2000 Laureate, Environment
Ecuador, Born 1956
Conservation at the grass roots level is a popular concept these days, yet few proponents of this fundamental approach are as qualified to promote it as Maria Eliza Manteca Oñate. This former nurse from Ecuador is making a considerable difference to the lives of the people in and around the Andean valley in which she was born, in addition to helping reverse decades of environmental damage. And grass roots — or more specifically the soil fixing properties of the grass plant vetiver — actually play a crucial role in the conservation efforts that secured Manteca a Rolex Award for Enterprise.
Practices such as slash-and-burn forest clearing, cutting too much wood and planting crops longitudinally down the steep valley slopes have destroyed 93 per cent of Ecuador’s forest cover. This in turn has led to severe erosion of potential farmland. Rain washes fertile topsoil down the steep mountain slopes, where it clogs the lakes and rivers feeding the nation’s hydroelectric power plants.
Manteca, wanting to protect the remaining tracks of forests in the Andean region in which she grew up, has established a successful nature reserve on the Cerro Golondrinas, a mountain between the Mira and San Juan rivers. The Rolex Laureate has also set up a model farm where local people are learning how to live from farming and protect their natural environment.
A farmer’s daughter from the Mira valley, Manteca has always loved nature. "As a young girl," she says, "I became aware of the destruction of the natural resources in my area." She blames migration away from the region, economic pressures and modernization in general for the fact that sound traditional farming methods gave way to more destructive practices.
“It is very common for girls from my area to leave their villages in search of a ’better life’ in Quito,” Manteca reflects, "because at home their future is mapped out for them." And this is exactly what she herself did at 15. Curious to find out what the "big city" was like, she left her family farm to work as a maid in Quito. Disillusioned, she says, by the way rural people were exploited, she decided to study for a career that would enable her to return to her home and help the local population. She trained as a nurse at evening classes, specialising in nutrition and disease prevention, and eventually returned to her village in 1987 to run a government-funded health education programme.
Working with volunteers and doctors from other villages, Manteca set out to forge friendships with families before teaching them the principles of proper nutrition. It was a period of her life she remembers with great fondness, but one that sadly lasted for only 10 months.
The project was suspended through lack of funding and Manteca returned to Quito where, with the help of friends, she set up a small tourist hostel, La Casa de Eliza.
“From that moment I set myself the target of finding a way to earn money so that I could return to my village to work with the local people and find ways of improving their economic situation,” she recalls.
"Quite by chance a friend invited me to visit her home village of Morán, and that was how we discovered the Cerro Golondrinas. We had the idea of organising treks around the area, which we gradually realised has an extremely rich biodiversity, with vast areas of primary forest that needed to be protected." The trekkers would spend the nights at the house of a farmer, who eventually offered to sell his farm to Manteca.
Protecting the Forest
The enterprising Ecuadorian bought the farm and 200 hectares of land with the income generated by La Casa de Eliza. And then, together with a group of committed friends, she launched the Cerro Golondrinas Cloudforest Conservation Project and Reserve in 1991. The project later became the Golondrinas Foundation.
The group set about protecting the region’s remaining forest and promoting more sustainable farming practices. In order to find out how best to cultivate the degraded soil covering many of the farm’s steep slopes, Manteca visited dozens of other farms before hearing about the vetiver plant from the CIAT, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.
Well known for its use in the perfume industry and originating from India, vetiver is a robust plant that is unpalatable to livestock and resistant to extreme climatic conditions. Perhaps more importantly, though, its roots penetrate deep into the ground, stabilising the soil around it and helping resist the erosive effects of rain. When planted as hedges along the contours of the land, vetiver can help create gently sloping, cultivatable terraces. The international Vetiver Network provided Manteca with technical support for applying these terracing techniques.
Manteca promotes permaculture — the planting of different types of plants and trees — as the best means of cultivating these plots. She admits that she was sceptical when introduced to the method by permaculture expert Ali Sharin, an Australian working at Ecuador’s Tropical Forest Research Centre (Centro de Investigaciones de Bosques Tropicales).
A New Model
"I didn’t think it was suitable for us to show farmers how to cultivate their land this way, because they already had their own planting methods and had always considered trees as obstacles," she says. "But as I talked with Ali, it gradually became clear that we needed to adopt such an approach to avoid pests and insects and to regenerate the soil."
Sharin’s advice was a great help to Manteca when she set up a model farm, Peña Negra, in 1998. "We began translating the permaculture theory into practice and growing crops using procedures that the local farmers understood," she explains.
Manteca advises farmers to plant fruit trees with short- and long-term yields, plants that fix nitrogen in the soil and traditional crops such as kidney beans, maize, yucca and legumes, which are suited to the area and easy to grow. "We also explain to farmers that by adopting this approach, they will be able to dispense with chemicals and lead a more healthy life," she adds.
Her efforts are already paying dividends. Local farmers are gradually accepting the idea that it is possible to live off the land without damaging the soil. And, with the help of her Rolex Award, Manteca is planning to set up a second model farm, at Santa Rosa, on the outskirts of the Cerro Golondrinas Reserve. Located at an altitude of 1,600 metres — 800 metres higher than Peña Negra — it is ideally positioned for growing blackberries and blackcurrants.
Like Peña Negra, this second farm will provide practical training as part of an educational programme on the importance of nature conservation, launched by Manteca in 1997. Although directed principally at farmers, the programme is also aimed at schoolchildren, teachers, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and local and regional authorities.
As if these activities were not enough to keep her occupied, Manteca still runs La Casa de Eliza. She divides her time between Quito and the Mira Valley, where she also manages another small hotel, La Carolina, from where she organises the forest treks that fund the Golondrinas Foundation.
The Golondrinas Foundation was legally created on 26 June 1996, and at the same time the Golondrinas Reserve, which today occupies 1,400 hectares, officially became a protected forest. In the longer term, Manteca plans to expand the reserve to 25,000 hectares, an objective that she is closer to achieving thanks to the Rolex Award funding. She is now also in a position to pursue her ultimate objective, to raise children’s awareness of environmental issues and the importance of preserving natural resources. "I also want to set up handicrafts and ceramics workshops for women and young people, using natural raw materials to help them improve their economic situation," she says.
Maike Potthast, a German biologist whose doctorate was based on a study of the vegetation of the Golondrinas Reserve, says of Manteca: "Eliza is an incredible person. She is enterprising, with exceptional tenacity in general, but even more so in the Ecuadorian cultural context, where women are still used to a submissive role, especially when they come from the countryside."
Judging by what she has already accomplished, there is little doubt that Manteca will achieve her outstanding goals, and it is little wonder that Rolex Award Selection Committee member Sir Crispin Tickell described her as a "force de la nature".
Published in 2000