Bringing in the New Year Living and Working in the Cloud Forest

The Parish of Cuellaje is a conglomeration of seven different communities situated in the mountain region of Intag, amongst the cloud forest. The region is extremely rich in ecological biodiversity and its lush green pastures and sub-tropical forests are home to many animal species and workplace for many farmers.

The climate provides the communities here with the best of both worlds. On the one hand cold climate produce like potatoes, yucca and other root vegetables grow well in this high-altitude mountain region. On the other the sub-tropical climate that comes with living in the cloud forest means that tropical fruits like pineapples, guava, coffee also grow quite well.

Ecuador has one of the worst deforestation rate in the world, which for such a tiny country is a catastrophe. Slowly though, that is turning around. The national Govenrment has put in place deforestation laws that state that its citizens cannot destroy anymore forests for personal use or sale of wood. The Cuellaje parish Government followed suit with a similar law and a vow to reforest at least 50,000 native trees beginning this year.

Unfortunately for those communities and families that depended on timber for their livelihood, and already did the right thing by reforesting what they cut down, they can no longer do that, which means that people in areas like Cuellaje need to find alternative means to find materials or supplement their incomes.

Here in Cuellaje we are living with a lovely host family in the community of La Loma, to whom we pay $5 each per night in exchange for a room and meals. The family also have agricultural land in the forest up towards the border of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and a small family finca at their home.

Like many people here, they are already very environmentally aware, avoiding the use of chemicals and farming as organically as possible. This is not something taught to them however, it is just in tradition of what they know.

Living with a family here is, in our opinion, the best way to get to know the place, the people and the culture. They eat mainly fruit and vegetable produce organically grown on their farms, with very few junky snacks (only at Christmas), although they do fry a lot of things. And each meal is always, always accompanied by a plate of rice. Then there are the native fruits like tree tomatoes, granadillas, naranjillas, misperos, and many more that are unlike anything we’ve ever tasted, but very delicious.

Before Christmas we spent a lot of time with our main contact here Christina who works with the Government of the Parish, and other volunteers discussing and refining what our work would involve. In my last post I mentioned that part of our work would be helping to develop sustainable community-based tourism in the Cuellaje Parish.

We would do this by conducting interviews with people from the different communities, conversing with others, and taking a good look at the situation as it stands. This would also help us to look at the situation in terms of sustainable development in the Parish, the environmental practices on farms, the infrastructure and social cohesion.

That brings me to the next half of the work, which is to analyse the current situation, identify any gaps in practices or thinking and developing a community Roadmap towards an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable Parish. Of course, taking into context the social, development and political circumstances here.

In addition, Antoine is having a look at the water infrastructure, the filtration systems and taking water samples from the different communities we visit to check the levels of pollution.

So with our work cut out for us, after Christmas we were on our way.

Coming from big cities in advanced developed countries, we are used to speed, to everything done yesterday. In some ways volunteering here is a test of patience, as everything takes five times longer than we would normally expect.

Especially when interrupted by New Years Eve! When the 31st December came around it was raining, so the people of La Loma took the party inside, to the family home.

The beginning of the night started with the men on one side of the room and the women on the other. As the night (and beer I presume) progressed one by one the men would ask a woman to dance. From then on the night was full of dancing to Ecuadorian and South American music, fuelled by cane sugar alcohol, a local speciality. 

The quiet villagers who were present at the beginning of the party had all but left a bunch of rowdy, emotional Latinos in their place. Midnight came around with a monologue of pre-written jokes about each person there to say goodbye to the old year and bring in the new one.

Then came the grand finale, customary lighting of the effigy of one of the neighbours. All in good fun the night ended in the early hours and the whole of Cuellaje then went into recluse for the next few days.

Three weeks later we have conducted many interviews and have met many people, befriended a lot of kids, learned a lot about this place, the people, customs and the way they live, and most of all eaten a heck of a lot of rice!

Time to get back to work…

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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