LAND USE CHANGES IN THE MASHPI RIVER WATERSHED of Northwestern Pichincha, Ecuador

By Kirsten Jurich, 2016.

The Mashpi project was the result of a Master of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning thesis at the University of California, Berkeley entitled, Land Use Dynamics: A Case Study of the Chocó-Darién Biogeographic Region in the Mashpi River Watershed, Ecuador.

In August 2015, IWP fellow Kirsten Jurich and local partner organization Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica conducted a sampling campaign to better understand recent land use changes in the 9,581 hectare Mashpi watershed of Ecuador. Rapid population growth and the rising international demand for tropical crops have resulted in the conversion of vast areas to intensive agricultural production throughout the country. Specifically, anecdotal information gathered during fieldwork suggests a recent proliferation of the palmito crop—a perennial palm processed into the food product ‘heart of palm’. This rapid restructuring of the landscape has implications for habitat fragmentation, soil erosion, and water quality degradation.

This study employed a land use approach based on remote sensing and localized water quality data to better understand the watershed’s land dynamics and propose a set of best management practices to minimize the impact of monoculture production. Objectives included identifying and quantifying land use patterns, defining the spatial relationship with water quality samples, and designing conservation strategies best suited for expansive monoculture plantations.  

Results from the remote sensing analysis indicate an overall increase in monoculture expansion in areas primarily below 500 meters in elevation and in close proximity to water sources and access roads. From 1989 to 2015, monoculture land area increased a total of 783% at an average yearly growth rate of 8.7%, or twenty-two hectares/year. We also found that disruption of habitat connectivity in this watershed is largely due to expanding monoculture plantations with little to no oversight regarding land use policy. Furthermore, palmito cultivation in the basin also exacerbates soil erosion rates through poor management practices such as inappropriate road placement or harvesting methods, especially in steep areas prone to soil movement. This is of particular concern in the Mashpi River watershed where much of the cultivation occurs on slopes with grades between 5% and 15%.

An evaluation of current conditions highlighted the proximity of palmito plantations to river and tributary banks, further fragmenting habitat and magnifying the propensity of contaminant infiltration into waterways. Ancillary water quality data collected by Andres Morabowen and Blanca Rios-Touma from Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica suggests degraded water quality conditions and important habitat losses near steep areas of concentrated palmito plantations. The integration of vegetated riparian buffers greater than fifteen meters in width can mitigate these effects of palmito cultivation by acting as a physical barrier to minimize sediment, nutrient, and pesticide infiltration into waterways. Sufficiently wide buffers can also function to reconnect fragmented riparian ecosystems that have been divided as a result of expanding monoculture.

This study presented a case study in which dynamics could be examined at a regional scale to offer a framework for analyzing rapid land use change in similar tropical montane regions. By objectively evaluating spatial and temporal land use patterns, the findings provide more baseline data for the region and aid decision support mechanisms for public health, biodiversity, and watershed conservation measures. This research suggests that new approaches to land management must employ a watershed-scale perspective to make decisions that improve watershed integrity in this biodiversity hotspot of the Ecuadorian Andes.

In January 2017, final results and recommendations were presented and disseminated to the Mashpi pueblo community. Work is ongoing to translate all materials.