looked out on a mountainside littered with felled trees and wrecked foliage. For the farmer and his son, clad in threadbare clothing, the hillside was clearly a matter of subsistence. For the reserve, it was a matter much larger but difficult to explain to hungry neighbors.

For more Info

Contact the head of the program for general inquiries or to apply to volunteer. They can arrange for someone to pick you up at the airport in Quito. The porgram can also assist volunteers with lodging arrangements for their first night in Ecuador, as you will most likely arrive in Quito too late to take the 4-hour bus journey to Otavalo. Once in Otavalo, they will arrange to have someone else meet you, another 2-hour bus trip will take you to the reserve. For the best seats in the house, clamber up the ladder to the top of the bus on the first stop outside Otavalo—the views are much better from up there. Once you arrive, you will find the accommodations basic and the showers cold, but the experience to be one in a million.

Contact Information: Fundacion Zoobreviven. Editor's note: this program no longer operates, but others like it do as can be found in the Ecuador volunteering section.

KATE GUSTAFSON was the 2004 Transitions Abroad Student Writing Contest winner. She travels widely for reasons of cultural exchange, volunteerism, and language learning and enjoys writing about her experiences. Until recently she was a fellow at the Institute for Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, where she obtained her M.A. degree in International Relations and Religion. She currently lives in the Washington, DC area.

Related Topics
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Volunteer in South America
Student Participant Reports
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