We hear a lot about the importance of tropical forests. We hear that since the 1960’s more than half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed. We hear that these forests are the “lungs of our planet” and that they are vital for our food, water and livelihoods even though we live thousands of miles away. But we, and I assume like us, “you” have never been to a rainforest and have never seen one up close; only on the news and in some pretty documentaries with birds diving into the ocean in slow motion, for fish.
As people who learn by sharing, we decided to go touch and feel one of these forests for ourselves. We hopped on a plane to Ecuador and went to the mind-blowingly stunning, modern Mashpi Lodge. Located about three hours outside of Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, it’s been awarded South America’s Leading Eco-Lodge by the World Travel Awards and ranked in TripAdvisor’s top 10% of hotels in the world. It’s incredibly special. Not because of all of its recognition but rather because of its work finding sustainable solutions for its local economy that can be a model for the rest of the world.
When you arrive at the Mashpi Lodge, after driving through its Jurassic Park style gates, one notices that the cloud forest is bigger and more alive than imaginable. The air is clean. Sounds waffle between water dripping through leaves like a Rube Goldberg machine and over 400 species of birds singing. It’s both dirty and clean at the same time. It’s alive and take-your-breath-away beautiful. We dare you to try and not be awed.
With 98% of this region already deforested, we could see the impact of the destruction up close as a microcosm of what is happening to the planet.
Yet, the Mashpi Lodge, as magnificent as it is, isn’t the real show. The forest is. And, Mashpi’s team of ecologists proudly work in it to find solutions to some of the biggest problems that we face today. For us, as “informed but previously unexposed to such a forest” people, we left with three key takeaways that we want to share with you:
1. The Tropical Forest Ecosystem Is a Cycle That Sustains Life
You’ve heard this before, right? Yeah, us too: In every high-school biology book we’ve read.
But being in the forest we could literally see and feel the cycle. It is real. The forest, and all the species within give and take life each day. This process results in fresh water, fresh air and sustainable food sources for all its inhabitants, including human beings.
It is an engine that makes life possible by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, providing oxygen and influencing weather patterns.
…there are alternatives to deforestation that not only save the planet but also give humans a better quality of life. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Deforestation is, you guessed it, breaking that engine.
I’ll use my recently purchased lawn mower as an analogy: I bought a cheap one. Really cheap. The cheapest I could find. I chose between a 70cc and 120cc engine size. I hadn’t mowed my lawn in a long time so I got the bigger of the two. Even that one wound up being too small: It kept dying and barely got the job done. I could only imagine that had I got the smaller engine it would not have been able to keep up.
That’s what we’re facing with our planet’s rainforests. We started with the right size engine: Earth’s tropical forests were plentiful. But, everyday through deforestation we’re making our engine smaller. Once it becomes too small to cut our grass so to speak, it’s game over.
I’m not trying to be an alarmist. Well, yes I am. Because we can’t just go to Home Depot to buy new tropical forests. Primary forests, like the cloud forest, don’t just come back and new forests take hundreds of years to grow. While we obviously encourage reforestation, one study out of Brazil suggests it could take up to 4,000 years. (If you’re interested we found this list of reforestation projects.)
2. What Is Happening in Ecuador Is a Precursor to What’s Happening in the World
With 98% of this region already deforested, we could see the impact of the destruction up close as a microcosm of what is happening to the planet. We noticed the change just ten kilometers away: the comfortable, clean environment that we were living in in the forest turned hot and dry. Natural life had been replaced by machinery, pumps and fertilizers. Animals who were once part of the forest search for food and are treated as a nuisance.
The contrast between the forest and the surrounding land immediately outside of it, which has been deforested, is stark. The areas outside of Mashpi feel like life support keeps things going. And, in reality it is: if the machines stop so too does the water, food, air conditioning and infrastructure to keep humans alive.
Mashpi has demonstrated that its local communities win through long-term sustainable economic solutions and food sources when the forests are saved.
For us it was eye-opening. Not because we hadn’t heard all this before but because until we touched it, it seemed like a bunch of scientists telling us to behave, “or else.” Like being told to stop running by the pool until you slip and fall and realize the lifeguard was right. What we saw made us see, “the lifeguard was right.”
3. Saving the Forests Provides Sustainable Economic and Food Solutions for Local Economies and the Global Economy at Large
OK. Now the good news…
Humanity, as a species, has taken a win at all costs approach to survival. We’ve looked at every other species on our planet as being here to serve us. But, that’s not reality. We are, in fact, dependent on other species existence for life. Just because we can destroy for our own needs doesn’t mean we should. It’s up to us to learn that becoming guardians of the natural resources that gave life to our planet, and us, is our responsibility.
And, thanks to the team at Mashpi, we’re learning how. They showed us that there are alternatives to deforestation that not only save the planet but also give humans a better quality of life. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Close to home, in the Ecuadorian Chocó, logging and hunting do provide short-term money for the locals without alternatives. But, once those logs are gone and the animals hunted, so too is the money and food.
Mashpi has demonstrated that its local communities win through education that teaches long-term sustainable economic solutions and food sources improve when the forests are saved. Through their work and programs, the people in the surrounding area don’t need to cut a tree down for a few bucks or go hunt for dinner. They’re now earning living wages, feeding their families, and driving economic growth. And, it’s all happening because the cloud forest exists.
Deforestation is a complicated issue. Thanks to Mashpi we have had our eyes opened for the first time and have discovered a new passion. But, we’re not naive and we realize that if it were easy to stop, it would. People of these regions and around the world need to earn a living and feed themselves. Economies need to keep moving and governments without choices will need alternatives before they get behind saving these forests. Education and exposure to the benefits produced by saving forests is a first step and we thank Mashpi for doing what they’re doing.
And, by the way, in addition to the opportunity to float in a cloud forest, the Mashpi Lodge has amazing desserts and a cool hot tub. Go here for more information on the reserve, the lodge and how to get there (and we do highly recommend… getting there).