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Restoring a Native Andean Forest

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

By Lynn Herkes

Photos by Bob Herkes

There I was, at about 1,500 meters up the side of Imbabura, an Andean volcano in Northern Ecuador that has not erupted for approximately 14,000 years, trying to rest for a moment before climbing through the tall grass and indigenous bushes and trees to help my friend, German, reforest this area. It seemed as though the local gods had cleared the weather and made a perfectly clear, sunny morning for our reforestation endeavors. At least that’s what German believed.

But let me back up a bit. I moved with my husband, Bob, and my pug, Niele, to the sleepy little pastoral area of Carabuela, just outside the artisan city of Cotacachi, in early 2017. Since then, I became good friends with German, an indigenous local who grew up in the mountains just west of Otavalo, and now lives with wife and children in Iluman, which is just north of Carabuela at the base of Imbabura. Each year German’s community joins forces and hikes up Imbabura to reforest their section of the mountain with indigenous plants that the community relies on for medicine and food. The reforestation process also helps prevent fires which have a detrimental effect on the health and welfare of their community directly below that particular area of the mountain.

German invited myself, my husband Bob and our neighbor Pierre, originally from Canada, to participate in the reforestation and take lots of photos to post on Facebook. German explained how important it was to get good photos of this community activity on Facebook to increase the awareness of protecting this critical area with indigenous plants not allowing the planting of pine trees which increases the fire risk and offers no benefits to the local community.

Bob was thrilled at the opportunity to join the community and get some great photos of German’s friends, the vistas and indigenous plants. I however, was concerned about our ability to hike up the mountain at that altitude since we were both not in the most fantastic shape of our lives, even though we and our pug walked over a mile and half a day. But we organized the meeting time with Pierre, who is fluent in Spanish, French, and English, and our friend German, and it was game on!

Bob and I awoke early on Saturday, and prepped the dog, the car, and packed a lunch while Bob brewed some of the local coca tea which helps with his susceptibility to altitude sickness. Pierre joined us and we drove off to Iluman to pick up German at the center of town, about 10 minutes from our house. When we arrived, German had two bags of plants and a hoe and we somehow piled everyone in the car and off we went on our adventure with a very unhappy pug stuck in the back with all the gear.

The road up to the farmhouse was what I would rate as an easy to moderate 4x4 dirt road, nothing that our SUV and my driving couldn’t handle. But the scenery on the way was idyllic. Huge fields of corn, beans, and tree tomatoes dotted with small Ecuadorian style brick and cinder block homes with corrugated tin roofs. Most were in slight to modest disrepair and a few with receivers for the Dish Network. It’s amazing which parts of western culture and technology show up in developing countries. If it wasn’t for satellite, internet, and cell phones, who knows where Ecuadorian teenagers would get their entertainment? Sounds just like the U.S.? Ha!

German was so grateful to be in the car with us on the ride up and thanked us numerous times for saving him an hour walk to the meeting location at a community member’s farmhouse. I pulled in to park against a slight cutout of the hillside at the front of the simple, brick farmhouse amidst about seven other SUVs and trucks that were owned other members of the local community who had already headed up the mountain. We all geared up as Niele excitedly explored the area and ran from plant to plant to ensure any dogs around knew he had been there. The organizers were checking in everyone as they started up the mountain to make sure no one was left behind since it was a tough, steep climb. Of course, that made me feel even more uneasy about the hike and the altitude but I’m always up to attempting an adventure. German was excited because he told us it was a great honor to be the first community member to have gringos, two from the US and one from Canada, helping him with this reforestation. And it was a first that had to be recorded on Facebook as soon as we got back home…German kept reminding us…so we wouldn’t procrastinate uploading the photos. Once we gave our official greetings, hugs, handshakes, and thank you’s the community leaders logged us into the worksheet off we went!

