Ecuador: the friar saving the forest

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Ecuador: the friar saving the forestIf a part of the Amazon is still intact with trees and its inherent biodiversity, credit is due to Giovanni Onore who 26 years ago created the Otonga Foundation with the aim of preserving the world's green “lung” and all the creatures it contains, including the children of indigenous people to whom scholarships are awarded through educational projects.

"One day I woke up and was completely blind in one eye. There and then I was frightened, and called the doctor; he prescribed some tests, and I found out I had a thrombosis in my optic nerve. A blood clot in an inoperable spot, nothing could be done. It was difficult, I won't deny it. Then I learned to look at the world in another way, and it seemed even more beautiful. Do you know why? Because I had to make more of an effort to seek beauty, without taking it for granted."

Giovanni Onore, 82, a Marianist friar from Costigliole d'Asti, holds a degree in Agricultural Sciences from the University of Turin. For forty years, he has lived and worked in Ecuador where in 1997, he created the Fondazione Otonga or Otonga Foundation, to defend from destruction the forest located on the western slopes of the Andean mountain range, and at the same time, to preserve the region’s rich plant and animal biodiversity, while also providing education to local children. Friar Giovanni, the ‘professor’ as they call him in Quito, is no longer a youngster, but he has no lack of determination and is driven by a true lifelong passion that keeps him going.

Genesis of a dream

"The story of Otonga is like a Christmas story. In those years, I was working in the faculty of Invertebrate Zoology as a lecturer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, in Quito. One day I had a visit from an Italian biologist; he wanted to see the forest and I accompanied him. While we were intent on contemplating the beauty of the place, we heard in the background the disturbing noise of a chainsaw: evidently someone was cutting down trees. He was quite upset so I explained to him that poor people live here and probably someone was trying to create a small cattle farm without trees. But my friend seemed really pained; he asked me how that treasure could be preserved and prevented from being destroyed. I simply replied, 'You buy it and so it will be protected forever.' I did not think of the consequences!

Our dreamy guest returned home and sent me the first remittance, in the old lira, to make the purchase. So, I used the money to buy as many hectares as I could with it. Then came a further donation to buy more forest, with the sole purpose of protecting it. The first donor was also joined by a number of companies, headed by far-sighted industrialists. I was even given a literary prize: the Gambrinus Prize. It is not that I am a writer but it happened that the well-known mountaineer Reinhold Messner for a reason unknown to me did not collect the prize and it was donated to the Otonga project for forest conservation. I confess that I was carried away by the donors’ enthusiasm and had not remotely imagined the headaches of this undertaking: lawyers, notaries, land registry clerks, land surveyors... So many problems that I have faced with serenity and perseverance. The problems are still there, from the bureaucracy down to the woodcutter who in the night steals a tree from the Otonga forest, but every day I thank God for the strength he gives me and how he manages to pave the way! In short, it went like this: I started buying forests to fulfill the dream of others; then I fell in love with that dream which became my own."

Educational projects and long-distance adoptions

However, says Friar Giovanni, in places like this, torn apart by poverty, corruption and crises of various kinds, you cannot save a tree and neglect a poor child who does not have the means and opportunities to study. Thus, we came up with a another idea: give them scholarships to involve them in nature conservation projects. "Thanks to education," explains Brother Giovanni, “these children will have an alternative job and instead of being loggers, they will help me conserve forests and biodiversity.

The Otonga Foundation has set up a long-distance adoption project that helps hundreds of children with their studies. The results are amazing: one of them, Mario Tapia, has become a sculptor and has even made a marble statue of an Ecuadorian saint, Santa Mariana de Jesus Paredes y Flores; it’s placed in one of the niches surrounding St. Peter's Basilica. Mario was a child of the forest; with my own eyes , one day I saw him carving a beautiful little bird from a piece of wood, and so I sent him to study in Carrara and today he is a great artist - but there would be many others worth mentioning.

Our vocation as Marianist friars is really education, and so in the Otonga project this component could not be missing. We are committed to providing everything they need to go to school: backpacks, books, pencils, notebooks, uniforms. We also have our own school in Quito, run by Franciscan nuns: it is a school of excellence, and it guarantees the children who attend it direct access to university."

