The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Researchers help indigenous communities in Ecuador manage their land and protect region's critical resources

The Achuar, an indigenous group in eastern Ecuador, live on their ancestral lands much as they have for generations. They follow tribal law, keep small household gardens and hunt in the forest for the pigs, monkeys and game that have traditionally fed their families. On some of those hunting expeditions this summer, they will be joined by Dr. Rodrigo Sierra and his team of researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.

Rodrigo Sierra and his students
For five years, Rodrigo Sierra and his students have been researching the land management strategies of indigenous communities in Ecuador.

Sierra and his team won’t be carrying weapons for the hunt. They’ll carry highly sophisticated equipment that will enable them to create digital maps of the scope of the Achuar’s hunting territories. It’s one step of many that will help the Achuar protect their land and conserve its resources as development pressure comes to the region.

Sierra, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment and director of the Center for Environmental Studies in Latin America, is working with the Achuar and two other indigenous groups to help them create management plans for their lands, integrating community needs with the broader goals of maintaining biodiversity in the region.

The work is being done in partnership with EcoCiencia, one of Ecuador’s most distinguished and well established conservation organizations, and with funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“We are trying to support conservation in those areas that would be the next focus of deforestation,” Sierra says. “These areas will have a lot of pressure in the next wave of transformation in the region, in 10 to 15 years.”

The tropical forests of Ecuador are, per unit of area, the most diverse known on the planet, providing habitats for large predators and species such as the giant otter, harpy eagle, two types of river dolphin and the white-bellied spider monkey. Like rain forests all over South America, however, they are under growing threat of being developed for interests as diverse as oil exploration and cattle ranching.

View of forest in Ecuador

Ecuador has protected about 13 percent of its national territory in some 30 national parks and reserves. Much of the remaining pristine forest is held by indigenous populations, which won the right to title their lands in the 1990s.

Titling the land is a first step in protecting ancestral lands, but it is only a first step.

“In order to do planning for a community, you need to have control,” Sierra says. “That means titling. But you also need to do an inventory of what kind of resources you have. Without those two things you cannot even start to think about planning.”

Indigenous communities live on the land, and thus they inherently understand the value of its resources in a way that developers and migrants do not and probably cannot.

Aerial view of community's territory in Peru
Aerial photography allows Sierra’s team to understand the placement of homes within the larger context of a community’s territory.

“Every time I’ve talked with a colonist and asked them what was here before they came, they say, ‘Nothing,’” Sierra explains. “But ‘nothing’ means the forest. They generally don’t understand the resources of the forest, so they clear it to create value.

“Indigenous communities, people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, have a different understanding of the forest. They know the land and they make decisions knowing the different types of forest—in this forest they get these fibers and in another these animals. They weigh these things when they make decisions about how to use the land.”

Understanding how indigenous communities make their decisions about land use is a large part of Sierra’s work. For five years he and his students have spent part of each summer in the forest with the Achuar, researching their land management strategies.

By determining how they decide where to plant crops, where to hunt, where to place their homes and community areas, where to plant grasslands for their cattle, they can answer the central question of “What territory does a community require to survive?”

Many geographical tools make this possible. Sierra and his team use global positioning systems, geographic information systems and geo-referenced high-resolution digital aerial photography to map and measure land use and land cover patterns. Flying over the area, they can determine the exact location of everything on the ground at such a high resolution that almost every plant can be counted and identified in both household gardens and the forest canopy.

Map of Pastaza region of Ecuador, bordering Peru
Sierra’s work with the Achuar, Shiawar and Zápara groups is focused in the Pastaza region of Ecuador, bordering Peru. View complete map of Ecuador from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

Understanding a community’s requirements for maintaining their way of life enables them to work with the community to create conservation plans that work in harmony with those requirements. Those plans will include setting aside areas as wildlife reserves.

“One of the problems conservation plans have is that they create conflict,” Sierra explains. “Since we have information about communities’ resource demands, we can identify reserves that are not in conflict with the community. We want to develop management plans that minimize the conflict between conservation and development.”

Maintaining the region’s biodiversity requires not only that reserves be created, but that they be created with an eye toward connectivity. Simply put, the reserves must be connected to each other over lands titled to different communities and over the region in general. Connectivity is critical for species to adapt and survive over time.

“As the environment is changing, Sierra says, “the ability for a species to survive depends on the capacity of the species to adapt to these new conditions. Often, this potential is based on existing traits and their transmission through genetic flow between populations. Habitat connectivity makes this flow possible.

“In other cases, energy and material flows between various types of habitats are critical to maintaining ecological integrity in a region.”

Parts of the Amazon have already suffered extreme deforestation, and native habitats have become patchy or insufficient. Species can no longer move between habitats, becoming vulnerable to change. This can ultimately lead to extinction.

Computer linked to high-resolution digital camera in a plane that flies over indigenous territory
Sierra’s team flies over indigenous territory using a high-resolution digital camera to create maps of the types of land and forest cover, identifying the location of shots with a global positioning system.

Apart from creating reserves and land management plans, Sierra’s team is also helping indigenous communities take advantage of commercial prospects while maintaining the land. Geographical tools aid this work as well.

For example, the Achuar community of Yuntsunts has begun commercial production of palm nut oil called “aceite de Ungurahua.” This valuable oil sells for $28 a gallon, a large amount in a region with an average wage of less than $2 a day.

It takes the nuts of four palms to produce a gallon of oil, and the community has been getting those nuts by seeking palms in the forest and cutting them down. By doing so, they destroy the resource they need to produce the oil, and they are forced to travel farther and farther into the land to find new palms.

This process will be streamlined by Sierra’s team in several ways. First, the team is using aerial photographs to map the plants in the area, identifying places with high concentrations of the valuable palms. Knowing where the palms are will make the harvesting process far more efficient than walking the land in search of them.

Backpackers walk into forest in Ecuador

Second, they are seeking alternative ways to harvest the nuts without cutting the palms. The plan will include harvesting a fraction of the palms in an area so that genetic material of different specimens is maintained for the future.

With the Achuar and all other groups, Sierra and his colleagues seek to improve the process, but not to control it.

“We are very much working with the community,” Sierra says. “We are not making decisions for them. We are simply helping them identify economic alternatives that are consistent with conservation and their own desires.”

In fact, Sierra’s relationship with the Achuar has been so positive that after working with them for several years, he was contacted by both the Shiwiar and Zápara indigenous groups. Both asked him to work with them as well.

A thatched-roof home in the Achuar community of Sawastian
A thatched-roof home in the Achuar community of Sawastian.

This work will include land management plans, the creation of reserves and also a number of other projects. For example, because the crops these indigenous communities grow are organic, Sierra is investigating how to certify them as such to increase their commercial value. He is also helping create marketing systems for sustainable products.

His team is also planning to optimize the transportation system using the airstrips in the region, the only access to these communities. The communities are far from commercial centers—it can take up to two weeks to walk out of the forest. Such a system would enable these communities to sell what they produce in an economically feasible way.

Sierra has worked in Ecuador’s tropical forests for 20 years, leading guided tours in the region before he ever became a geographer. He hopes to see change come that doesn’t threaten the area’s biodiversity or the traditions that hold indigenous communities together.

“They are already changing, though changing very slowly,” he says. “We want to help them make changes that are desirable to them, that are socially and culturally efficient, but that are also environmentally efficient.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTO of Dr. Sierra on banner graphic: Marsha Miller

PHOTOS of research in Ecuador courtesy Dr. Sierra

Office of Public Affairs

P.O. Box Z
Austin, Texas

Fax 512-471-5812

  Updated 2005 July 18
  Comments to