• Elena Mejía

In Cuyabeno, there will be nothing left without a comprehensive policy of land use planning


In the Amazon, protected areas are no longer guarantors of biodiversity protection, this is demonstrated in the El Cuyabeno Wildlife Production Reserve. The pressure around this area due to population growth, soil speculation, the fragmentation of indigenous properties and runaway tourism is unstoppable trends that add to a long list of impacts on this area. While these problems are escaping the hands of the Ministry of the Environment and Water and the municipalities surrounding the reserve, the future will be uncertain without a clear and comprehensive policy of land use planning on the near horizon.


This article is the second publication in a series of notes on the subject of land use planning for conservation in Ecuador.


Macaw (Ara ararauna) in Cuyabeno taken from the book Flora y Fauna del Cuyabeno by Paul Tufiño / SIMBIOE


The Cuyabeno Reserve is located in the northern Amazon of Ecuador, bordering Peru and Colombia. This protected area shares jurisdiction with five municipalities: Lago Agrio, Cuyabeno, Putumayo, Shushufindi and Aguarico. Mestizo, indigenous and Afro-descendant groups coexist in this territory who settle in cities and rural areas with common and individual titles. The protected area by itself is home to five nationalities, it is a tourism hot spot in a border area; which makes it a representative case of various conflicts over land use. Below the most relevant ones are detailed.


Administrative map of the territory where the Cuyabeno protected area is located (light blue)


By informal settlements to change the land use from forests to agriculture


The Cuyabeno protected area was created in 1979 and since then its territory has varied. In 1991 it was expanded from 254 thousand hectares to 655 thousand hectares. In 1993, 52 thousand hectares were dismembered due to pressure from mestizo settlers living within the area corresponding to Lago Agrio and Putumayo. In 1999 the intangible Cuyabeno zone was created, covering 453 thousand hectares, to safeguard this territory. In 2012 another reduction of the territory was made due to settlements. These problems continue to this day, for example, in the report of the Provincial Directorate of Sucumbíos, it is recognized that in 2019 it was possible to voluntarily remove an invader of 2.7 Ha within the protected area. However, the pressures of population expansion around urban areas and new rural settlements threaten this area.

Screenshot of the Facebook page of the Ministry of the Environment and Water that informs of the reforestation after an illegal settler was expelled


The Cuyabeno Reserve Photo: Cristina Terán


Anecdotal data reaffirm the relationship to land-use conflicts by municipalities and informal settlements. When the settlement is consolidated, its representatives request basic services from the municipality, which first, because it is in a protected area or its zone of influence, denies these requests. Although in many cases the electric company (National Electricity Corporation, CNEL) based on political pressure provides this service giving to illegal settles a legal incentive for their constitution. In the end, the legalization of land become political environments where little by little they become de facto settlements. The municipality of Cuyabeno, which has 80% of its territory designated as a protected area, indicates these conflicts in its Development and Landuse Plan document.

"The invasions into the interior of the Reserve have been carried out with the aim of taking possession of a considerable extension of land ..., it is worth mentioning that in recent years the motive for the invasions has been the grabbing of land for speculative purposes." Development and Landuse Plan document of the Municipality of Cuyabeno

According to interviews with municipal staff, once the population is settled, the provincial authority outside of this environmental regulation and within its productive powers, supports these populations with agricultural development programs such as the delivery of corn seeds, pastures and, cocoa plants. Later, it opens secondary roads that become lines of commerce of wood. It is important to mention that the Cuyabeno Protected Area Management Plan also recognizes the issue of land tenure as a conflict that needs to be amended because there are mestizo communities that settled before and after the creation of the reserve and its expansion. linked to the aforementioned is worrying.


However, from personal research experience to 2019 many people in these settlements live in urban areas and fight for property rights out of speculation and not out of necessity. This modus operandis was also pointed out in 1992 in the investigation "Political Ecology of Cuyabeno". Irregular settlers change the use of forest land to pastures or annual crops to assert their possession of the land.


Land use map to 2016. Note the pressure of land-use change from forests to agricultural land (yellow) is notorious. The factors behind this expansion in the limits of the reserve are linked to invasions and changes in land use.


Poor planning of tourist activity in the protected area and land speculation for tourism purposes


El Cuyabeno has a growing trend in tourist activity because this area within its classification allows visitors. There are 14 lodges (hostels or hotels) or tour operators within the protected area. However, according to information provided by one of the municipalities that have the competence of tourism, this activity does not report any benefit in terms of taxes; although it does generates expenses for garbage collection and general maintenance of the basic services used by tourists. Municipalities do not receive an adequate income from the single annual operating license (a tax) because the operators that work in Cuyabeno are mostly located in Quito. In other words, they are taxed by the capital city municipality.


Likewise, the Headquarters of the Cuyabeno protected area does not charge entry, despite the fact that it lends its contingent to organize tourist activities and provide basic facilities in its interpretation centres such as bathrooms and showers. The resources available to this protected area are minimal in terms of personnel and budget. The team of park rangers juggles to ensure, on the one hand, the protection of biodiversity in the face of permanent conflicts that the area faces and, on the other, to be an interpretation centre that motivates the local population in the importance of conservation.


Tourists in Cuyabeno Photo: Marc Metral


Speculation on land occurs to expand or increase the hotel infrastructure. The lands are acquired by investors but there are conflicts with the communities because these properties are transferred to third parties without a community consensus. During the investigation, in an informal interview, an investor who said she had bought land in an indigenous community complained that she could not reach an agreement with the community, because they wanted to force her to hire the guide and boat services to be with them.


