Rebeca Justicia, Director of Maquipucuna Foundation. Image via: Green Living Project
Traveling with Green Living Project, I visited the Maquipucuna Lodge and Reserve, another woman-owned eco-resort, this time in the Ecuadorian Amazon. You're probably thinking — 'I've never heard about the Ecuadorian Amazon. I thought that was just in Brazil. Must not be much there.' (Or maybe you're just thinking 'What are all of these women doing running resorts in the middle of the Amazon?) In fact, the opposite is true — because no reasearch had been done in the area, no one really knew what to find or how vast the flora & fauna population might be. Being in the right place at the right time doesn't even begin to cover this story. If you are lucky enough to get an audience with Justicia, you'll not only find out that she is part superwoman and part miracle worker, but that her story is also inspiring because she makes you feel that anyone with a dream and the desire to do good "can accomplish more than the mind can comprehend, if it is in their stars."
Hummingbirds at Maquipucuna Lodge. Image via: Green Living Project
Today the reserve allows her to provide income and employment for over 100 people in the community, but it didn't start out nearly so idealistic or easy. When she and Rodrigo, her husband, finally got the land, they had just 5 months to put together a working research station for the team of scientists that wanted to learn more about the area. This site provided a great opportunity for researchers to make a name for themselves in an area that previously had little to no data. The only problem was they had a run-down building and no staff, and the surrounding community was hostile to the idea of strangers coming in and buying up land. But Justicia needed help and the community needed work, so the two were able to work out a deal.
Waterfall on Waterfall Trail at Maquipucuna Lodge. Image via: Green Living Project
The more things took off, the more help she needed and the more she was able to take care of and provide opportunities for the community, including employment and education for new trades. The scientists treated community members with respect and included them in many of the research projects, which made a huge difference to improve community relations. Many of the workers are former loggers and hunters, who now can show their children that they can make a living in ecotourism and that it is a respectable profession to aspire to. Having a steady, good income also means that parents can give their children opportunities by affording schools that were previously out of reach.
Justicia has a PhD in Conservation Biology from UCDavis, but didn't go into this project with the idea of building an eco-lodge. That came later. The buildings were all building with local, sustainable material — bamboo — which makes for strong structures but also means not depleting the rainforest because bamboo grows so rapidly. Maquipucuna also has an organic farm, which provides a lot of the food served at the lodge. In addition, she has a shade-grown coffee plantation that provides work for farmers harvesting both the coffee and the bananas that shade the coffee.
Farmer explaining how shade-grown coffee works. Image via: Green
To be honest, the lodge grows and expands because every time there is a need, Justicia and the Maquipucuna Foundation works to fill it. For example, one problem she faces is the harvest and trade of rare orchids out of the rainforest that are then sold to collectors in Quito. So, what does Justicia do? She develops an orchid farm, by which she can grow orchids to be replanted in the forest, to be sold to collectors and also to be given to visitors as a "keepsake."
Orchid in Maquipucuna Orchid Farm. Image via: Green Living Project
How Saving One Hectare Turned Into Protecting an Entire Country
Begun with the original intent of simply preserving 80 hectares, owner Rebeca Justicia now has visions and plans in place to save over 5 million hectares across northern Ecuador. It's hard to be an island when you're in the Amazon and see other communities in need. She has already helped several communities start their own eco-lodges or determine industries that will support the community as well as meet a need for guests and tourists.
When a community along the northern coast needed help to stop timber interests from obliterating the area, Justicia came up with several programs and options for the community. It was discovered that this is the only corridor that connects Ecuadorian mangroves with the Andes and is also a travel corridor for animals. So they are growing shade-grown coffee and cacao in order to help provide a more intact corridor. Since reforestation itself has no profit, she is looking at other methods to keep the rainforest intact but also create a monetary value to keeping it intact.
Why is this Area of the Ecuadorian Amazon Special?
Like many of the places we visited, research into the area helps "prove" that a place has value and this area is no different. According to Justicia, "research puts this area on the map." Maquipucuna has 1,900 species of plants out of the 17,000 in Ecuador and one-fourth of all bird species in Ecuador are also located in this area. The hummingbirds in particular love this site and you can see more than a dozen varieties while you eat breakfast each morning.
Researchers studying moths in the middle of the night. Image via: Green Living Project
Another subject of study at this site is the moth and it's no wonder because each night, the moths come out in literally every shape, size, color and variety you can imagine. They cover the walls and the floors of the lodge itself, not so much that you feel like you could be eaten, but just that you feel like you are in the middle of a living museum exhibit. We were also treated to the circle of life as what looked like a praying mantis would also come in every night and do battle with the moths. While we were there, several researchers were on site to study the local moth population and in the middle of the night, we tromped out in the pouring rain to where they had a white sheet setup with a lamp directed on it to attract moths and watched them take measurements and data on the moths they found.
Tourists and travelers who visit this site will be treated not only to a beautiful locale, but also the chance to see an extensive amount of Amazonian wildlife. Visitors can go on several different jungle hikes and are treated to exceptional meals that combine a fusion of local and foreign flavors, aided with fresh fruits and vegetables from the organic garden on site. "When I look back and remember the dream of protecting 100 hectares, and see what it has become," remarked Justicia, "it makes me proud, because conservation has become a livelihood for many people. This place has kept me busy and made me proud; it gives meaning to our lives."
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