In a male-dominated field of work, Primatologist Citlalli Morelos-Juarez is leading a conservation project in the Ecuadorian region of the Choco rainforest, one of the last coastal rainforests in the world.
Key to her success has been setting up a parabiologist programme that empowers local women to learn about sustainability for the benefit of their communities and for the forest’s delicate eco-system.
Ecuador’s Hidden Treasure follows Dr. Citlalli and her team as they help protect the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey and the habitat of at least 7000 species of plants and animals, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth.
By Kata Karath
When we think about wildlife conservation, for most people, big names like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds or World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) come to their mind. But the approach of some of these organisations can look more like colonisation than conservation.
Local people are forced out of their homes, portrayed as the enemy, and rarely consulted on how the land can be protected. In the best of cases, locals – especially indigenous people – are involved on a very basic level, like being hired as a cook at a luxury reserve or selling their traditional handcrafts. And in the worst of cases, as a recent BuzzFeed investigation revealed, guards funded by the WWF have tortured and killed people in wildlife parks in Asia and Africa.
So it is no surprise that local people have become wary or even hostile to conservation scientists and NGOs, especially when they are foreigners.
Dr Citlalli Morelos-Juarez’s arrival in the Ecuador’s Choco rainforest in Esmeraldas province broke this traditional conservation model, and perhaps unintentionally another one as well – by putting women into leadership positions.
By spending time with Morelos-Juarez and her parabiologists in the Ecuadorian Choco, one of the last coastal rainforests in the world, I was hoping to learn just how deeply she involves local people, especially women, in her conservation work and how her approach has changed (or not) people’s attitude towards nature and women.
In Ecuador, 95 percent of the entire coastal forest cover has been logged over the last century, giving way to non-sustainable production of banana, cacao and African oil palm, among other crops. But these activities have attracted both foreign and domestic capital and displaced many of the mestizo, Afro-American and indigenous groups living in this region, forcing them to occupy national parks or protected areas like the Ecuadorian Choco.
Some farmers now live up to a day’s walking distance from the nearest community, many leaving their families there while they try to make a modest living in the middle of the jungle. And to complicate matters, farmers of the Esmeraldas province have been affected over the last decade or so by a fast-spreading plague that kills oil palm trees.
All this makes the Tesoro Escondido Reserve truly a hidden treasure. The reserve protects 2,000 hectares of primary rain forest, and since 2018 has also worked as a partner of the Jocotoco Foundation. Together they protect around 15,000 hectares of primary forest in the global biodiversity hotspot, the Choco lowlands.
I was astonished to realise that Morelos-Juarez’s influence goes way beyond the borders of the reserve. Apart from running the reserve, carrying out scientific work and employing local people as parabiologists, she has launched an environmental education programme for local children, explored sustainable forms of agriculture for farmers, kick-started various community gardens to bring back food sovereignty for the people, and she even handles illegal exotic pet cases.
At a time when the Amazon fires have caused horror across the world, when multinational companies are replacing forests with oil wells, and species are dying out at an unprecedented rate, seeing the change she has brought fills me with hope.
Another thing that intrigued me a lot were the women. Across Latin America, including Ecuador, there is still a strong presence of “machismo”. When I first met Morelos-Juarez she told me that “women here don’t go alone to the forest, they don’t even leave their house”. This sentence echoed in my mind throughout the making of the film. The more women we met, the more it seemed that this type of upbringing is cemented into their mindset. “I used to think that as a woman I couldn’t do many things”, as Vanessa told me.
How do they break out of this mould in a region with few opportunities? How do their families react to their quest for independence?
In the beginning, the community, both men and women, could not accept that Morelos-Juarez and later Yadira were the reserve’s bosses. But now they serve as role models for the local girls. After meeting Yadira it became evident to me that empowering women is actually her mission.
Her father treated her and her sisters as his “greatest treasures”, which meant they had to stay at home to help take care of the family. But Yadira never accepted this; she has always resisted her father and others by learning how to use a chainsaw and do other “manly” work so that she is not dependent on anyone, especially men. And through her work, she gives special attention to “opening doors for women” because she believes that women are “the most willing to help” to protect the land and “leave a healthy forest for future generations”.
I had to travel to the other side of the planet to see the wonders of the Choco, but for Morelos-Juarez, it is also a priority that the reserve is shared by everyone, especially the people who live there, because “biodiversity shouldn’t be a luxury”.