The Ecoan project
The Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (Ecoan) was founded in 2000 in Cusco, Peru, to support the sustainable use of Andean ecosystems in Peru. The founders, local biologists from Cusco, had been working with the biodiversity associated with high-altitude woodlands since 1990. Recognising the need for effective conservation and sustainable use in the High Andes, they began a dialogue with institutions that might support these objectives. Early on, contacts were made with organisations that supported the idea of a scientific approach to biodiversity conservation, but acknowledged the wider social and economic issues. This was particularly effective with institutions concerned with bird conservation, because a number of vulnerable bird species rely directly on the conservation and sustainable use of their habitat: fragmented high-altitude woodlands of Polylepis (queuña) trees.
In partnership with American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Ecoan is now working to protect existing Polylepis forests, restore new woodlands, and conserve threatened bird species. Trees of the Polylepis genus grow at some of the highest altitudes in the world and are among the most threatened Neotropical vegetation types. Estimations by Jon Fjeldså and Michael Kessler (1996) are that Polylepis now covers around 10% of the potential cover in Bolivia and a mere 2–3% in Peru. Many rare, endemic, and threatened species are associated with remnant Polylepis woodlands.
These high-altitude zones (3500–4300 m) are inhabited by subsistence farmers with long traditions of living in these areas. They need Polylepis wood to keep warm at high altitudes, to cook their food, and to provide light. Polylepis is also ideal for making charcoal, and for construction, fencing, and tools. Therefore, Polylepis woodlands contribute to the immediate needs of local communities and are an important component of the local economy. But some forms of land use are destroying Polylepis woodlands. How much is known about Polylepis forests today? How can conservation of this vital ecosystem be promoted without excluding use of the resource?
Biodiversity research and land use management are the key elements of Ecoan's approach. Based on solid research and the involvement of communities, Ecoan has achieved increased awareness and stewardship. The Ecoan project includes villages and woodlands in the Cordilleras Vilcanota, Vilcabamba, and Apurimac (Figure 1). This region was identified by Fjeldså and Kessler (1996) as one of the three “top priority” areas for Polylepis conservation, and it contains six “vulnerable” Polylepis species according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (2003): P. incana, P. microphylla, P. pauta, P. pepei, P. racemosa, and P. subsericans.
Current status and biodiversity of Polylepis woodlands
Altogether, 15 species of Polylepis are classed as “vulnerable,” and it is likely that many associated plants depend on the characteristic microclimate that the woodlands provide. Among the bird species that depend on Polylepis, seven are classed as endangered, five as vulnerable, and nine as near-threatened. Polylepis woodlands also provide good habitat for large emblematic mammals such as spectacled bears and pumas, as well as many poorly-studied small mammals. The status of other animal groups, such as invertebrates, is unknown.
The densely-packed, small leaves of Polylepis trees harvest occult precipitation from the frequent mists of the mountains (Troll 1959; Fjeldså 2002), providing an additional supply of water in rainless periods. The woodlands, with associated mosses, also regulate the flow of water and so reduce peak-flow and drought problems for local communities. The trees add organic matter to the soil and provide protection against erosion, stabilising the soil with its roots, and protecting the soil from heavy rainfall with its canopy.
According to several recent studies, wild potatoes, ulluco, and oca grow inside Polylepis woodlands, providing a genetic resource for improving cultivated varieties in the future (Fjeldså and Kessler 1996; Hijmans and Spooner 2001). Several plants from Polylepis woodlands have medicinal or tonic uses (e.g., Hensen 1991).
Controversy still remains as to the natural extent of Polylepis forest. Pollen records from Junín, Peru, suggest that the major destruction of the forest took place about 10,000 years ago, but it is still not clear whether this loss was mostly a consequence of climate changes or human activity (Hansen et al 1994). Polylepis woodlands are still being lost today, though in some areas forests are conserved (Byers 2000). A variety of land use practices has led to increased fragmentation and isolation of Polylepis woodlands, and the deterioration of habitat quality within the remnant patches.
