Greener thinking by the former head of a mining company has left an unexpected conservation legacy on the outskirts of Ecuador’s largest city, as Bethan John discovers in Cerro Blanco Protected Forest.
Hopping out of the bus on the main highway to Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil – which has a population larger than that of my home country of Wales, some 3.75 million – I look around and wonder if my Spanish has failed me. Can this really be the site of Cerro Blanco Protected Forest?
I’m looking for a nature reserve of about 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares), equal to approximately 23 square miles. The reserve is home to nine globally threatened bird species, the charismatic howler and capuchin monkeys, and top predator the jaguar.
But I’m just 15 kilometres from the city and surrounded by sprawling housing development. The bus driver insists this is the right place and, not for the first time on my trip around Latin America, I start thinking someone is just having fun with the confused gringo.
Again, I take in my surroundings: beyond the houses tropical dry forest stretches over the hills. Deforestation caused by mining is clear to see… and hear, with the sound of dynamite explosions fill the air. As soon as I spot a bold image of the great green macaw, my doubts disappear. The magnificent bird is the emblem of the reserve.
As I wander the forest trails inside, among towering ceiba trees with their thick trunks shimmering a silvery green, the busy highway and city outskirts are a mirage behind me. Only in the evening, listening to the owls toot, do I notice the urban glow over the tree tops, the dull hum of traffic, and the occasional explosion.
So, how did this haven come to be saved from the destruction that surrounds it?
Greener progressive thinking
When I meet Eric Horstman, Chief Executive of Fundación Pro-Bosque (the non-governmental organisation that manages the reserve), he confesses that he too was more than slightly confused when he first visited the project more than 20 years ago. In fact, he was struck by complete dread.
“I was a Peace Corps volunteer from the US, expecting to be working in remote places and living among local rural people,” he told me. “When they brought me out here, a short ride from Guayaquil airport, my first impression was: ‘My God, this is a big mistake.’”
The initiative to create the protected area came from Carlos Romo-Leroux, then the Chief Executive of La Cemento Nacional (now Holcim). He wished to save the forest surrounding the mining site and to reforest the destroyed area once the mining operation had moved on.
“He was a very enlightened man,” said Eric. “At that time, there was no real inducement to comply with any environmental legislations and he really pushed this forward on his own.”
Despite it being a progressive idea, when Eric arrived at the mine quarry he was apprehensive.
“I had no experience whatsoever in mine rehabilitation,” he explained. “I’d worked for the US forestry service before but not on anything like this. I was extremely worried.”
But as they drove through the quarry and up into the forest, they were soon surrounded by 20 mantled howler monkeys.
“I had never seen monkeys in the wild, period, so I just went gaga. I thought: ‘Right, this has got some potential.’”
Two decades after Eric’s first speculative visit, the reserve harbours a great deal more than just potential: it safeguards one of largest and best conserved pieces of tropical dry forest within Ecuador.
Thanks to Carlos Romo-Leroux’s enlightened support, Eric’s gut feeling and the hard work of his local Ecuadorian team, the forest of Cerro Blanco is now protected, and internationally recognised for its high levels of biodiversity.
In 1998 the forest was declared Ecuador’s second Important Bird Area by BirdLife International and in 2013 the forest was declared Ecuador’s first Area of Importance for the Conservation of Bats – two achievements that more than reflect Pro-Bosque’s great conservation success in Cerro Blanco.