Like many others who have watched Amazon deforestation with despair, I didn’t think it was possible to regrow a tropical forest. The Amazon seemed caught up in a vicious cycle, as the land was cleared for cattle farming or crops, and while I had read about high level discussions of compensating countries for ‘ecosystem services’, such as paying them to not cut forests, I had never heard of a way individuals could do this.
And then I learned the story of Omar Tello, an Ecuadorian who has done just that over the past 40 years. He has restored rainforest on an area that had been cleared for farmland, turning it into a forest that is home to thousands of species of insects, birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. He is one of only a few people who have ever achieved such a transformation.
In 1980, that became Las Orquideas Botanical Garden, which he directs, and the Amazonian Flora Rescue Centre, where he focuses on strategies and actions to encourage respect for the natural environment and carry out scientific research on Amazonian flora and fauna. It is located on the edge of the city of Puyo in Ecuador’s Pastaza province.
He encourages other landowners to conserve and restore tropical forest by working with an organization that links local farmers and international families to provide financial support so they don’t have to clear the land in order to make a living.
Humans for Abundance invites people to become co-restorers with people who live in essential ecosystems like the Amazon, by restoring socio-economic opportunity for them even as they restore and protect biodiversity for us. “Together, we stop destroying the natural world, and, instead, we regenerate and care for the environment.”
“Many families in the Amazon need to extract resources from the forest in order to survive,” the organization explains. “They cut trees down to sell the wood and then use that deforested patch to grow food. They use intensive agriculture that contaminates rivers and diminishes biodiversity.”
While there has been a lot more recognition in recent years that areas like the Amazon provide ‘ecosystem services’ for the world, this was the first time I had read about a model for how people could individually tackle global warming and stop habitat destruction.
Humans for Abundance describes itself as a social enterprise that sells a service – the ‘act itself of restoring or conserving ecosystems:. It is much like you would pay someone to fix your car or care for your garden, it says, but this service is “taking care of our collective home, our shared planet.” People can sign up for annual plans that range from $8 to $35 per month for specific kinds of eco services.
The stories of eight families they support, including Omar, are told on their website.
Led by Ecuadorian educator María José Iturralde, Humans for Abundance has put together an impressive team to carry out its mission. She holds a Master’s degree in Education and worked in education for many years before deciding to work on conserving and regenerating destroyed ecosystems.
Tropical Commons explains that the organization’s work began in 2019 with Omar Tello’s family and José and Mayra’s family, who were soon joined by three more families and a person who offers agroecology workshops. When they were writing last year, 10 more families were looking at joining, the magazine said.
The story of how Omar came to replant his forest has been told in a number of articles and videos over the past few years, most recently by the BBC program People Fixing the World.
Forty years ago, watching the destruction of the natural environment all around him, Omar and his brother searched for a piece of land he could buy and restore. For years, before and after his day job as an accountant at a bank, he worked on restoring the land, learning how to enrich the soil and planting rare seeds and cuttings from other areas that were being cleared.
“People thought I was mad, but I’ve watched this whole paradise disappear, to the point where seeing a wild animal alive and free is a luxury…so I said to myself, I have to do something to save these species,” Omar says.
And as he replanted, wildlife slowly returned. “Snakes, birds, insects, bees and even the endangered ‘glass frog’ (rana cristal), which was thought to be on the brink of extinction, have been spotted in his forest,” Tropical Commons reported last year.
His rescue centre “is now a benchmark for research on ecosystem restoration” and he is seen internationally as an expert in long-term forest restoration. “His work now is to collaborate with educational institutions, community centers and local farmers, to empower other landowners to do the same as him.”
Sadly, local authorities and people don’t seem to appreciate his work. “[Although people] come from far away to see and learn about the project,” his wife says, “people around Puyo are not that interested. They don’t respect what Omar has done. No-one from the local government or authorities have shown any interest. The tourist office tells people that we aren’t open to visitors, when we are.”
Hopefully that will change. Tropical Commons notes that in 2008, scientists warned that Ecuador had the highest deforestation rate in South America and that the Ecuadorian government needed to promote incentives for sustainable forest management of plantations and natural forests.
To learn how, they just need to look to Omar and Humans for Abundance.
Omar Tello, the humble maverick who restored a plot of Ecuadorian rainforest in the face of widespread deforestation. Tropical Commons, June 3, 2020.
The man who grew his own Amazon rainforest. BBC, People Fixing the World.
In Ecuador, One Man’s Mission to Restore a Piece of the Rainforest. Yale Environment 360, Aug. 8, 2019.
Humans for Abundance website.
Conservation Hero – Omar Tello. One Earth, Nov. 6, 2020.