Forest Restoration in the Tropical Andes: Active Conservation in a Biodiversity Hotspot

Forest Restoration in the Tropical Andes: Active Conservation in a Biodiversity Hotspot

Matthew Bare, MF 2014 1


The tropical Andes of Ecuador and Colombia is a biodiversity hotspot with less than 25% of native forest remaining. In the past few decades, numerous government and non-governmental organizations have instituted forest restoration projects, but there has been little synthesis of restoration actors and general trends. I reviewed 70 restoration projects and consulted with experts in the field to survey a history of forest restoration in the tropical Andes. In the region, most active forest restoration activities are focused in the montane forest ecosystem. Passive restoration is usually practiced in the high altitude páramo ecosystem, while restoration activities in lowland humid forest and dry forest are less common. Large-scale natural forest recovery is also occurring in the region due to economic and social trends. Reforestation has shifted over the past several decades from plantation style, using few, usually exotic species, to a greater focus on ecological restoration using a diverse range of native species. While early projects were state-operated, institutions involved in forest restoration have multiplied in the past decade. Climate change mitigation and adaptation are significant funding sources; regional payments for watershed services have recently become popular, and mitigation banks in Colombia represent a new potential mechanism for restoration financing.


Worldwide, the area of degraded forest and abandoned agricultural land is growing, and reforestation, both passive and active, has the potential to conserve significant amounts of diversity, stabilize eroded landscapes, and sequester carbon (Silver et al. 2000). The forests of the tropical Andes are biodiverse yet extremely fragmented (Etter et al. 2008). While Colombia and Ecuador both rank among the top countries worldwide in total biodiversity (IUCN 2013, Chaves and Santamaría 2006, Mittermier et al. 1997), only an estimated 25% of original habitat remains in the tropical Andes (Conservation International 2014).

In order to maintain biodiversity, forest restoration is seen as a regional conservation priority. While restoration projects have increased over the years, few studies have reviewed the various types of projects in practice. Colombia has recently prepared a national plan for restoration (Ospina-Arango and Vanegas-Pinzón 2010), largely based on the Society for Ecological Restoration primer (SER 2004), but this guide has little background on field projects in Colombia. Ecuador has even less literature on the subject. This article therefore 1) evaluates the state of restoration science in the region, focusing on geographic, political, and ecological aspects of forest restoration projects, and 2) provides recommendations for the coordination and implementation of current and future restoration activities.


To identify forest restoration projects in Colombia and Ecuador, I used internet searches and expert interviews. In Colombia, I consulted regional experts from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) for a comprehensive list of all major forest restoration projects in the country. In Ecuador, I used several years of personal field experience to identify and select projects. Research was restricted primarily to forest restoration activities in the montane ecosystems of the Andes of Ecuador and Colombia (mostly above 2,000 meters elevation), on projects with more than five years of implementation, and on projects with a native forest restoration goal. Timber plantations using exotic trees were excluded.

Project managers from various sectors (academic, government, NGO) were contacted for background information, project reports, and interviews. Seventy projects, primarily in the montane region, were identified and catalogued. Sixteen sites were visited, and semi-structured interviews were conducted with project leaders regarding history, regional context, implementation, challenges, and outcomes. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with local experts in forest restoration and conservation. Written project plans, donor reports, and university theses were collected for further consultation. Project data was triangulated using these written reports, interviews with project managers, and third party interviews.

Figure 1. Study area in Colombia and Ecuador.


History of Reforestation Activities in Colombia and Ecuador

Forest restoration has grown and evolved in the past half century in the Andes. Organized government programs were rare until the 20th century (Gade 1999), when large government projects attempted to control mountain erosion from massive deforestation (Farley 2007, Young 1998). Many of these reforestation and afforestation plantations remain today, primarily eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) and pine (most frequently Pinus radiata and Pinus patula). In Colombia, Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica), native to Central America, and Andean alder (Alnus acuminata), native to the Neotropics, are also planted (Etter and van Wyngaarden 2000). In Colombia, many of these projects were implemented by autonomous regional corporations, while in Ecuador most projects were implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture.

State-Directed Forest Restoration Activities

In the 1990s Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment initiated a reforestation project known as Plan Verde (the Green Plan). Implementation was channeled from the Ministry to the regional corporations, who then hired private contractors to reforest small plots on private agricultural lands. Few details about plantings exist, and the two evaluations that were commissioned lack basic project details; the evaluations also criticize the Ministry for lack of coordination and monitoring (Consorcio OTS/AP&A 2010). In Ecuador, reforestation activities in the 1990s and early 2000s were directed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Environment central office in Quito, but responsibilities were transferred to provincial offices under the new constitution of 2008. Because of this transfer in responsibility, documentation for projects prior to the early 2000s was difficult to encounter.

