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Pastaza River Corridor: Gift to the Earth

In 1996, The Nature Foundation (Fundación Natura) of Ecuador, the largest environmentally concerned entity in the country, began working with monetary support from the World Wildlife Fund - International (WWF) and the Dutch government to survey and develop a plan to promote sustainable natural resource development within Sangay National Park. This study made the group realize that the unprotected area between Sangay and Llanganates National Park, drained by the Pastaza River, if disrupted, would have serious impacts on both parks. In other word, the Pastaza River Valley might well be a natural corridor, an important "biological dispersion zone" connecting the parks and not, as some had previously assumed, a natural barrier to dispersal.

Situated between Sangay and Llanganates national parks, between the settlements of Río Verde and Shell, the Pastaza River Corridor is comprised of a total of 41,517 hectares, 5,657 of which are cultivated or settled. Sixty percent of the corridor is located within the canton of Baños, in the province of Tungurahua, and forty percent of the corridor is located within the canton of Mera, in the province of Pastaza.

The investigation, which was conducted over the course of four years, was carried out using established scientific protocols and indices designed and implemented by qualified scientists and specialists including ecologists, botanists, ornithologists, geneticists, and social scientists. The investigation was principally biological in focus, but extensive studies were also conducted into the social aspects of the plan, as well.

Some of the conclusions of the studies are as follows:

The most diverse mammal group is bats which represents 55 of the 101 mammal species sampled, the most common being the carolina bat;
Twenty one species of mammals present in the corridor are considered to be at risk species;
Samples were taken of 242 species of birds belonging to 42 different families of which 5 are endemic and 3 threatened. Thirty percent are considered highly sensitive to habitat change;
Las Estancias (Río Negro), Madre Tierra (Mera), and Machay were determined to be the 3 most biodiverse areas in the corridor;
Genetic studies of "micromammals" (including bats) indicate that the Pastaza River is not a major barrier to dispersal for these animals. Furthermore, many rodents in both parks have close genetic affinities with southern (Peruvian) and Amazonian species;
Through these studies the Pastaza River Valley was determined to be a true biological corridor and not a barrier to dispersal. Furthermore, the corridor was shown to have an even higher level of biological diversity in some animal groups than the parks themselves, which was a completed unexpected result.
After meeting the specific criteria used by the World Wildlife Fund to designate which areas should gain the status of "Gift to the Earth" (one of the most important of which is the area's local people's willingness and ability to properly develop and manage the protection programs associated with the title, the Pastaza River Corridor was named a "Gift to the Earth" by the World Wildlife Fund.

Once granted the status, each "Gift to the Earth" becomes a designated "Endangered Space" which is then promoted through the WWF web sites, publications, and other forms of media, to solicit corporate and private donations. These funds go directly to the designated local management teams for use in executing their protection programs. No money is filtered through governments.

Implementation, management, and the ultimate success of these programs depend on local people while at the same time involving, by necessity, local governments (in this case the municipalities of Baños and Mera), particularly to institute and enforce new environmental protection laws.

As you might have guessed, the application submitted by Fundación Natura for the Pastaza River Corridor has been accepted. Notification of the acceptance came in February of 2002. The official ceremony during which the "Gift of the Earth" title was issued took place on July 2002.

This protection program is a time-tested series of WWF-designed projects and ongoing management systems that have proven themselves effective in areas of the world similar to the Pastaza River Corridor. The success of these programs hinges on the abilities, commitment, cooperation, and involvement of local people, especially the inhabitants of the designated areas themselves. The process begins with education via media campaigns, and seminars, the building of informational centers, the creation and enforcement of new laws, and hands-on education and assistance programs to help local farmers better utilize the area's natural resources thus promoting truly sustainable development and conservation.

This is perhaps the most exciting thing happening in Baños right now. The program, if successful, has the potential to be a model, even THE model, for the future of Ecuador, a small demonstration of how precious the natural environment is and what can be done to preserve and develop it in a non-destructive way for the benefit of everyone.

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