Skip to main content

Supporting Forest Restoration in the Andes

by The Global Forest Generation Team|13 September, 2021|Blog / Community / 

At Global Forest Generation (GFG), safeguarding water through successful forest ecosystem restoration is central to our work. We’re concerned not only with regenerating healthy forests, but with restoring and protecting their ecosystems (the interconnected, interdependent communities of trees and fungi and plant and animal species and soil and water that exist within the forest environment).

Polylepis Forest Surrounding a Peruvian Andes Lake
Polylepis forest surrounding a lake in the Peruvian Andes. Photo credit: Gregorio Ferro, ECOAN

Forests are well-recognized as a nature-based solution to climate change because of their enormous capacity to trap and store the carbon from fossil fuel emissions in their branches, trunks, leaves, roots, and soil. Equally indispensable – but perhaps not as widely appreciated – is the role of forests in safeguarding the fresh, clean water all living species – including, of course, us humans – can’t live without.

How do trees do this? To briefly summarize a complex process: trees catch precipitation. In addition to returning moisture to the atmosphere from their leaves and branches, trees capture water underground along their networks of roots. This captured water becomes a watershed, an underground area that collects and channels water to rivers and streams. The superpowers of trees include the ability of microbes (fungi) at their root tips to clean water stored by the trees, removing contaminants.

GFG’s flagship ecosystem restoration initiative, Accion Andina, is a growing network of grassroots conservation leaders in South America and their communities (many indigenous) that are highly motivated to regenerate and steward their forests for water security. The inspiration for Acción Andina -- and for GFG -- is Peruvian indigenous conservation leader, Constantino (Tino) Aucca, GFG Co-founder and catalyst for more than two decades of successful community reforestation. It’s his dream to bring back Andean forests with his model of strong local leadership and long-term participation of local communities.

The rural people living in remote areas beneath the rapidly receding glaciers of the Andes mountains understand the consequences of climate change and are using their centuries-old indigenous customs to adapt. The principles of Ayni and Minka (reciprocity and shared communal work) enabled their ancestors to build the Inca empire.

Now these principles are bringing neighboring communities together to protect their lands and livelihoods by growing new native forests that will ensure access to fresh water, preserving their livelihoods and cultures, while providing a refuge for threatened wildlife. Restoring lost forests is approached collectively and collaboratively and as a celebration of life and culture. GFG embraces these universal principles of Ayni and Minka. We are grateful to our generous donor partner, Hairstory – an integral part of the Ayni and Minka spirit of collaboration!


Rumira Sondormayo Community Planting Trees
Community of Rumira Sondormayo planting trees near their village in the Vilcanota Mountains of Peru, February 6, 2020. Photo credit: Constantino Aucca

The native forests that GFG is restoring with our local partners in South America are the most important forests that most people have never heard of – Polylepis. These trees are particularly notable for their tremendous capacity to capture and store water. Polylepis are among the world’s highest altitude forests, growing up to 16,400 feet above sea level. With their many layers of parchment-thin layers of bark, the evergreen Polylepis are well-adapted to survive the extreme climatic conditions of the Andes. Polylepis leaves comb enormous quantities of mist from the clouds, even in the dry season. And while trees, as described earlier, function as water collectors, Polylepis are the super soakers, promoting the growth of spongy, absorbent mosses while transforming degraded, eroded landscapes into healthy, carbon and water rich soils.

Peru Polylepis Forest
Polylepis forest in Abra Malaga, Peru, October 2020. Photo credit: Darwin Miranda

A NEW WATER PROTECTION AREA IN ECUADOR

GFG is strongly committed to collaboration within the Acción Andina network of on-the-ground partners so that restoration projects can grow to their full potential and have a significant impact. A great example of this collaborative effort in Ecuador is the creation and management of a brand new permanent Water Protection Area by two of our Acción Andina partners: FONAG (Fondo para la

Protección del Agua), the water protection fund that provides water for the 2+ million people living in Ecuador’s capital, Quito – and Aves y Conservacion, the conservation nonprofit (also based in Quito) that protects biodiversity, particularly birds and their habitats. In order to create this new protected area, our two partners have engaged Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment as well as the local governments northwest of Quito.

Endangered Black-breasted Puffleg Bird
The Black-breasted Puffleg, a critically endangered hummingbird native to Ecuador, inhabits the Polylepis forests that GFG is restoring and protecting in the Andes. Photo credit: Steve Blain

Hairstory is the first donor supporting Acción Andina’s Mojanda Otavalo Water Protection Area, which will supply clean water to more than 75,000 inhabitants of this rural area northwest of Quito.

The primarily indigenous Kichwa communities in the provinces of Imbabura and Pichincha (north of Quito) currently draw their water from catchments and reservoirs often contaminated by livestock waste. FONAG will upgrade families’ water catchments while training communities to effectively manage their lands and water in exchange for community protection of existing and recovering forests. FONAG will also plant living fences (bushy shrubs that grow closely together) to protect newly reforested areas.

The nearly 100,000 acres of the Water Protection Area encompasses one of the last remnants of old-growth Andean forest in Ecuador’s north-central Sierra mountains. It also includes paramo (grasslands and shrubs on plateaus above the cloud forest) and two lagoons situated on top of an inactive volcano, previously declared a geopark by UNESCO.


Lagunas de Mojande, Imbabura, Ecuador
Lagunas de Mojande, Imbabura, Ecuador, June 8, 2021. Photo credit: Francisco Tobar.

A plan will be developed and implemented to ensure that this standing forest remains standing. Aves y Conservacion will be initiating a biological survey to determine the biodiversity of the area, which is thought to include 49 species of mammals, including charismatic species like the Spectacled Bear and Puma; 93 species of birds, including the Andean Condor; 3000 species of plants; and 5 species of reptiles.

Engaged South American Bears
The only surviving species of bear native to South America, the Spectacled Bear is primarily a herbivore. It inhabits the cloud forests of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Photo credit: Olivier Dangles

This new project will also provide jobs for the local people as do the ongoing restoration projects. Aves y Conservacion trains and pays women to work in its nurseries throughout the year as it takes many months in the high elevations of the Andes to grow seedlings into healthy saplings. Their jobs enable the women to make a meaningful contribution to their families’ financial security.

Women Training to Work in Aves y Conservacion Nurseries
Women training to work in Aves y Conservacion nurseries. Imbabura, Ecuador, June 2, 2021. Photo credit: Juan Carlos Monje

This year, the reforestation goal of Aves y Conservacion is 70,000 Polylepis trees in Imbabura and 120,000 trees in Pichincha (80,000 Polylepis in addition to alders and other native trees). FONAG’s target is 283,000 trees (most of which will be funded by Acción Andina).

All of these actions will result in true ecosystem restoration: local organizations benefiting local people, conserving forests, water and biodiversity, and achieving long-term climate resilience – which is exactly what GFG is working so hard to set in motion and sustain!


Ecuador Forestation Project
Recent tree planting of two species of Polylepis and other native trees south of Quito, Ecuador. Photo credit: FP-Tungurahua

Related Articles