Education and Empowerment in Ecuador

Lauren Colegrove

Mar 13, 2017


Rainforest Trust’s partner works with Ecuadorian youth to develop sustainable livelihood options through research opportunities directly linked to conservation.

  • Tesoro Escondido Reserve's field team. Photo by Jordan Karubian.

The new Tesoro Escondido Reserve, which was established in the Chocó ecoregion of Ecuador by Cambugán Foundation with the support of Rainforest Trust (in addition to Dr. Mika Peck of the University of Sussex and Scott Rasmussen Trust), provides a vital stronghold for one of the most threatened primates in the world: the Critically Endangered Brown-headed Spider Monkey. This reserve is also home to 44 percent of mammal species recorded in Ecuador (including Jaguars), threatened birds such as the Endangered Great Green Macaw and the Baudo Guan, as well as multiple Endangered amphibians.

Within this biodiversity hotspot lies a research hub that provides opportunities for scientists and volunteers to work with local communities to monitor and record species residing in the reserve. Experience over the years with the Tesoro community has shown that involving local families in land protection and the research process positively affects attitudes toward the forests and visiting scientists, creating a sense of empowerment that ultimately leads to a common decision to conserve the environment.

As part of this initiative, Cambugán Foundation with the support of Dr. Peck has implemented a parabiologist program where local people are trained and hired to work as research assistants. This scientific training program provides an alternative source of income for young people in Tesoro, developing a sustainable livelihood opportunity that is associated with conservation efforts.

“The concept differs from the traditional ‘park guard’ concept in the fact that parabiologists are involved in the decision-making process of the research, and they are credited in scientific publications and go to symposiums and congresses to speak about the research they are involved in,” said Dr. Citlalli Morelos-Juárez, the Tesoro Escondido Reserve coordinator. “This is a way of empowering them and to make them a real part of the activities that the reserve is carrying out.”

  • Critically Endangered Brown-headed Spider Monkey. Photo by Yadira Giler.

In towns surrounding Tesoro Escondido Reserve, young people are often limited to three main employment options: work for a company that extracts natural resources, convert their land to farm pasture or migrate to a city to increase their chance of finding a more stable source of income.

“The parabiologists in our project have broken that scheme and feel proud of the work they carry out in the reserve,” said Dr. Morelos-Juárez. “They have taken up the initiative of a lot of the activities and have also become ambassadors of the conservation in their own communities.”

This year, Cambugán Foundation has employed three parabiologists, with a special focus on women empowerment. The Foundation says that females have fewer education and employment options than men in the region, and are usually married at a young age. One of their current parabiologists is 19-year-old Yulexy Villigua, who the Foundation says is incredibly motivated and is learning how to utilize a GPS and develop computer skills to assist with research projects. Villigua was involved in a recent primate census conducted by the Foundation in Tesoro Escondido Reserve, and she will assist with an upcoming reforestation project to maintain forest connectivity.

Another female role model associated with the reserve is a woman named Yadira Giler who volunteers as a field manager. Personally invested in Tesoro Escondido Reserve, she saved her own money and bought a camera to photograph species such as the Brown-headed Spider Monkey that she provides for free to the Foundation to use for research and outreach purposes. Giler, along with her husband Patricio Paredes, coordinates research logistics and trainings within the parabiologist program and assists with fostering positive community relations.

  • Cambugán Foundation conducts workshops and environmental education initiatives. Photo by Cambugán Foundation.

“We strongly believe that to do long term conservation in an area there must be a community involvement and empowerment,” said Dr. Peck. “We are very pleased to have this component in the Tesoro Escondido Reserve.”