In the Andes of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, the Páramo is life. Located above the tree line yet below the snow line, this distinctive high altitude ecosystem is an essential source of water for people like Rosa Elena Mazaquiza and her community.
In Ecuador’s Tungurahua Province, where the organization ‘Tungurahua Paramos and the Fight Against Poverty’ is based, more than 90 percent of the water comes from the Páramo ecosystem. It is one of the most vulnerable, yet powerful, water storage and distribution ecosystems in Ecuador. It needs to be cared for, in the face of many threats.
It is the repository of great amounts of water collected from rain, fog, and glacial run-offs. It stores that water and releases it slowly into the lower-lying areas. Páramo soils play a crucial role in sustaining the lives of millions of people and storing carbon.
Cities at lower elevations get water from the Páramo. Many communities depend on the proper functioning of this ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the Páramo is endangered by deforestation, overgrazing, unsustainable economic activities, and climate change. Agricultural expansion, mining, as well as burnings, inadequate water management and urban expansion, also threaten this ecosystem’s survival.
Climate change leads to less regular rainfall, which in turn affects the ability of Páramo soils to store water. This makes rationing necessary and endangers livelihoods. Conserving the Páramo’s rich soils and the abundant biodiversity it harbours, is vital for many.
The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting even further how the way we use our soils affects the ability to provide essential services such as water, by in turn increasing health, safety and prosperity.
As Rosa Elena Jerez Mazaquiza, President of the Movement of the Kichwa and the Campesino peoples of Tungurahua, recently told us “It is thanks to the care of the Páramo that during this pandemic we can guarantee that each household in Tungurahua — both within the community as well as in the main cities — can benefit from and use the most vital liquid; water”.
While grocery stores experience shortages of food, local villagers have turned to their own gardens.
“During this crisis, life in the city and in the fields entirely depends on the local communities’ work and food production” — Rosa Elena Jerez Mazaquiza.
Facing water shortages, municipal governments in Ecuador have shown an increased interest in protecting these ecosystems.
The Tungurahua Paramos and the Fight Against Poverty is a model of public-private- partnership, aimed at conserving the Páramo. Created with the United Indigenous Movements of Tungurahua, local and provincial governments, private companies, and local communities, its goal is to pool financial resources and invest in sustainable management.
The Fund has raised US$2,188,497 to conserve and restore more than 4,000 hectares and improve water security in the Ambato and Pastaza River Basins. Through its alternative livelihood programmes, it has raised incomes by 30 percent. Its environmental education programme has reached more than 7,600 children. Its activities benefit around 400,000 people and are all developed and carried out in partnership with indigenous peoples and local communities.
This partnership is showing its effectiveness during the pandemic. Oscar Leonardo Rojas Bustamante, technical secretary of the fund, explains that “the communities are voluntarily collaborating with the local government to continue the conservation activities for the Páramo’s well-being, while also helping manage the emergency by supporting the disinfecting procedures and distributing food kits to the population.”
“Although we are not responsible for the crisis, we are in charge of getting out of it and we cannot do that alone. We must all share that responsibility among the indigenous and local communities in the context of this crisis. To that goal we are working in concert with the local and provincial government to guarantee water and food supplies for all, limit movements across communities and to/from cities, and develop online environmental education programs, including a guide on good health practices and the good use of medicinal plants,” he says.
Because of their outstanding work the group was awarded the Equator Prize 2019 within the climate adaptation category.
“In each of our communities, we can tell a story of resilience in the face of change. Our response to a changing environment is not new. This is what we have done for centuries. For us, indigenous peoples and local communities, traditional knowledge enhances our ability to become more resilient. Practices used back in time were, and still are, inherently sustainable. What is unsustainable today is not the climate change, it’s the pace of that change. And what we need now is a political climate change,” said Rosa Elena Jerez Mazaquiza when she received the prize.
Rosa says they don’t force people to conserve, but rather they raise awareness.
“I want to ensure the future of my family, because without the environment, without the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and its conservation and without water there’s no life,” she says.
While in New York to receive the Equator Prize, Rosa also spoke in representation of her community and as “a voice of our Pachamama, Mother Earth”, at an event promoting the Alliance for Rainforests held at the United Nations headquarters. She spoke before eight head of states and several other high-level representatives, including one of her personal idols, actor and activist Harrison Ford.
Rosa called the audience’s attention to the global responsibility we all share. She urged all participants to advocate and invest in the protection of Mother Earth’s lungs.
After the event Rosa met Mr. Ford who commended her for her community’s work to adapt to climate change and protect the environment.
Taking care of the Páramo means ensuring the prosperity of human life. Rosa and her community lead by example.
To watch videos of all Equator Prize 2020 winners click here.
Author: Anna Giulia Medri, Programme Management Senior Analyst, Equator Initiative, UNDP