The dirt path began at about a 25% uphill grade past a field of a few grazing cattle and a bull. I could feel the burn already, oh no! Bob was already hitting the coca tea as German and Pierre, who is in excellent shape at the ripe young age of 72, jetted up the hill. After about 500 meters, Pierre and German looked back at Bob and I, who were definitely not jetting, and asked if we were ok. I was doing better than I thought I would be, and Bob was going a little slower than I, but holding his own with constant sips of the coca tea. Niele, on the other hand, was amazing and zoomed between Pierre and German and then zoomed back downhill to us, and then back uphill, while stopping to mark the new territory often. Who knew a pillow dog who had just undergone hip surgery 2 months earlier would be in such darned good shape? I was just glad he was so happy.

As we continued on our uphill trek the grade varied between 25% - 35%. We came to a spot on the trail where we had to cross under or over a barbed wire and electric fence. We met up with the community leaders who greeted us energetically and a concerned discussion started in Kichwa, the native language of the local, indigenous Quechuan people, about how German was going to get the two slow, out of shape gringos across the electric fence. I kept thinking “I used to do this stuff all by myself when I was younger” when Bob suggested that German use the wooden handle on his hoe to hold the electric wire down so the gringos could step over without getting shocked. Worked like a charm!

We continued through the pasture as cattle stared at us like tourists tramping through their house in the early morning sunshine, and began the final ascent to the planting area. The path was steeper and slicker, which, of course, meant that Bob and I were going even slower, and I could feel German’s sense of urgency in his attempts to offer me assistance and Pierre’s translation of “Are you doing ok?” I must have looked worse than I felt, because I thought I was doing pretty well at that point.

As we ascended, many of the community members were already starting down the mountain since they had started at the crack of dawn up the climb and had already completed their planting tasks. But it gave us not only photo ops but a chance of catching our breath if only for a moment. Niele also enjoyed the chance to greet each and every person as they all laughed at the cute little black dog running from person to person to get admiration and attention.

Bob and I had slowed quite a bit as we approached Pierre and German standing at a 4 foot embankment having a very serious discussion while Niele stood at their feet looking up, then they all looked at us at the same time. Pierre finally translated that this was the area up on top of the embankment where German wanted to do his planting, but it was quite muddy and difficult. So Pierre and German had decided that Bob and I, and Niele, should head downhill to the car and they would meet us in about an hour and half.

What? No way! I told Pierre I didn’t come all this way through this gorgeous mountainside to give up and go home before we made it to the planting location. I told German in Spanish to show us how he would climb up the embankment and Bob and I would decide if it was something that was possible. What the heck! I’ve climbed up and down much worse and so had Bob. So Pierre quickly climbed the little embankment onto his knees, then stood up and voila! All good. I told them both I could do that and Bob agreed and we picked up Niele and put him on top and climbed up onto the muddy ledge, then we watched German practically hop up and we were off. All good. Adventure almost half completed. Now the planting.

German took his first “stick” and dug a small hole with his hoe, and popped the stick in the ground, padding it lightly with his foot. Done.

Now to plant the other 100 sticks. And let me explain “sticks”. Things grow so well here in Northern Ecuador that what the indigenous do is just hack some branches off an existing plant and then take the pieces or “sticks” and dig a hole and stick them in the ground. That’s it. In a few months, there are new bushes or trees. Easy peasy. After German and Pierre planted the first few sticks, I was starting to feel like I needed a bit of a break and sat down with my finally tired pug to rest. Bob continued to take a few more photos and keep track of Pierre and German as they headed up the mountain a bit further into the thick tangle of tall grass, bushes, trees, in the crisp cool air.

As Pierre and German continued planting for about 45 minutes, Niele and I recouped and had some water while the clouds built over the mountain peak and the bright sun turned into shade. The air turned cool and moist and the wind began to gust light, wet puffs over the peak onto our planting area. As we rested and German planted, I greeted the many community members that passed by on their way back down the mountain who were pleasantly startled to see a white woman and her black dog sitting in the tall grass. Niele and I received many greetings and much laughter as almost 100 people went down the mountain on their way back to the farmhouse to check out.