"Many foreigners have gone bankrupt in this area because the communities do not let us work, first they sell us the land and then they begin to extort money from us. A man was thrown out of his lodge and they did not even let him take things out of the place." Investor of a hotel in Cuyabeno

According to an analysis made with the Cuyabeno park rangers, there are conflicts that have required a lot of work with the communities to avoid overloading with visitors one of the largest lagoons. For this, a tourism plan based on land use planning, the protected area management plan and the life plans of the communities is essential for each municipality. Currently, there are tourism plans but with only economic development components; which do not include land use issues or the communities' perspectives on their territory and tourism. These conflicts come about because most investments and tourism operations do not leave money in the localities, but in the hands of foreign investors and operators.


The communities see that the tourism that comes to Cuyabeno does not leave profits for the local families. All the money comes out while the care of the resource is expected to come out of them just for being "indigenous." Then some members of the communities sell the right to their land with promises of work in the new hotel development. However, conflicts over the control of guides and river transport do not take long to appear. Official of a Local Government that works with indigenous communities

Rainwater transport in Zancudo Cocha Photo: Henry Moya


Due to the fragmentation of the soil within indigenous communities


It is recognized by key local stakeholders who were interviewed that the increase in population results in the division of indigenous territories and the rise of new settlements in other sites of the Cuyabeno protected area. The Management Plan for this protected area states that in 1999 there were seven communities, according to Ormaza for 2008 there were eight and for 2012 they increased to eleven. The recent conflicts over internal disputes over the occupation of the territory are a latent problem as indicated by the Ministry of the Environment and Water, the most recent being between the Cofán Zábalo and Kichwa communities of Playas de Cuyabeno.


It is important to remember that within Cuyabeno almost all of its territory is inhabited by five ethnic groups: Siona, Secoya, Cofán, Shuar and Kichwa. Indigenous communities are immersed in planning by government entities; however, their social, cultural and economic dynamics are not yet coherently integrated into planning instruments. At present, in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana, the use of Life Plans is resumed as an instrument of direct participation and governance of nationalities. However, the growth of these populations and their need to divide the properties grows.


Screenshot of the Facebook page of the Ministry of the Environment and Water that reports an illegal settlement.


Then what?


In Ecuador, there is no Comprehensive Land Management Policy that considers the different edges that must make up something so delicate, such as land planning, especially where there are protected areas such as Cuyabeno. For the municipalities linked to Cuyabeno, the planning of the territory consists of dividing the territory into protected areas and the rest giving it urban or agricultural uses.


These separatist views of space only affect the biodiversity and livelihoods that depend on this protected area. Every day, fragile soils, such as the Cuyabeno wetlands, are threatened by a recent phenomenon, the rapid growth of Amazonian cities. This region of Ecuador has the highest population density of the whole Amazon in South America (6.2 inhabitants / km2) and the tendency is not to stop.


It is important to mention that in this context, protected areas are considered in the constitutional norms, therefore the supremacy of these prevails in their direct application, even in the absence of complementary norms. But the land that surrounds them, in charge of the municipalities -although outside the protected area- also requires categorization of land that must be in accordance with the protection of the entire ecosystem. In other words, it is useless to protect inside if it is not regulated outside the reserve.


In a scenario of land-use shared between the Environmental Authority and the Local Governments, it would be the environmental order that should prevail. In other words, environmental categorization (Art. 105 of the Environmental Organic Code) should be a greater ordering instrument, from which the anchoring to the Development Plans and Territorial Ordering is carried out. For this to happen, it is essential that the Ministry of the Environment and Water deliver the necessary instruments and technical regulations to the municipalities.


It is important that the municipalities that share a protected area also consider environmental management guidelines in their land uses, because currently only protected areas are considered. Environmental degradation in cities like Lago Agrio is notorious, wetlands are changed for agricultural soils or subdivisions, without ecological considerations and the expansion of an unnecessary agricultural frontier is encouraged (we will address this issue in a prompt delivery).


In general, local government personnel need to improve their capacities (training) on ​​land use planning with an environmental focus. For this to happen, the capacities of the Ministry of the Environment and Water must also be reviewed and strengthened around this issue. This would involve human resources at the national and local level. Some work in this regard was activated by the former Minister of the Environment Tarzicio Granizo, through the Sectorial Council for Habitat and Environment, but was not followed up.


In Ecuador, in a panorama of increase in agro-exports and excessive urbanization, the soil is a scarce resource; thus, the near future of many fragile areas is uncertain. Without a doubt, generating a Comprehensive Land Management Policy where nature and sustainable productive means have a place is the most urgent issue on Ecuador's environmental agenda.


Sunset in the big lagoon, Cuyabeno. Photo: Cristina Terán


Note 1. This note is a follow-up to the work of the author Mejia, 2018. Land use planning and protected areas: Opportunities for institutional articulation between the provincial - regional offices of the Ministry of the Environment MAE and the Decentralized Autonomous Governments GAD - Ecuador. IAPA Project - Amazon Vision. European Union, Redparques, WWF, FAO, IUCN, UN Environment. Bogota Colombia.


Note 2. Deforestation and other oil extraction issues have been extensively covered in literature and mentioned between the lines in newspapers. However, conflicts over land use are the most perverse for the reserve and subsequent degradation of the area by extractivism.


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