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Ecuador creates a new area to protect water and biodiversity in Cuenca

Published on October 31, 2023

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  • The Machángara Tomebamba Wildlife Refuge is a new protected area in Ecuador with 24,958 hectares.
  • The main objectives of the refuge are the protection of the water in the area that provides water to Ecuador’s third largest city, Cuenca, and other nearby towns in the south of the country.
  • The refuge is the 77th protected area in the country. In addition to connecting with other high Andean ecosystems, it will allow the care of paramo areas, where there are 522 species of flora and fauna, 13% of them endemic, meaning they are only found in that place.

In the moors and wetlands of a new protected area in Ecuador, the Machángara Tomebamba Wildlife Refuge, 60% of the water in the city of Cuenca is generated and used by more than 400,000 people. This area already had regional legal protection figures, but now the category of life refuge is national and stricter.

This new protected area is located in the south of Ecuador and takes its name from two rivers that are in the area, in the provinces of Azuay and Cañar; it has 24,958 hectares, an area larger than the island of Aruba.

Among the species present in Machángara Tomebamba are the condor (Vultur gryphus) and the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). Credit: Public company ETAPA.

The wildlife refuge is home to multiple emblematic species of the Andes that are in the Vulnerable category, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Among them are the condor (Vultur gryphus) and the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). In addition, there are endemic species in Critical Danger of extinction such as the blood cut amphibian (Pristimantis erythros). In Machángara Tomebamba, more than 522 species of flora and fauna have been documented, 13% of them considered endemic, meaning they are only found in that region.

“It is an area that conserves its natural resources in good condition,” says Fabián Rodas, coordinator for Cuenca of the civil society organization Nature and Culture International, who was part of the research and advocacy process for the declaration of Machángara Tomebamba as a protected area in September 2023.

In addition to the presence of livestock, moorland burnings have occurred in the area caused by conflicts over land possession and to expand livestock activity.

Machángara River. Photo: Fabián Rodas and Nature and Culture International.

The water wealth of Machángara Tomebamba

José Cáceres, biologist and biodiversity technician at the municipal company Etapa, which oversees Cuenca’s drinking water and who participated in the declaration process, highlights that the water value of Machángara Tomebamba is key, but the entire ecosystem must be protected to protect the water generated there. “It is a key area for its environmental services.”

Cáceres adds that in the wildlife refuge there are five types of ecosystems, among which the paramo predominates, key for the generation of water and which ranges from 3,000 to 4,300 meters above sea level. The biologist highlights that the declaration was necessary to protect the moors, rivers and lagoons that provide the water consumed by more than 400,000 Ecuadorians.

Mónica Pesantez, a biologist and technician at the Cuenca office of the civil organization Nature and Culture International, says that the declaration gives the area a “very specific treatment, which will protect the water and other natural resources that were at risk.” by not having this figure of protection.”

The high Andean landscapes of the Machángara Tomebamba life refuge will be protected with the new classification as a life refuge. Credit: Fabián Rodas and Nature and Culture International.

Cáceres mentions that the declaration is important because it protects the connectivity of the life refuge with other areas of high biodiversity: “The declaration allows us to strengthen ecological connectivity, to ensure that protected areas are not isolated, to allow flows of fauna, food, and genes. In ecology, if an area is isolated it can begin to lose its diversity.”

Machángara Tomebamba is connected by biodiversity corridors with the Curiquingue-Gallocantana, Mazán and Cajas National Park protected areas.

“This area has fragile ecosystems that were not very well represented in the national system of protected areas,” says Cáceres.

The restrictions and uses that the Mánhangara Tomebamba shelter will have

Mánhangara Tomebamba had the protection category of Forest and Protective Vegetation Area since 1985. Cáceres mentions that this is a weak legal figure that does not allow so many restrictions on its management. Since 2021, it is also an area of ​​conservation and sustainable use (ACUS), a municipal protection category that mandates that an area must be protected and managed by decentralized public entities.

However, the wildlife refuge category has been the most restrictive and protective the area has ever had. Rodas explains that the new classification has greater legal certainty and more explicit prohibitions as it is within the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) of Ecuador, which means that the life refuge as a legal figure “can never be reduced or eliminated.” He adds that neither concessions nor mining extraction can be made. Other advantages, he says, are “greater attention from the State, strengthening of inter-institutional management and a greater capacity to manage resources for its management.”

Experts point out that the declaration was necessary to protect the moors, rivers and lagoons that provide the water consumed by more than 400,000 Ecuadorians. Credit: Fabián Rodas and Nature and Culture International.

Fabián Rodas explains that the figure of ACUS was a prerequisite that the civil society organization Nature and Culture International promoted to request the Ministry of the Environment to declare the Mánhangara Tomebamba Shelter.

This declaration was necessary, there is “habitat fragmentation,” says Cáceres. This affects the biodiversity of species, some of them in danger of extinction such as the blood cut amphibian (Pristimantis erythros).

Ana Gabriela Manosalvas, vice minister of Environment in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition of Ecuador, tells Mongabay Latam that the refuge is home to “multiple species of hummingbirds, the Andean bear, the paramo wolf. “There is great biodiversity.”

In Machángara Tomebamba, various endemic species have been recorded, that is, they are only found in this area on the entire planet: 54 species of flora, eight of amphibians, three of mammals, one bird and two of reptiles, according to data shared by Nature and International Culture. Of the 522 species of flora and fauna present, 9% are threatened: five in Critical degree of risk of extinction, 13 in Danger, 31 in Vulnerability, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Vice Minister Manosalvas highlights that the declaration of the life refuge contributes to Ecuador’s goals of having 30% of its territory under legal environmental protection figures, according to the country’s international commitments. Its almost 25,000 hectares contribute to the 19% that the country has achieved on this path.

Multiple people from social organizations and public entities were behind the work that allowed the declaration of the Machángara Tomebamba Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador.

Currently, environmental authorities are preparing the management plan for the new wildlife refuge to protect biodiversity, which will assign at least six officials to care for the protected area, as well as establish the assigned control posts on the basis that there were already two of these sites within the area. Previously, management of the area was carried out by assigned personnel from the municipal company Etapa, but now they will be officials affiliated with the Ministry of the Environment.

Cáceres explains that mining, although not present within the protected area, was completely prohibited. He adds that there are other uses of the territory that can be compatible with conservation such as sustainable tourism, so they are evaluating how this could work.

There are 522 species of flora and fauna in Machángara Tomebamba. Credit: Public company ETAPA.

The viability of livestock farming in the refuge still needs to be evaluated. “There is a peasant population that has worked in the area, but we will seek to unite with them, give them support, so that they do not see the protected area as a problem,” says Cáceres.

“There are people who, to demonstrate their ownership of the land, burn part of the land, introduce livestock,” says Rodas. There are 43 landowners in the area, according to the Nature and Culture International team.

Vice Minister Manosalvas says that the threats to the protected area have been studied and that the management plan will seek to define the route of action to manage them. “We are not seeking to prohibit everything, we are seeking to make livestock farming more sustainable, to identify where it can be done and where it cannot.”

This report was originally published in Mongabay Latam. It has been copyedited for clarity.


  1. Just wondering: is the abattoir still located on the Machangara river, in the area of La Compañia?

  2. Fantastic!!

  3. This is a magnificent accomplishment. I salute all who are instrumental in the initiation and completion of the project.
    Well done!


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