Friar Giovanni is amazed at the good fruits that this foundation is able to produce, and at the fact that he never has to ask anyone for anything, because somehow Providence always catches up with him. "When I go around talking about this project in churches, parishes, universities or even at lay associations, there is always someone who asks me, 'how can I help you?' And people of good will who adopt these children long-distance, pay for their studies , thus guaranteeing them a future, are multiplying."

Biodiversity: a patrimony to defend

The Otonga Reserve exists not by virtue of protective legislative acts, but through the gradual acquisition of parcels of forest land by the Fundación Otonga, recognized by a Ecuadorian ministerial agreement. The primary goal of the project is to raise funds for new land acquisitions and thus protect larger and larger areas of forest. Another crucial aspect is the involvement of local people who are being taught conscientious land management.

The Otonga forest in Ecuador is extremely rich in water sources and holds one of the most significant floral and faunal heritages on Earth. More than fifty mammal species are currently recorded, including the pacarana or guanta (Dynomis branickii), a species declared endangered due to deforestation and hunting. There are also as many as thirteen different species of bats, the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the straw cat (Oncifelis colocolus), the small tiger (Felis tigrina), and the puma or American lion. More than 200 species of birds live in the reserve.

There are countless species belonging to minor fauna such as amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Some of the world's largest insects are found here, such as the famous Dynastes hercules and Dynastes neptunus. Species new to science are often encountered, such as the spectacular Shapely-winged Mantis (Calopteromantis otongica). "I myself," says Giovanni Onore, "have discovered about 200 small creatures that now bear my name. There are millions of species in this corner of paradise: everything is useful; there is not one harmful animal."

In addition to the scientific installation, which facilitates the on-site study of Otonga's fauna and flora, a large nursery has also been created to maintain 20 thousand native plants used to reforest areas in and around the edges of the Reserve. With the help of some local youth, about 35 thousand seedlings from the seedbeds and nurseries are being planted. With the latest purchases, the forest far exceeds 1,000 hectares in size.

"We have to hurry," says Brother Giovanni, "or we will end up destroying all of this and wiping out this incredible variety of species that exists not only in this portion of paradise. This is about ensuring the survival of humanity itself.

The world is becoming aware of climate change that is accelerated by human activities. In Ecuador, the great glaciers covering the peaks of the Andes are retreating, and climatic phenomena are becoming more pronounced: drier areas are rapidly becoming deserts and rainy areas are becoming increasingly flooded. Ocean coasts previously protected by dense mangrove forests are being deforested to make way for shrimp farms for export. Sea level rise and waves are eroding beaches with a huge loss of biodiversity.

As an entomologist I use insects as thermometers to measure the degree of warming of the environments in which they live. During my research in the Andes, I found that some of them used to live between 2000 and 2300 meters above sea level; now they have moved to 2800 meters and then they will go even higher, but at some point, if they continue their ascent they will reach the mountain tops, they will become extinct. Recently in the Otonga forest, at two thousand meters, I found the Rhinella marina frog that used to live below one thousand meters!"

Constantly referring to Laudato si’

"As a missionary, I am 'proud' of Pope Francis who, through his Encyclical Laudato sì, has urged everyone, Christian and non-Christian, to commit themselves to caring for the earth, the little earthly paradise that God has given us to live on and to raise our children. The Pope is a great connoisseur of the issues of the Amazon because during his pastoral activities he has had the opportunity to come into contact with the poor and the big corporations that have grabbed the lands of the campesinos.

Our Foundation is also receiving funds from the Church and we religious, and even many lay people, are lending our hands to this great challenge: to save the planet, by all means and at all costs. The Holy Father's ideals, reminders, appeals are a constant source of inspiration for me. By the way, we are both originally from Asti; we have lived and taken in South American realities, and then there is one great thing we have in common: the Gospel! There is so much Gospel in the encyclical, perhaps we don't realize it.

In my field which is biology, zoology - but also as a missionary, offering closeness to people - I feel the duty to put into practice what he asks of us in this document. The risk we run is destroying the planet. It is a kind of atomic war against Creation that man carries out every day with pollution, deforestation, and massive emissions of CO2. So regardless of religions, of one's beliefs, of personal affiliations, we must unite to save the Earth."

Cecilia Seppia