ANTISANA, Ecuador – Above is the imposing Antisana volcano, rising to 5,758 meters (18,900 feet), but below and partway up its slopes are luxurious wetlands, although they still show the scars of channels opened by man to drain the water and facilitate the creation of pastureland.
More than 40 such channels cut through a wetland area of 14 hectares (about 35 acres) at an altitude of 4,100 meters (about 13,500 feet) in the Antisana water conservation area, located less than an hour’s drive from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, and where ranchers used to graze their livestock.
But the same story is repeated on some 30 hectares at the foot of the potentially active volcano located in the Ecuadorian Andes, where Belgium’s Bert de Bievre, the technical secretary for the Water Protection Fund (Fonag), goes so far as to speak about “ex-wetlands.”
With their weight, horses, cattle and the huge number of sheep that used to graze in the area, packed down the drained wetlands, which nowadays are a thick green carpet, walking over which gives one the sensation of walking on cushions or pillows.
The “brutal over-grazing,” as Bievre calls it, ended about seven years ago, when the Potable Water of Quito company bought the land from the ranchers, thus “drastically” reducing the changes being wrought by livestock in the area, and put Fonag in charge of recovering the zone.
For decades, ranchers dug channels to drain the area to create pastureland for their livestock, and prevent them from drowning in the wetlands, but now almost all livestock have been removed.
However, the damage left by man and his domesticated beasts remains, as could be seen in a drone overflight of the area in late 2016.
“It was like when a plane flew over the Nazca Lines and they saw that there was nothing left on the surface. Recently, we could see the density of the drainage (channels),” Bievre told EFE near one of the wetland zones, which are now being recovered simply and cheaply, with wooden dikes, pressure to keep the water partially contained and patience.
The aim is to return the zone to being an inaccessible swamp in a “few years.”
But the project requires patience since the aim is not to create a dam or a reservoir, but rather to recover the wetlands on the edge of the Antisana ecological reserve, which covers some 120,000 hectares in Napo and Pichincha provinces and is home to condors, bears, pumas, deer, wolves, assorted felines species, and more.
Eighteen wells equipped with automatic sensors in the region are used to monitor the water level, Fonag technician Paola Fuentes told EFE.