Tree Microrefugia and Community-based Conservation in Tropandean Mountainscapes: A Bio-Cultural Approach for Heritage Management of “El Collay” Protected Forest in Southeastern Ecuador



  • Neotropical Montology Collaboratory, Department of Geography, University of Georgia


  • 30/10/2018


  • South America


  • Ecuador (Azuay and Morona Santiago Provinces)


  • Geoecological researchers have viewed mountain biodiversity as a response to interactive climate variables (i.e., elevation, temperature, precipitation), while conservation planners have built on this view to develop schemes to satisfy positivist, reductionist frameworks based on indicator species. More recently, montological researchers have incorporated the human dimension to understand how mountain biotas are also determined by ancestral practices of land stewardship. The resulting manufactured landscapes emphasize utility, sacred values, and productivity and are more holistically viewed as socio-ecological systems (SES). We provide examples of this synergy of nature-culture hybridity in the highlands of southeastern Ecuador, in a local assembly of autonomous, decentralized municipalities, comprising the ‘El Collay’ Commonwealth and its protected forest. The political process of empowerment mimicking traditional reciprocal work (ayni), has operated to benefit commonwealth members who joined for the common purpose (minga) of protecting the ‘páramo’ vegetation and mountain forests in the headwaters of the eastern Andean flank. This area has long been seen as the Amazon gateway, ever since the first Europeans explored the Marañón (sea-river) of the South American lowlands. The area, flanked by the Sangay National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the ‘Rio Negro-Sopladora’ National Park and the Podocarpus National Park, in southeastern Ecuador, is a ripe exemplar of community-based conservation oriented to a sustainable future through respect for agrobiodiversity traditions. An interdisciplinary group of scientists and conservation practitioners are experimenting with new approaches of political ecology and critical biogeography, to add the SES component to the development of management strategies for ‘El Collay’. Key strategies include using Payment for Environmental Services and Complex Adaptive Systems methodologies to ensure protection of the existing reserve. Part of the long-term strategy is to extend protection to an adjacent area, thereby creating an ecological corridor for regional conservation of charismatic species, including the Andean bear (Tremarctus ornatus), the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque), the sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) and many other bird species unique to the montane cloud forest ecosystem. By looking at paleoecological data on “romerillos” (Podocarpus oleifolius) and its correlation with the present distribution of “guabisay” (Podocarpus sprucei), we are seeking to synergize understandings of community perceptions and valuations of these species with their capacity to withstand climate change. Areas where both traditional ecological modeling and assessments of future human land-use indicate long-term survival of these flagship species are identified as potential microrefugia in extreme scenarios. The ‘El Collay’ biocultural territorial planning initiative aims to provide a secure cultural and financial basis for future biodiversity conservation. Ensuring the cultural revival of indigenous practices and a comprehensive modeling scenario whereby ethnotourism, ecotourism and agrotourism could secure consistent, communitarian revenue flow to help maintain the larger ‘El Collay’ Protected Forest’s long-term refuge condition in an exemplary Socio-Ecological System of the production mountainscape.


  • Microrefugia, Community-based Conservation, Ayni, Minga, Tropical Andes, El Collay


  • Fausto O. Sarmiento, University of Georgia; Alexandra Vázques, Latin American Future Foundation (FFLA) and El Collay Commonwealth; Gloria Aguilar, Environment Department, Municipality of Gualaceo, El Collay; Rachid Cheddadi, Université de Montpellier; Mark Bush, Florida Institute of Technology; Mario Donoso, Catholic University of Cuenca; Estefanía Palacios, University of Georgia; Inhye Kong, University of Georgia

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


Mountainscapes are excellent laboratories to understand the coupled human-environment dynamics. Habitat heterogeneity and the variety of microclimates along the elevational gradient of the Andean flank showcase plasticity of adaptation to mountain environments (Terborgh 1977, Gentry 1988, Bunkse 1981). Disjunct distributions provide evidence of migrational responses to past and ongoing climate change (Pennington & Dick 2010). Animals and plants adjust their ranges locally or by physiological and genetic variations to respond to new conditions (Cheddadi et al. 2017). Fossil pollen records (Bush, Silman & Urrego 2004, Groot et al. 2011) and modern vegetation surveys (Feeley et al. 2011) provide evidence of the pace of response to climate change on the Andean Amazon flank. Superimposed on this evidence are vegetation responses to anthropogenic change, with modified species composition through grazing and fire (Mosblech, Bush & van Woesik 2011, Borsdorf & Stadel 2015). While we recognize the need to maintain extensive mountain protected areas for the reasons highlighted in the old “single large or several small” (SLOSS) debate of species distribution and heterogeneity (Diamond 1975, Burkey 1989), we argue that the conservation of biodiversity is assured not only by the establishment of single large conservation areas, often connected with ecological or biological corridors, but also by small and very localized Community-Based Conservation (CBC) areas that are kept because of the production of unique ecosystem services or the protection of flagship species as Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs). These small locales are valued by the people who live and work in these tropical Andean Amazonian flanks. The long-term protection of these areas, possibly for reasons only remotely connected to biodiversity conservation per se, is key in maintaining microrefugia for endemism, rare habitat types, and genetic polymorphism. As we see with the study of ‘El Collay’ in Ecuador, these areas often rely on the community buying-in to the ideals of, and sharing from, a well-managed conservation enterprise (Sarmiento et al. 2015) (see Fig. 1 and 2).

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