Project Podocarpus ’95: the Cambridge conservation project and research expedition in Southern Ecuador

Francis Jiggins

An Ecuadorian and British team assessed the levels of mercury pollution from gold mining in Podocarpus National Park and near the mining town of Nambija. Samples of mercury in riverine sediments, fish muscle, wild bird and chicken feathers, and pig-hair were taken to measure contamination from mercury and other heavy metal pollutants in rivers and the terrestrial environment; to provide a measure of the bioavailability of mercury; and assess the treats of mercury to wildlife and humans. The results showed that the streams coming from Nambija town the level of pollution was rated to be 200 times greater that at sites downstream from San Luis in the Podocarpus National Park. £12,000 was raised to buy Sozoranga cloud forest as a nature reserve.

Project update: 22/8/96. Project Podocarpus ‘95 set out to assess the threat posed to the integrity of Podocarpus National Park (PNP) by heavy metal pollution from small-scale illegal goldmining in the heart of the Park. In the 1980s over 90 % of PNP was given in concessions and two mining companies established themselves to prospect the San Luis ridge. In addition, several hundred artisanal miners started illegal extraction at the site, taking advantage of the trail network established by the companies. When the mining concessions were revoked in 1992, principally due to pressure from environmentalists, a large number of the artisanal miners remained in the Park. For security reasons, the Project Podocarpus ‘95 team were unable to gain access to the San Luis site but conducted their survey downstream from the site, on the edge of the Park. A secondary survey was conducted at the mining town of Nambija, where damages to human health from heavy metal use had been documented previously. Project achievements include: (1) health problems and river pollution were documented; the threat to PNP was not found to be high at present whereas at Nambija mining has resulted in dangerous heavy metal levels in both the natural and human environments; (2) the project report (Jiggins et al. 1996); has been made available to Minería Andos, a Canadian mining company preparing a take-over of the Nambija site for open-cast extraction; (3) the project has been quoted in association with Fundación Arcoiris in a government resolution aimed at eradicating miners from the Park (Fundación Arcoiris verbally 1997); (4) "The real impact of the expedition was in building a good relationship with Fundación Arcoiris which resulted in the purchase of a small patch of cloudforest to establish a private nature reserve and led to a follow-up expedition in 1997, supported by the BP Conservation Programme" J. Willis in litt..(1998). Project Podocarpus ‘95 led to the follow-up fieldwork and land purchase by the Sozoranga Forest Project, a joint Cambridge-UCL-Loja Herbarium-Fundación Arcoiris expedition to survey the butterflies, birds, plants and mammals of three forests in Loja Province, including the new El Tundo Nature Reserve, near Sozoranga. Results include a record of a butterfly species only previously known from Central America, a plant not recorded in Ecuador since the 19th century, a record of Puma Felis concolor in the Reserve, and a bird list of 135 species, including 12 RDB species. Most importantly, the Reserve is the only area in Ecuador and only the second in the world to support a population of the endangered Grey-headed Antbird Myrmeciza griseiceps. The fieldwork in 1997 led onto the formulation of the first Management Plan for the Reserve and follow-up work in 1999 (Jiggins et al. 1999).