Rebeca Justicia uses her passion for ecology to protect endangered forests in her native Ecuador
It all started some 20 years ago, with two naive kids, a trip to Ecuador and a bold dream.
When Rebeca Justicia (PhD ’07) took a trip to her home country the summer after her sophomore year, she was shocked to see the devastating effects of deforestation. She and her now-husband Rodrigo Ontaneda made a pact that they would do something to help their native land.
Fate intervened, as they learned of 6,000 acres of foreclosed land available for $25,000. In 1988, while visiting a variety of conservation organizations in Washington, D.C., they struck gold with a grant from the Tom and Clara Butler Foundation that enabled them to purchase the land.
“The trust that the Butler Foundation placed in us was necessary to our success,” Justicia says. “Because of this grant, we were able to follow our ambitious dreams to create the first private reserve in Ecuador.”
Two decades later, the Maquipucuna Reserve has 13,500 acres and an open-air lodge crafted with indigenous bamboo. It plays host to more than 2,000 visitors annually, who come to study the diverse bird population and over 1,900 species of plants.
Fundación Maquipucuna, the foundation that oversees the reserve, prides itself on 20 years of success in protecting biodiversity and reducing poverty in Ecuador. In addition to ecotourism, other ventures contributing to their mission include training residents to grow and sell gourmet coffee and cacao, along with providing community education on topics such as home-building and craft-making with native bamboo.
In 2000, the foundation received a grant from the Global Environmental Facility through the World Bank that helped expand Maquipucuna’s reach. With this grant, the foundation began an environmental education program in cooperation with the Odum School of Ecology, the Georgia Museum of Natural History and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Nearly a dozen UGA students have completed their graduate research at the reserve with financial support from Maquipucuna grants.
“Recently, we also received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation that will enable us to compare high resolution photography from 1990 to today to see the impact our work has had in protecting and preserving the land,” Justicia says.
Justicia says that the foundation’s biggest accomplishment was establishing the Chocó Andean Corridor, protecting five million acres of ecosystems from the Tropical Andes to the Chocó.
When asked if she would do it all over again, she laughs.
“Rodrigo and I were young and bold and took huge risks in getting to where we are today,” she says. “A lot of things had to fall into place. It was a huge leap of faith and we were fortunate to receive all the support we have had.”