When German was done planting, he gave us a brief explanation of the importance of the types of plants that the community reforests the area with and showed us the amazing amount of growth of the plants that he himself had planted just a year ago. It was amazing the amount of growth in this lush mountain forest from just “sticks”. We all stopped at the edge of the embankment to get a group photo of the four of us, and Niele in the center of course, as another group of the community members passed by us on their way down the hill.

After we jumped down the embankment, there were even more photos to take and it almost seemed everyone’s cell phone was out taking photos of the three gringos and their dog up on the mountain and covered in mud. We said our thank you’s and hasta luegos (see you later) and started our trek down the very slippery, narrow, muddy path with German leading the way.

It wasn’t 100 meters before I had my first slip and fall (no harm done though) and then Pierre was right behind me. Of course, Niele was worried and ran between all of us as we made our way down. After my third slip and fall, German insisted I hold his hand for the last little bit of the most slippery part of the trail. At this point, we had a large group of Germans’ friends on their way downhill and they stopped to chat and take photos. We shared water and laughs and took many photos for Facebook on many phones as well as Pierre’s and Bob’s cameras.

Bob took the lead heading down through the pasture and over the electric fence, hell bent on making his way down the mountain in much better fashion than uphill, although his legs would regret that afterwards. Our overall pace was quicker downhill after passing through the slippery portion, but we stopped frequently to have vivid conversations about the beauty of our surroundings, the freshness of the air, and of course, for German to have his picture taken with the big bull that we had passed on our way uphill.

When we reached the car and the farmhouse, we all snacked on the lunches we brought and rejuvenated with water and more photo sessions with the community leaders and their families who thanked us and invited us to next year’s reforestation event. My muscles were a bit sore but I was so happy that I made it all the way up and down without any trouble or having to stop, quit or needing a walking stick. What an accomplishment and motivation to up my game on my daily walks to get in better shape!

We all piled in the car to head downhill to drop German off at his house and greet his family (since they were working hard at home). Poor Niele was stuck in the back again among the backpacks. At least now he was tired and sleepy and it was a good nap location for him to cuddle up and rest. On the way down, German continued to thank us for our participation, bursting at the seams with excitement, telling us how important it was to make sure we got the photos up on Facebook as soon as we got home. At one point the road was blocked by a parked farm truck. A family was collecting tall grass to feed to their “cuyes” (guinea pigs – which are a delicacy here and raised for food, not as pets). They had three beautiful German Shepard’s and two mixed breed dogs who were running around overseeing the collection and supervising the smaller children. Pierre had a short chat with them and found out that they were caretakers of one of the bigger farms on the side of the mountain and they were also surprised to see gringos in this area, it was rare indeed!

Once they completed their task of harvesting grass for their cuy, we continued following them down the mountain. We waved and said farewell when they pulled off into their farm, and continued past the vast fields of tree tomatoes, corn, and beans through the dirt roads to German’s modern style, concrete and block 3-story house with its colorful floral garden in front. His wife, Laura, was doing laundry in the large outdoor concrete wash basin as the daughters helped supervise German’s young son. Everyone was super happy to see us and invited us in for lunch. Normally, it is tradition to eat with the group that worked the mountain once everyone arrived at the farmhouse and checked back in, but German complained that this year’s reforestation activity was not up to par and wanted us to at least join his family for lunch.

Since Bob and I were both exhausted, we asked for a rain check and made our apologies to join them on another day. German, disappointed, agreed and understood since he knew our level of physical exercise was not even close to his and because his demeanor was and always has been the most gracious of anyone I have ever met. And so we drove home and talked excitedly about our fun adventure on Imbabura with the community of our property manager, some of the most welcoming and accommodating people we have met in this charming country of Ecuador.

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