In early April, NCI-Ecuador staff members visited Santa Cecilia in Ecuador’s Zamora Chinchipe province for the second achiote harvest of the year. Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a fast-growing, shrubby tree that is native to South America. Its seeds are used as a spice and food colorant, and it is culturally significant to the indigenous Shuar people, who use achiote (ipiak in the Shuar language) to make red paint for their faces and bodies.

Achiote capsulas after harvesting.

Achiote as a sustainable livelihood and conservation tool
NCI is developing achiote as a sustainable livelihood project in Santa Cecilia and neighboring villages in the Jambué Valley. Projects like this one promote alternatives to unsustainable land uses – such as clear cutting for cattle pasture. A primary goal of this pilot project is to help local families diversify their household income by selling achiote.

Achiote cultivation can coexist with conservation, as it can be planted on abandoned cattle pasture and doesn’t require cutting down additional forest. Not only can achiote and native forest exist side-by-side, but with this project, families are reclaiming and re-using land in this valley.

The regional conservation context
The Jambué Valley – like Podocarpus National Park, which surrounds it on three sides – is extremely biodiverse. The tropical Andes (which span much of Ecuador) host one-sixth of the world’s vascular plant species on less than 1% of the world’s land mass. Podocarpus National Park, in turn, has the most endemic plants of any protected area in Ecuador. In other words, this is the world’s epicenter of plant diversity.

Jamboé Valley’s specific location on the landscape is important. It’s an unprotected area jutting into the northern side of Podocarpus National Park (see map below). Our achiote project, with its goals to prevent further deforestation and to restore native forests on degraded lands, is critical to maintaining habitat connectivity between the Jamboé Valley and adjacent areas within the national park.

Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment has identified 4,200 acres in the Jambué watershed, mostly current or former pasture, where native forest restoration would be appropriate. In other words, there is ample land here for NCI to expand this pilot project for significant ecological and economic impact in the valley.