Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Anthropogenic Change in the Landscapes of Highland Ecuador

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Anthropogenic Change in the Landscapes of Highland Ecuador

Article excerpt

History--geological, archaeological, and agricultural-is a necessary main framework when delimiting the edge of the Tropandean ecoregion, or tropical montane cloud forest (TMCF). Landscape-level conservation planning must then acknowledge humans as the catalyst of landscape change. Today's TMCF landscape in fact reflects two tree lines: an upper one that correlates with the extension of grazing into the colder, higher reaches, which reduces the area of TMCFS from above; and a lower one that correlates with the ascending intensification of cropland agriculture and fuelwood consumption in the piedmont, foothills, and interior highland plateaus. This, in turn, diminishes the extent of TMCFS from below (Figure 1).

In this study I address six questions in order to explore cultural influences on Tropandean tree lines: How different is the paramo (grassland) tree line from the agricultural frontier? How distinct is the paramo tree line from the pasture frontier? How separate is the tree line from the fire line? Can prehistory tell us part of the story of tree lines? Does historical evidence account for forested highlands? And, Do place-names provide further evidence regarding tree-line environments? The methodology employed to answer these questions includes my field-research observations over many years and a critical review of the literature. These produce a different and more detailed understanding of Andean tree-line dynamics than does the more whimsical view that is currently in vogue.

Answers to the questions I have posed create a body of evidence, observed directly and indirectly, that supports belief in an intricate relationship between nature and culture that has created today's landscape mosaic (Gade 1999). The answers also speak to the value of ethnoecology as an essential contributor to the current discourse about conservation-with-development. It is both possible and desirable to apply sound environmental-design principles to support sustainable mountain societies amid human-driven change in the Tropandean ecoregion.


Theory about mountain matters has been summarized in a state-of-the-knowledge compendium (Messerli and Ives 1997). Its final chapter addresses the need for a new science of mountain studies, dubbed with the neologism "montology," which some mountain geographers have echoed (Soffer 1982; Ives, Messerli, and Rhoades 1997; Smethurst 2000). Within this field of study, neotropical montology needs to be redefined in light of new paradigms for tropical mountains (Zimmerer 1999; Sarmiento 2000a, 2002). As one of the specifics, to paraphrase Narpat Singh Jodha, deconstruction of the "tree-line theory" helps redefine the new narrative for neotropical montology (Jodha 1990; Zimmerer 2002).

Traditional mountain-ecology literature is based primarily on geoecological characteristics that divide mountain systems into four altitudinally defined biogeographical provinces in the mountain biome or orobiome: "colline" areas of rolling hills in low-lying foothills that harbor tall, continuous forest cover; "montane" areas of gentle slopes and flanks of the cordilleras that are covered with stands of robust forest; "alpine" areas of highland plateaus and higher, steeper slopes with grassland vegetation; and "glacial" areas covered by snow or permanent ice and glaciers (Walter and Box 1976; Price 1981; Stadmuller 1987; Gerrard 1990; Poore 1992; Mountain Agenda 1997). This traditional classification closely reflected the thermally driven approach that divided tropical mountains into hot, warm, cold, and gelid lands, a four-part hierarchy derived from 200-year-old Humboldtian science (Troll 1968).

In the spatial arrangement of the vertical model, scholars perceived the existence of invisible lines separating those layers or physical strata (Landolt 1983). Although the snow line can be readily separated as a boundary dividing the alpine and glacial provinces, lower boundaries are far less easily discerned. …

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