Resentful of the non-response of the authorities, Fernando turned to the Fundación Natura when Roque Sevilla was finishing his term as president. His plea to protect the forest by purchasing the lands filtered down to the Quiteño visionary businessman and conservationist. Roque had the very same dream: to buy land to protect the rich biodiversity in the last stronghold of the great Chocó ecosystem in Ecuador. Some 95 percent of this ecosystem had been destroyed, so the plan was to preserve what had been saved from destruction.
Today, the Mashpi Reserve forms part of one of the great Conservation and Sustainable Use Areas, declared by the Municipality of Quito to protect them. Here, Fernando and the scientific team of Mashpi Lodge have established the existence of pumas, jaguars, hundreds of species of birds, peccaries, ocelots, sloths, anteaters, tapirs, agoutis, squirrels, countless varieties of insects and amphibians.
“The last spectacled bear that I saw some years ago had been killed by a shot, and I also saw two ocelots that had died at the hands of a hunter that we know fled from the zone some years ago. Even though this is a legally protected zone, it is not safe from man and there are some who still do things that hurt the ecosystem – they attack and destroy it. It is still a vulnerable area and it needs permanent control, even though logging has been drastically reduced,” Fernando explains.
In 1999, with the decision of Roque Sevilla to buy land and build the reserve, they started to make their way through the forest, and to spread the message that the objective was to end logging, end agriculture, and to leave the land as forest. That idea did not sound logical to those who had lived there, logging for a living. In 2002, the property was registered as the Mashpi Reserve and in 2004 the Ministry of Environment approved its Management Plan.
However, although the property was legally owned, the land was coveted by invaders, mafias hell-bent on illegal extraction activities. Smugglers raided Mashpi.
“That was very serious. They were dangerous, armed people who deliberately wanted to do damage. They were years of trials, lawyers, courtrooms, even the Environmental Prosecutor was approached by the invaders so that he would rule in their favour and give them the land. But he ruled in favour of the owners of the reserve,” remembers Fernando.
Whoever tried to appropriate the land, with the argument that it was their ancestral land that generations of their families had lived on since time immemorial, would get lost in the forest when they had to go through it in a judicial inspection. Fernando Timpe and José Napa, a resident of the zone since he was a boy and whose home was located in the recently acquired property, had to guide them so that they could find their way out of the impregnable forest.
“Where the hotel is placed today, there was a track that a wood company had made, and a flat area with a shed. We put up our tents there and worked, setting out through the forest and guiding people. The little camp was destroyed once by invaders but as we had the legal documents that proved the ownership of the land, we called the police force to remove these people – there were about 30 of them. Finally, we overcame the threat and the construction of the hotel began in 2006. The reserve’s Management Plan laid out the blue print for a sustainable hotel in a small part of the 1,300-hectare forest. We brought a fair amount of neighbouring communities on board. The order that I received from Roque was to develop the reserve to contribute to the development of the nearby villages.”
Fernando also worked on the design of the cable car that was hoped to one-day cross over two kilometres of the forest.
“The hotel was finally completed five years later, in 2011, after a monumental effort and several million dollars of investment. Not a single tree was cut down in the construction, which was a monumental logistical challenge.”
Today the pressure to log illegally has reduced. The constant drone of the chainsaws is now a thing of the past. The communities and neighbouring towns have a greater consciousness of how the protected forest is also a source of income. More than 80% of people working in Mashpi come from the areas where the message was spread to the communities that tourism and conservation can allow them to make a living.
“Everyone in the area wanted to get involved in the hotel in one way of another. For example, panela plants, the cane harvest, artisan products, local chocolate – these are all also options for tourism in the area. We are building a community dining room that the Future Foundation donated to the Mashpi village, a neighbour of the hotel. They have a pool in the river there that is absolutely marvellous and during national holidays they receive a lot of visitors. They have a little infrastructure and are conscious of the importance of the preserving the ecosystem.”
Fernando considers defending this delicate ecosystem and the life it shelters to be a challenge, but is convinced that its biological richness is a treasure for the country to share with the world.