Ecoan's assessment of biodiversity and land use management
Patches of Polylepis are difficult to identify using current air photographs and satellite images. Therefore, exhaustive field reconnaissance was necessary and identified a total of 41 woodlands in the project area. A preliminary biodiversity inventory was made for each of these woodlands, along with basic cultural and social assessments of the neighbouring communities.
Detailed counts were also made for three threatened bird species that depend directly on Polylepis woodlands: Cinclodes aricomae, Anairetes alpinus, and Leptasthenura xenothorax. They revealed that numbers are very low, making these species extremely vulnerable to further habitat destruction. Given the limited information about most animals and plants in Polylepis woodlands, it is difficult to determine whether other species are similarly threatened.
Local people have little option but to collect Polylepis wood and alternatives must be provided if the loss of woodland is to be halted and reversed. A combination of long-term initiatives and temporary measures to buy time has been employed to save Polylepis woodlands in the region.
Agreements with local people lie at the heart of Ecoan's philosophy. Potential agreements are discussed, in Quechua, during traditional communal gatherings known as rimanacuy. Management agreements pay particular attention to the three most important causes of deforestation: burning of surrounding grasslands, grazing within the woodlands, and the cutting of wood. These agreements are policed by the communities themselves and, in return, there are a number of indirect benefits, supported by donor agencies, to improve quality of life.
Traditional clay stoves (conchas), which increase fuelwood efficiency, were reintroduced to highland communities and have halved the amount of wood needed, reducing the pressure to cut Polylepis. Several highland communities are working towards obtaining their own land titles: in 2004, Abra Malaga was the first community to realize this objective. Abandoned stone buildings have been converted into greenhouses to diversify agriculture and improve diet. Small supplies of medicines have also been donated to remote villages, and simple toys are given to the children of these communities, once a year, in return for good environmental behaviour when looking after livestock (eg no grassland fires, keeping animals out of the woodlands).
Ecoan also provides trees for planting: 60,000 trees of Polylepis racemosa have been planted to join up fragments of existing woodland, and more than 70% were still alive 2–4 years after planting. 36,000 transplants of Eucalyptus globulus have also been donated to provide fast-growing timber in community forests to buy time where wood is in extremely short supply and temporary measures are required while new Polylepis trees grow. A small-scale planting trial with native Buddleja has also taken place to provide fuelwood. In other places, where Polylepis woodlands are the only source of wood, eucalyptus wood from lower altitudes is provided for fuel.
The future of Polylepis woodlands in southern Peru
The people of these isolated mountain areas cannot survive without wood and their only source is Polylepis. A simple ban on its use would either be met with disdain or, if enforced, would result in the emigration of people from their ancestral lands. The only practical way forward is an integrated approach that recognises the needs of local communities. Ecoan has tried to combine a conservation message with the provision of genuine benefits to highland people. The destruction of Polylepis has been slowed in the project areas, but occasional problems continue. The communities themselves impose their own penalties for breaking the rules of the agreements, but independent monitoring is also needed. It provides feedback on how well the agreements are working, and permits data to be collected on the success of the various aspects of the project (biodiversity surveys, tree mortality and growth rates, etc).
In Inca times, Polylepis woodlands were strictly protected (Fjeldså 2002) and highland people in the project area practised large-scale agroforestry with Alnus (Chepstow-Lusty et al 1998). Buddleja was also used extensively (Gade 1999). At the same time, the Inca provided additional support for these people in the form of redistribution of wood and food (Gade 1999). Ecoan is reintroducing this approach in the Andes, combining woodland conservation with agroforestry and the provision of indirect support, in order to conserve biodiversity, ecosystem services, and highland culture.
A long-term aim is to encourage highland communities to establish voluntary community reserves, with sustainable management plans. Despite the threatened status of Polylepis woodlands, it is sometimes difficult to persuade some donor agencies to abandon their short-term perspectives and consider more effective strategies that might take decades to produce results. Nevertheless, some progress has been made and Ecoan will continue to work with local communities to conserve biodiversity in the extreme conditions of the Peruvian highlands.