In the past few years, however, several institutions have increased their capacity for forest restoration projects. In Colombia, autonomous regional corporations collaborate with the Alexander von Humboldt Institute to use climate change adaptation funding to conduct forest restoration activities, and the national park system has created a restoration department. In Ecuador, the Ministry of Agriculture created a reforestation program in 2008 known as PROFORESTAL, but it was cancelled after a few years. In 2013, the Ministry of Environment initiated a restoration component of SocioBosque, a successful payment for forest conservation program created in 2008 (de Koning et al. 2011).

Forest Restoration and Non-Governmental Sectors

Research universities contribute a significant volume of forest for restoration projects, although most are only a few hectares each in area. In Colombia, the Universidad Nacional and the Universidad Javierana have programs that work in the Bogota region; ICESI University in Cali also works in the western Andean region. Ecuador has less experience, mostly based in Loja in southern Ecuador. These research programs typically conduct baseline biophysical surveys and occasionally create pilot studies. In the Bogota area, some programs focus on solid waste material for soil remediation, while others focus on the rehabilitation of areas invaded by European gorse (Ulex europea).

NGOs and international donors have also grown to play a major role in forest restoration (Andrade-Perez 2007, Meza et al. 2006, CESA-Intercooperation Suiza 1992). International NGOs often conduct forest restoration activities as a community component of their larger landscape conservation priorities; WWF - Fundación Natura in the Pastaza watershed in Ecuador, Flora and Fauna International in the Awa corridor of northern Ecuador, and Conservation International around Bogota serve as pertinent examples. Regional NGOs with significant restoration components include Nature and Culture International in the southern Andes of Ecuador near Podocarpus National Park, and (a different) Fundación Natura in the oak-montane forest of the central Andes of Colombia. In most of these projects, NGOs work with local communities to encourage native species restoration on marginal pastureland, often as fencerows and silvo-pastoral systems, often as part of larger landscapes connecting protected areas.

Other regional examples that fit this category include the Instituto Alexander von Humboldt and the Global Environmental Facility around Quindio, Colombia; local NGOs and the Instituto Sinchi around Caqueta, Colombia; and Tropenbos and Fundación Ecohomonde in Azogues, Ecuador. Finally, in the Bogota area of Colombia the botanical garden (Jardín Botánico Celestino Mutis) conducts numerous forest restoration projects, focusing primarily on rehabilitation of city parks and areas invaded by European gorse (Ulex europea).

Other regional projects include local government and NGO collaborations, many of which focus on watersheds for drinking water. One of the most studied examples of this project type is the water fund of Quito, Ecuador, FONAG (Benitez 2010, Wunder and Alban 2008). The success of the Quito program has encouraged other programs in the region including Loja and Cuenca in Ecuador and Cali, Medellin, and Bogota of Colombia (Goldman-Brenner 2012, Kauffman 2013). The Quito program has been operating since 2000 and reports to have restored approximately 2,000 ha of land in the last few years, largely in highland páramo. TheNature Conservancy is a key promoter of these water funds, often in collaboration with local governments, NGOs, and water utilities (TNC 2014).

Photograph 1. Alnus acuminata planting at seven years in the Colombian Andes. The site is former cattle pasture, now operated as a nature reserve by a Colombian NGO. (Photo Matthew Bare)

Another sector of forest restoration projects are based on climate change mitigation and funding mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism. In Ecuador, several projects have been undertaken through the Profafor – FACE collaboration. Another recently started CDM project in Ecuador is the ChoCO2 project, facilitated by Conservation International and the local land reserve Maquipacuna. CDM projects in Colombia include the San Nichols project of the BioCarbon Fund of the World Bank (started in 2006 but not yet validated), the Chincina – ProCuenca project, and Más Bosques para Medellín, facilitated by the city of Medellín. All are mixed species reforestation projects initiated in 2009 – 2013 and located in the Colombian Andes. Smaller scale projects use the voluntary carbon market to sell forest carbon credits such as Mindo Cloud Forest, financed by RICOH paper. Other projects around Bogota such as Al Verde Vivo and Acción Verde reforest directly with donations from companies seeking to improve their environmental image. Finally, a new and growing sector of forest restoration comes from mining mitigation. Previously, site remediation had been voluntary, and some companies have restored or rehabilitated sites with active forest plantings, such as the Peldar sand mine in Cundimarca, Colombia. In 2012, the Ministry of the Environment issued a regulation requiring offsite forest mitigation to compensate forest loss from mining activities. In 2013, restoration methodology was still undefined, but this regulation offers significant potential for restoration funding, and groups such as Fundepúblico in Bogota are working to create markets for mitigation.


