The Pacific Equatorial Forest in coastal Ecuador has lost 98% of its native forest cover, almost all within the last four generations. The habitat is considered to be one of the most threatened tropical forests in the world. In their seminal paper “Biological Extinction in Western Ecuador,” botanists C.H Dodson and A.H. Gentry wrote, “The forests of western Ecuador have been cited as one of the most severely-threatened areas on earth in terms of biological extinction as a result of deforestation and other activities of humans.”
As late as the early 1900s, the lowlands of coastal Ecuador were almost entirely forested. The region remained only sparsely inhabited until four generations ago. In the 1930s, colonization of this sparsely inhabited frontier was encouraged by the national government, which heavily promoted cattle ranching, and land was given to anyone who came and claimed it. Today, only 2-4% of the forest remains. The process of over-exploitation that has led to this crisis generally follows a three-step pattern: illegal logging first degrades the forest and facilitates access; degraded forest on the fringe is then slashed-and-burned to grow corn; then cattle are grazed for a few years until the soil is exhausted and the land is abandoned, and the next tract of forest is cleared. In the northern part of the Pacific Equatorial Forest, African Palm plantations represent a major threat. Close to the shoreline, shrimp farming has all but eliminated the native mangrove forests of the region.
In their country profile of Ecuador, BirdLife International writes that human activities “have led to the almost complete disappearance of native forests and natural wetlands on the Pacific coast and foothills, which is being deforested at an alarming rate.” In a report titled “Threatened biotas: hot-spots in tropical forests” in The Environmentalist, N. Myers wrote in 1988, “Due to this region’s species diversity and high endemism, it is of considerable scientific interest. With the increased and rapid destruction of habitats, we rank the Ecuadorian coastal wet forest as one of the world’s areas most in need of protection.” A report by the World Wildlife Fund in 2001 states, “These forests that once covered vast areas of the coastal region and were home to an enormous wealth and diversity of species are now a dispersed chain of remnants under constant threat and facing an uncertain future. The moist forests of western Ecuador have now lost more than 1500 km2 and are continuing to disappear at one of the highest rates in the world….At present, the coastal cordillera region has only small patches of remnant forest, which are now subjected to the edge effect.”