Saving the Ishpingo

By Jen Frey

rainforest sanctuary garden

Arriving in Coca, Ecuador from Quito is like traveling to a different world.  The surroundings are similar; however, the temperatures are not!  During February in Quito it is typical to see people in down jackets (most Americans were in long sleeve shirts or sweaters).  As soon as you walk off the airplane in Coca, you are wondering what layers you can take off and the sweat is pouring before you can exit the tiny airport.

Shortly after crossing the Napo River on your way out of town, it is confirmed, you are in a different world, the world of the Amazon Rainforest.  The flora and fauna are abundant as are the oil pipelines, which explain the numbers of tourists and oil company workers coming into Coca.

The scenes change as you go down the long and bumpy road, switching from jungle to vast grasslands with a few large Trees and cows, to towns, and even oil refineries.  If you pay close attention, you realize the grassland is out of place.  We are, after all, in the Amazon Rainforest.  All around us should be jungle.  However, we are seeing areas where the rainforest has been clear-cut to raise cattle.

Though this process is lauded for the economic improvement of the area,  most of us realize, deforestation is “bad”, Forests and Trees are important to our environment and it is difficult to replace them when they are gone.  However, it is hard to imagine the impacts of clear cutting these Forests.  After all, we are in one of the biodiversity hotspots of our world.

I have been here before and I am aware of the biodiversity of this area.  This area is the home of the Huaorani, Shuar, Quechua, and Mestizo communities and the home of two uncontacted indigenous tribes; as well as over 150 species of amphibians, almost 600 documented bird species, over 3,000 vascular Plant species, over 150 documented mammal species, 10 coexisting primate species, and the list continues.  A typical hectare of forest in the Yasuní (the National Forest close to Coca) contains over 655 Tree species, this is more than are native in the continental US and Canada combined.

However, this time visiting the Iamoe Center, our destination in the Amazon, we met with biologist Walter Palacio.  Going into the Forest with Walter, you begin to realize the immensity of the biodiversity.  We were learning about aromatic Plants.  We could stand in 1 place and within a 10’ diameter, he could point out at least 10 different aromatic species.  

This is a very different place from the Redwood Forests or the Eastern Woodlands where I grew up.  At home, one could easily learn to identify all of the Tree species in our woods.  And soon, could identify most of the woodland Plants too.  However, here, it takes weeks for your eyes to even begin to adjust and start to discover the Trees, bushes, orchids, vines, and other Plants.

Photo from

Photo from

I share this to try to begin to explain the importance of this Forest.  When we talk about clear-cutting an acre of the Rain forest, we are not talking about clear-cutting an acre of Eastern Woodlands.  Sad as that is, the habitat loss is nothing like it is the Rainforest.  Walter Palacios has discovered over 300 species, mostly Trees!  He says that if he goes to a new place, he is guaranteed to discover at least 1 new species.  There are species endemic to a very small area who you will not find anywhere else.  Within the last several years, 3 new species were discovered at the Iamoe.

Of course this area is of particular interest to scientists, the possibility of cures for diseases and new medicines lie in the rich pharmacy of the Amazon.  Another day we explored the Forest with a Quechua guide.  Walter would point to a Tree and our guide would tell us how they use it from food to medicine to spiritual uses and more.

Sanctuary for Ishpingo
In the fall of 2016, the Iamoe Center was told that they needed to clear a part of the Land for agriculture.  Part of the mission of the Iamoe is to protect the Forest; therefore, they worked tirelessly to create a new program demonstrating an alternative to clearcutting.  With this program, they plant more Trees, Ishpingo Trees to be exact.  

I knew that these Trees were to be planted in the Forest; however, I was surprised to see the project.  The Trees were not in rows like I expected.  I can’t say that they are actually in any form of a pattern.  Instead the first 150 Trees are planted where a good spot could be found.  As we were looking for the Trees, I realized how brilliant this plan is.  For not only does it demonstrate that we do not need to clearcut Forests to make the Land “economically viable”, this project is adding to the Forest.  This is a project where humans are working in co-creative partnership with the Forest to benefit all.  

Co-creative Partnership--People and Plants
Plus, the Ishpingo Trees are medicinal.  The leaves and bark have traditionally been used to help with inflammation, gastric ulcers, and intestinal infections.  To learn more about the medicinal qualities of Ishpingo go to:  Ishpingo (Ocotea quixos) is sometimes called the cinnamon Tree, for its leaves, fruit, and bark smell like cinnamon.  Thinking it was Cinnamon, the conquistadors over-harvested this Ecuadorian native Tree, who continues to be at risk from deforestation.  The project at Iamoe aims to protect the already wild Trees as well as planting more.  This project also supports the local people who harvest and prepare the leaves to make tea which is sold through AromaYasuní.  Again, demonstrating that the old model of economics vs environment is not necessary.  We can work with Nature, protecting and benefiting our environment while providing economic opportunities.  

Photo from

Photo from

As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, the Iamoe Center helps to educate the local people on traditional skills, many of which had been forgotten, as well as, modern ones, such as working with computers.  We had the great fortune of meeting some of the amazing women who have benefitted from the Iamoe.  They were beyond grateful.  One woman, Patricia, proudly shared a number of items that she learned to make at the Iamoe, including her first basket.  Patricia is now part of a collective who are growing and making chocolate in the Yasuní.  They are in the process of certification which will allow them to sell their (organic) chocolate around the world.  Something to remember is that these women are Huaorani and Quechua.  Traditionally, they are warring tribes.  However, at The Iamoe Center they are friends and allies.  As they said, “Here we are One.”

As Arundhati Roy says, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way… on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”  As I stood in the Rainforest of the Iamoe Center, I could see this world taking form.  As the Iamoe Center demonstrates, through co-creative partnership with Nature, we can bring in a beautiful, magical world, where all can thrive.