La Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul, Ecuador
The Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve is an ecological park on the northern coast, which represents some of the last old-growth rainforest in the region — only 5% of the original habitat remains, in what was one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.* In theory protected by the government, the reserve is being rapidly deforested by illegal logging with the complicity of local authorities.
Non-indigenous villages were established in forests across Ecuador following agrarian reform in the 1960’s and 70’s, which encouraged the landless poor to colonize “vacant” wilderness and develop agriculture. After the government recognized the need to protect biodiversity, it declared these communities illegal and refused to provide social services to their inhabitants, who by then had lived in the forest for a generation or more.
The lack of services, intergenerational poverty and remoteness of forest communities forces people to clearcut old growth trees to survive, continuing the process of environmental degradation.
This image is a partial double exposure of Kodak Tri-X 400 film.
*Jefferson Mecham, “Causes and consequences of deforestation in Ecuador,” 2001
A farmer from Mono Bravo (“Wild Monkey”), a remote village inside the reserve, walks among his cacao trees. Cacao pods are traditionally harvested with hand tools like machetes and long poles tipped with sharpened hooks, which are used to cut the stems of fruit growing on high branches.
Cacao en baba (cacao in pulp). Cacao is an important export crop grown by farmers who live inside the Mache-Chindul reserve. Farmers are often victimized by middlemen in larger towns outside of the reserve, who pay as little as possible for the raw beans and then sell them to processing facilities at a profit.
Conservation groups believe cacao, which is traditionally shade-grown, can bring higher incomes to the region while preserving the forest canopy. But to do that, local farmers need their own processing facilities and relationships with chocolate exporters instead of the local middlemen who exploit their labor.
A chain from a chainsaw. Residents of the Mache-Chindul reserve are easily recruited to clearcut old growth forests on their land by middlemen working for large timber interests because the returns on their cacao crops are pitifully small.
Timber merchants offer cash advances so the farmers can rent mules, pay a crew and buy fuel for their chainsaws to harvest trees, but the profits from logging are usually just enough to cover the upfront costs, leaving the farmers perpetually beholden to the merchants who hire them to destroy their own forests.
Cesar Castillo Estupiñan (center) speaks with community members of Guayacán, a farming community deep in the Mache-Chindul reserve. Castillo, who comes from another village in the reserve, was hired as a community liaison by Forest For A Living, a pilot conservation program. It was designed to give cacao farmers greater returns on their crop by building local processing facilities and direct relationships with exporters. The hope was that better livelihoods would remove the need for clearcut logging.
A young farmer from Mono Bravo visits the center of the village.
Esmeraldas Province, where Mache-Chindul is located, is the historical homeland of the Afro-Ecuadorian community. The first African residents of the region escaped from a slave ship that wrecked off the coast here in 1553 and mixed with the indigenous population. By the end of the sixteenth century, they had established villages of zambos, or those who were descended from mixed African and indigenous heritage. These autonomous communities continued to attract escaped slaves, until slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century. Their combination of indigenous and African cultures can be seen in Ecuadorian literature, like the poetry of Nelson Estupiñán Bass, and the regional music called marimba.
A woman from Mono Bravo comforts her sick child. Clinics are rare inside the reserve, since the government does not provide services to its residents, and it can take hours to reach a town large enough to have a health center.
Junior, from Mono Bravo, perches on the windowsill of his family’s house. Education in coastal Ecuador is not free and many families can’t afford to send their children to school. In addition to the cost of enrollment, most schools are far from the rural communities of the reserve and children who attend them often have to live with relatives in faraway towns and cities.
The view from a hilltop farm in Guayacán. The reserve includes a low, but steep, coastal mountain range that serves as an important watershed in the region. Widespread deforestation in the Esmeraldas province has destabilized the local environment, leading to flooding and desertification as the trees that hold the soil in place on steep hillsides are removed.
