“I swear, if it wasn’t for this project there wouldn’t be any forest left here. The chainsaws and their roars were part of the landscape.”
Before it was transformed into a protected area and had the Mashpi Reserve as its owner, the area where the Life Centre is located was home to José Napa. He spent his time farming and defending the land from trespassers and others seeking wood through illegal logging.
He has lived in Mashpi since he was 12 years old and, now in his 50’s, he remembers that he came here in search of a sister who was living in the area. He had lost his mother and was looking for protection.
“There were no roads to get to Mashpi, it was remote and far from everything. The forest was rich. Here you could hunt agouti, pigs and mountain turkeys. You’d throw a net in the river and it would come out full of fish. I found that here it was just easier to live and to find food. Five or six months after I arrived, my brother-in-law took charge of a farm and I came to help him. It was difficult to find workers here because access was so hard. After that I went into the forest to cut wood. There was no law to protect the forest, and no consciousness that logging was wrong. To lay your roots down you had to cut down the trees. To be recognised as owner of the land you had to cut down trees- they would throw you out of the forest for anything.”
Touching an enormous Copal, José explains to visitors that the rubber that this giant produces is used in medicine. It serves as a painkiller, he explains, and the local population uses it as an incense to repel insects.
“They would try to take this type of tree because it is a really good wood: easy to cut down and not very heavy. In 15 minutes this tree is on the ground and as it falls it takes others with it. I swear, if it wasn’t for this project there wouldn’t be any forest left here. The chainsaws and their roars were part of the landscape. When you wanted to stop then began the inconveniences and even aggressions.
Today that doesn’t happen nearly so much. In the communities, people are thinking about community tourism. There is no tourism if there is no forest. The cultivation of palm has also destroyed the forest. They tore it down with their chainsaws and they started to make pasturelands.
Now we have won a battle in guaranteeing that this forest is maintained and is a source of income that goes hand-in-hand with people, with animals, with water, and with life. Now no one grabs a shotgun and goes hunting. Each year the flow Mashpi River was getting lower, but we didn’t understand why, and of course, it was to do with the logging.”
When the promoters of the reserve, and then later of the hotel, spoke of protecting the forest, the message was not understood. Now in his position as leader of the community and one of the first dwellers, José is an active promoter of the defence of the forest and of community tourism.
“People came here and said, ‘we are not going to allow you to cut down trees,’ when that had been our source of finance, so we didn’t understand it. Now there is more consciousness. They didn’t only tell us that we couldn’t cut down trees, but that we also had possibilities for employment. People in the neighbouring community work in Mashpi Lodge in the butterfly house, in maintenance, guiding, administration, housekeeping, kitchen, restaurant, supporting the biologists…”
José insists that the kind of work that this touristic project offers them is much better compared to what they were doing before.
“Earning from the forest, living in the forest, but without damaging it. It is less difficult and more fun,” he says.
He adjusts some vines so that they become a swing that allows us to fly over the vegetation, points to a shell on the ground, and says, “Snails are edible. This was probably eaten by a puma. When these lands were not controlled by anybody, the snails also were very coveted. This snail tells us that Mashpi has so much value to science (because it’s not just tourists that come here, but frequently scientists too).”
As a local guide and connoisseur of the forest, he has added his own wisdom to the knowledge of the experts and has himself been enriched.
“Up in the trees there is so much life that I now understand how much was destroyed.”
Now, José knows the particulars and scientific details of what lives among the trees, in the canopy, all about the birds. He loves the diversity and beauty of the orchids, and knows thousands of characteristics of plants and animals. In his rounds of the forest he has found 200 of the 400-and-something orchids catalogued in Ecuador.
“We now understand that this is what we have to care for if we want to have a healthy life in the future,” he explains.
Walking through the forest, you have step firmly, he tells us, as in the forest it is said that over the track that you leave, a puma might place its own. And if its senses that the man has been trembling, the beast will hone in on the man’s fear and will make him its dinner.
He remembers that the paths that fascinated visitors pass through today were created with machetes, pick and shovel. Workers went about opening narrow paths among the dense vegetation, zigzagging them on the hillsides so that the descent would be safe.
Maintaining them demands constant work, just like attending to a group of visitors: guiding them through the forest, caring for them, sharing knowledge and secrets. He reveals to us that the reserve has around 40 waterfalls and takes us to one, recently made accessible. Pure, pristine water, a fresh bath and an unforgettable experience.
Five years have passed since the opening of the hotel to the public, and José shows us the braids made with hanging roots that some of the first visitors made. Other guests continued the game, and they became thick, big, strong braids that hang from the highest point of this enormous tree. In the same way, José’s conviction that Mashpi is a natural sanctuary has grown, strengthened, and continues to amaze and delight.