Forest restoration has grown significantly in terms of the number of projects in the Andean region in the last two decades. Universities conduct baseline studies and pilot projects and provide a valuable source of data; university research is significantly more advanced in Colombia than in Ecuador. University data can prove very useful when connected with implementation by an NGO or government project, but studies are often ignored or projects are implemented with little baseline data. Coordinating bodies in Colombia such as the Alexander von Humboldt Institute in Colombia and the RIACRE – Society for Ecological Restoration network have the opportunity and the leverage to connect information and research with practitioners. In Ecuador, however, research and project implementation is becoming very centralized and civil society organizations are weaker. To ensure more successful restoration projects, greater research capacity and coordination is necessary.

Amongst NGOs, international NGOs often work in remote, high biodiversity areas, while local organizations often work closer to urban areas. This allocation of resources allows different groups to focus in different regions. In both cases, however, permanence of projects depends on the time commitment of the organization and the involvement of local governmental authorities. If an NGO leads the project and commits long-term, the project can better respond to changes in local government administrations, which are frequent. If NGO leadership is weak or short term, projects often run the risk of losing permanence when administrations change.

Regional watershed conservation payment for ecosystem service programs are an innovative method for financing local conservation, and have been successful in the tropical Andes (Echaverria 2012). Studies find the success of the reforestation component of these projects to be largely dependent on the framing of the payment or compensation mechanism (Kauffman 2013). International climate change mitigation and adaptation funding represents a significant funding source, but these projects need to be paired with local institutions in order to achieve permanence, local buy-in, and long-term monitoring. Projects often run into complications when land ownership is unclear or changing. Ownership of the marginal agricultural lands targeted for these projects is often in flux, as the Andean countries undergo rapid urbanization. On top of this, Colombia is undergoing a process of land restitution after decades of rural violence and displacement.

International Payments for Environmental Services (PES), based on carbon, and local Payments for Environmental Services (often based on water) are very different in their governance and social structure. Both provide revenue streams for restoration, but where payments are local the economic support is usually coupled with societal support for restoration. In lowland Amazonian areas with potential for commodity agriculture (e.g., oil palm, soy), locally derived PES is usually insufficient to compete with these alternative land use options. In the mountains, however, locally derived PES may be sufficient because agricultural land use revenue (e.g., potatoes, cattle) is low.

Finally, restoration activities should be considered in the context of regional forest transition. In the tropical Andes, a significant amount of land is returning from pasture and agricultural use back to forest. A recent study (Sanchez-Cuervo et al. 2012) found 28,000 km² of area with increased vegetation cover from 2001-2010, approximately twice as much land as areas that had lost vegetative cover due to deforestation. Most of the reforested areas have occurred from agricultural abandonment in the Andean region (Figure 3), a finding consistent with analysis across Latin America (Aide et al. 2012, Rudel et al. 2009, Aide and Grau 2004). Steep mountain pasture and coffee areas are often the most marginal and are abandoned due to urbanization, low agricultural prices, and/or rural violence (Etter et al. 2008, Etter et al. 2006).


Forest restoration comprises an important contribution to biodiversity and landscape conservation in the tropical Andes, along with tree plantations and conservation of native forest fragments (Hall et al. 2011, Montagnini 2001, Parotta et al. 1997, Murcia 1997, Kattan et al. 1994). As illustrated in the larger landscape, active restoration projects may be a small component of a larger forest recovery dynamic. The ecological value of these passively restored forests compared with that of resource intensive, actively restored forest is a crucial point in restoration ecology (Holl and Aide 2011). Ecologically, natural reforestation of abandoned pasture is found to be facilitated where sites are close to adjacent forest and when some top soil is present, but not when seed sources are far and when top soil is removed (Uhl 1987, Aide and Cavelier 1994, Holl et al. 2000). In a biodiversity hotspot such as the tropical Andes, resources must be maximized to ensure the greatest conservation outcome; potential for passive restoration should be evaluated before active restoration plantings are implemented. Nevertheless, active restoration projects can provide valuable contributions in agroforestry systems, watershed conservation, and urban areas.


I am grateful for financial support received from the Tropical Resources Institute at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Numerous colleagues have assisted with research planning, including Mark Ashton, Florencia Montagnini, Carolina Murcia, Eva Garen, Gillian Bloomfield, Jeffrey Stoike, and Molly Roske, of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative. In Colombia and Ecuador, I am grateful for the assistance of dozens of experts in the fields of conservation and forest restoration, as well as dozens of project managers, technicians, guides, ranchers, and farmers.


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Bare, M. 2014. Forest Restoration in the Tropical Andes: Active Conservation in a Biodiversity Hotspot. Tropical Resources Bulletin 32-33, 93-100.

  1. Matthew Bare received a MF from Yale F&ES and is an MBA student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. His research focuses on tropical forest conservation and management, ecological restoration, and conservation finance, particularly in the tropical Andes and Latin America. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and is a member of the International Society of Tropical Foresters.]