A woman from Guayacán rests on her family’s porch. In rural Ecuadorian villages, women normally work on the farms nearly as much as men do, while also raising children and cooking. Some women also help with logging and hauling timber out of the reserve, which involves several days of backbreaking work and camping in the forest.
Project staff of Forest For A Living travel up a riverbed to Guayacán. There are few roads inside the reserve, so rivers serve as the main access to remote villages. Community members buy or rent horses to carry goods in and out when they can afford to, because the terrain is too rough for motor vehicles. The remoteness of forest communities also makes it difficult for farmers to get produce to buyers outside the reserve.
Dr. Amy Rogers, director of Forest For A Living. The pilot project was not adequately funded andafter it closed, the villages it worked with were contracted by Original Beans, a conservation-oriented Swiss chocolate company.
During the wet season, canoes are a common way to get between rural villages and the larger towns outside the reserve. Local residents often navigate the shallow river with poles like this, but some canoe owners operate their boats as water taxis, using off board motors to move people and goods in and out of Mache-Chindul. During the dry season the river is too low to navigate, so people must walk or travel on horseback.
Rubber boots are the footwear of choice in coastal Ecuador, since tropical rainstorms create deep mud and paved roads don’t reach most of the smaller villages. Officially, the government does not recognize the villages within the reserve, so these communities don’t receive municipal resources like electricity or transportation without paying for them directly.
Men sit near their motorcycles in a town on the edge of the reserve, waiting for customers. Motorcycles serve as taxis in the larger villages, carrying passengers back and forth from the main road. Pickup truck drivers entering the reserve often rent space for rides, too, charging around one dollar per person.
Coconut shells spill down the river bank from a house to the water, where the family’s canoes are tied up. While individual farms are often located deep inside the forest, most villages in the reserve are centered on the river. Homes like this are located on the banks to make it easier for residents to travel outside the reserve and ship their produce to market towns on the main road along the coast.
Farmers gather palm fronds to thatch a roof in Palma Real, a village located in the Mache-Chindul reserve.
Photo shot on Fuji Superia color film.
Palma Real is miles from the main road, but people make the difficult trip every day to sell produce from the village in towns outside the reserve, and products from outside to the village's residents. These fish were harvested downriver and brought to the village by the children of the fishery's owner. They rode in a truck for some of the distance, but when the road became impassible they had to hand-carry the heavy buckets.
Local children take a well-deserved break from the ceaseless work of farming in a jungle. In villages inside the reserve, children often work the family farm along with their parents. Although the village is small and only made up of a few families, it boasts its own school, which can be seen in the background.
Most of the crops in Palma Real's plots are shade-grown, mixing among the bamboo and other species normally found in the forest. Cacao is the main export, but oranges, grapefruit, mango and papaya are also crucial to the village economy.
Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Located on Ecuador's central coast, Puerto Lopez is close to productive fishing grounds, which have always been the backbone of the local economy.
Shark fishing is illegal in Ecuador, but a certain amount of by-catch is allowed. This is because net fishing, the preferred method among local fishermen, is by nature imprecise. Because of the high international demand for shark fin soup, the law is widely flouted.
Equilibrio Azul, a nonprofit which studies marine environmental health, has begun tracking the numbers and ages of sharks that are sold in Puerto Lopez to document the effects of the trade. Internationally, shark finning has been found to massively reduce breeding populations.
Beacon Light SDA Church, Richmond
A parishioner of Beacon Light SDA Church in Richmond, Ca. follows the day's lesson. Beacon Light has been part of the community for generations and its congregation has weathered many storms, including the refinery fire of August 6, 2012, when a meeting of elders had to shelter in place at the church.
One of the church elders takes delight in leading a prayer for the congregation. Despite Richmond's reputation for high crime and poor environmental health, it is also a community with deep roots and an important role in the history of the Bay Area.
Although Richmond has traditionally been a largely African American community, in recent years Latino residents, many of them immigrants, have come to represent more than a quarter of the population. Beacon Light hosts services in Spanish as well as English and the church has members from France, Trinidad, Latin America and all over the US.