Aerial view of Cerro Blanco hill, a tropical dry forest on the outskirts of Guayaquil – Copyright AFP Marcos PIN
A mountainous forest that is a bastion of exceptional flora and fauna next to Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, is now threatened by mining, urbanization and deforestation.
Cerro Blanco – white hill in English – is a vast tropical dry forest that has been gradually devoured by the port city of three million people.
In the last 15 years, Cerro Blanco has become an “island enclosed and fenced off by the city,” Eliana Molineros, who created a foundation to protect wild animals, told AFP.
The fragile and rich ecosystem of the forest has been declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The 6,000-hectare (14,800-acre) forest is home to hundreds of bird species, around 60 mammal species, including jaguars, the continent’s largest cats, and dozens of endemic plants.
Only about 10 percent of the world’s original tropical dry forests remain.
Cerro Blanco and its virgin jungle is one of the few environments of this type that remain in Latin America.
But it is also a mining area that provides the raw material for cement, and hence the name of the hill due to the color of the limestone.
There are 36 quarries, including 10 government-run sites, devouring the forest vegetation.
Those quarries are supposedly licensed by the national agency that controls mining, but locals complain that some of them are illegal.
A few abandoned illegal mines stand out like scars on the landscape.
– ‘The lungs of Guayaquil’ –
On Saturday, dozens of local inhabitants of an area deforested for mining protested against the proliferation of mines, shouting “Out with the quarries!” and “Protect the lungs of Guayaquil from predation.”
Four local associations demanded the creation of a protected area that would prohibit mining and other extractive activities in Cerro Blanco.
With white butterflies fluttering overhead, biologist Paul Cun stopped in front of a 130-foot (40-meter) tall fig tree.
“We are standing in the best-preserved tropical dry forest in Ecuador,” said Cun, who has been a volunteer in the forest since 1998.
With his boots sunk in the mud, Cun told stories of being bitten by snakes or howler monkeys throwing fruit at him.
Among the more than 250 species of birds that nest here is the snail kite, a rare raptor whose song sounds like a laugh.
The large pijio trees that are typical of this area are home to the Guayaquil parrot, the emblem of the city, but whose number has been reduced to only 60 birds that live in the wild, according to experts.
Mushrooms abound, some purple and sticky, others black that emerge from the ground like a claw and are known locally as the “hand of death”.
Around him, trees as tall as high-rise buildings scatter the sun’s rays.
In the southern part of the hill, lots with about 30 upper-middle-class homes are dug out of the forest.
To the north are the “Monte Sinaí” and “Ciudad de Dios” favelas, the poorest areas of a city marked by enormous wealth disparity and which has become a focus of drug-related violence.
The villas are the most dangerous neighborhoods on Cerro Blanco.
The two unarmed forest rangers are defenseless against arsonists and squatters who flock to the forest looking to make their fortune.
– Prosperous tourism –
Before becoming a private reserve, Cerro Blanco was exploited by a large landowner in the 1950s.
In 1989, the state expropriated the forest and sold it to the Swiss construction materials company Holcim.
In keeping with its environmental commitments, Holcim converted 2,000 hectares (4,950 acres) into a protected forest.
The Probosque Foundation, to which Cun belongs, has been in charge of managing the protected reserve.
These days, tourists and hikers walk the forest trails in search of unique fauna to photograph.
In 2022, around 13,000 people, of whom 15 percent were foreigners, visited the forest, according to Probosque.
However, the foundation’s director of tourism, Romina Escudero, is angry at the lack of support from the local government.
“The only thing they have done is put up a sign with the name of the forest,” Escudero said.
Even as the air is sucked from the green lungs of the city, visitors continue to marvel at the wildlife within.
“We saw a giant cat,” enthused Saúl Vivero, a mountain biker who saw a jaguarundi, a wild cat slightly larger than a domestic cat and known for its long tail.