The Pacific Forest of Ecuador is not a single forest. Rather, it is a medley of diverse tropical forests contained within one extraordinarily dynamic ecosystem that runs along the western coast of Ecuador.
Extremely wet Chocó rainforests occupy the northern reaches of the Pacific Forest, giving way to Tumbesian dry forests in the south. Cloud forests cover the mountaintops of the coastal cordillera. Mangrove forests, much of which have been replaced by shrimp farms, can still be found along some coastal estuaries.
The Capuchin Corridor, named in honor of the critically-endangered Ecuadorian capuchin monkey, occupies the heart of the Pacific Forest. Here, all of the above forest types can be encountered over the course of a single afternoon’s hike. In ecological terms, it is the transition zone between the Chocó rainforest and Tumbesian dry forests.
The Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR), which sits at the nucleus of the Capuchin Corridor, is the ecological midpoint of the entire Pacific Forest of Ecuador.
This long, narrow stretch of mountainous land contains the widest diversity of tropical forests in South America. It’s also the most threatened. Only 2% of the original forest remains. TMA’s mission is to preserve the last surviving remnants of the Pacific Forest and work with local communities to restore what has been lost.
The photo tour below provides a brief overview of this remarkable ecosystem. For a deeper dive, check out The Most Endangered Rainforest You’ve Never Heard Of: An intimate portrait of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador.
The Chocó rainforest is one of the wettest forests on earth. It occupies the northern portion of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador. Prominent examples can be found at the Bilsa Biological Station and the FCAT Reserve, located within the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve, as well as Cerro Pata de Pájaro in the Capuchin Corridor.
The Pacific Forest of Ecuador is effectively a series of long and narrow coastal mountain ranges that rise up from the ocean and top out at about 850 meters (2780 feet) above sea level. The peaks of the mountains are shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds nearly every single night of the year. It is a forest that is fed by the clouds. Otherwise known as a cloud forest.
Visually, it is surreal. Almost all visible surfaces are covered in bright green. The forest floor is carpeted with ferns, tree trunks are encased in moss, and epiphytes, orchids, and bromeliads hang from the branches. All of the above is watered on an hourly basis by clouds of fog that float up from the Pacific Ocean and condense into water droplets on the leaves of the trees. The droplets then drip down into the soil and form the basis of the waterways that sustain the life of all animals downstream—humans included.
Moist Evergreen Forest
The moist forest is an entirely different world than the cloud forest, even though the transition between the two is often less than 75 meters of elevation difference. The vegetation is evergreen like a rainforest, but there’s a wider range of color tones, and the species are different. The trees are actually taller here, relative to the cloud forest. The canopy of the moist forest is formed by big native hardwood trees, some of them reaching heights of 45 meters (150 feet), often with massively buttressed roots.
There is also a wealth of exotic palm trees with spiny trunks and nuts with the color and consistency of ivory, stands of giant bamboo, and countless little streams tumbling down steep slopes, alternating between waterfalls and itty-bitty swimming holes that are naturally stocked with freshwater prawns. All of this exists under the watchful eyes of loud-mouthed troops of howler monkeys, critically endangered capuchin monkeys, and ocelots that never appear except in pictures taken by infrared trail cameras fitted with motion sensors.
Tumbesian Dry Forest
If you keep descending the mountain and walk toward the beach, you may notice that some of the trees are shedding their leaves. You have reached the semi-deciduous forest. Eventually, after another kilometer or two, you stumble into a full-blown deciduous forest. Otherwise known as tropical dry forest. More specifically, a Tumbesian dry forest.
The tropical dry forest looks and functions like a rainforest during the rainy season. But in the dry season, the trees shed all of their leaves. From September until December, the trees are as bare as the North Woods in winter—although not because of temperature. The weather is always tropical. Leaf shedding is entirely a function of precipitation. At the base of the coastal cordillera, rainfall is almost nonexistent for half the year. But the moment the rainy season begins anew, the dry forest explodes back into life in a matter of days.
Imagine compressing all of the life energy of springtime into one or two weeks, and then maintaining this feverish biological pitch for about five months, gradually transitioning into a long and leisurely autumn, without any wintertime. That’s the annual cycle of the tropical dry forest in coastal Ecuador. It is an incredible process to watch unfold.
The complete list of notable wildlife that inhabits the Pacific Forest is beyond the scope of this article. There are more endangered and threatened bird species in the Capuchin Corridor than any other Key Biodiversity Area in all of Ecuador—the country believed to have the most biodiverse bird population on earth.
The headline species is the Ecuadorian Capuchin Monkey (Cebus aequatorialis), which is officially listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list.
We would be remiss to not include a frog photo. This one was photographed by TMA’s executive director, Ryan Lynch—originally a herpetologist.
There are no glaciers in the Pacific Forest of Ecuador. Water is born along the peaks of the coastal mountain ranges, where the ample vegetation of the cloud forest effectively “harvests” moisture from the perpetual fog.
The water vapor is thus converted into drops of water which fall to the ground, enter inside the earth, and slowly make their way to the many watercourses that tumble down the mountains toward the sea. In waterfalls like the one pictured below, the water is so pristine that you can drink it while simultaneously swimming in it.
Just because it’s so beautiful and tasty-looking, another picture of fresh, clean, water running through the rainforest. Water is the source of life, and forests—at least in this ecosystem—are the birthplace of water.
Fate of the Forest
The Pacific Forest of Ecuador has been badly fragmented over the course of the last century. Today, it is estimated that only 2% is left. The traditional driver of deforestation is a tripartite combination of logging followed by slash-and-burn cultivation of maize and then the long-term conversion to cattle pasture.
In recent years, a rash of real estate development projects—in the form of high-end subdivisions along the beach—have eaten away at much of the tropical forest along the coast.
In the interior, large-scale teak and balsa plantations have been replacing native evergreen moist forest along the mountainsides.
The Capuchin Corridor Project
TMA and its partners are building a 40,000-hectare conservation corridor that will protect and restore one of the last major remnants of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador. This project is underway. Here’s the roadmap:
- Protect all remaining tracts of old-growth forest through purchase and/or easement.
- Restore degraded forest in areas no longer suitable for farming and grazing.
- Connect isolated forest fragments through regenerative agroforestry with local farmers.
- All lands are managed by local communities.
With the help of a third-party carbon developer (The Landscapes & Livelihoods Group), we calculated the CO2 benefit of the Capuchin Corridor. We did so using both REDD+ and the Forest Carbon Ledger (FCL). The annual CO2 benefit of the entire corridor is 110,000 metric tons. If we are able to secure carbon funding, the revenue will be distributed to local communities to protect the forest in their home watersheds. Payments are results-based and verified by aerial imagery.
We provide local farmers with start-up capital and financial incentives to convert deforested land into regenerative forests. Each acre of reforested land boosts local income, produces food, restores biodiversity, and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. This is a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) project with both social and ecological benefits. Here’s a 2-minute animated video that explains how we do it.
…for taking the time to learn about the Pacific Forest of Ecuador. Protecting and restoring this ecosystem is big undertaking, but we’ve already made a tremendous amount of progress. We’re at a point where we are ready and capable of dramatically scaling up our work. To do it, we need help. If you feel inclined to support this project, please do. The future of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador depends on the actions of people right now.