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Looking after lagoons in Ecuador

The story of Maria Elena and people-centered conservation

“Our appreciation for our land and water comes from our grandparents, they understand that this life source must be preserved.”

- María Elena Quimbiamba, President UCCOPEM

View of the Laguna Grande and the Laguna Mediana

Just one and half hours from Quito, 3 800 meters above sea level

you can find the Mojanda Lake Complex, a series of remote freshwater lagoons in the Ecuadorian Andes.


they are equally breath-taking as they are essential for the health of the of the surrounding communities and ecosystems.


Diversion of water from the lagoons to the channels and springs

The grass-covered mountains dominate over the lagoons, which provide fresh water to approximately 200,000 people and irrigation for local agricultural practices for most of the Northern Ecuadorian Andes.

Yet by 2018, it was clear that the Mojanda complex and the communities’ access to water was under threat.

This once pristine environment was at the brink of no return with unregulated tourism, over-burning of mountain ecosystems and expanding agriculture frontiers, including the local and dominating greenhouse floriculture industry - one of Ecuador’s biggest exports.  

María Elena telling us about growing roses in her greenhouse

María Elena, a young, inspiring leader from Pedro Moncayo was determined to help find a solution.

Growing up, María Elena saw how important conserving water sources was for her community. Water would be accessible to everyone, only if the whole community worked together to take care of the channels and water system. She always knew that access to water was a collective effort.

“In the past, we suffered a great deal from water issues. It was never enough during the summer months when the old irrigation channel would dry up.”

This is her inspiration.

“The lagoons cannot be seen as a source of income, but  for what they really are. A space that gives life to a whole community, to an entire region. Without the Mojanda lagoons, communities would disappear and people would migrate to other areas in search of water."

- María Elena

María Elena looking at the cultivated mellocos

Agroecologically harvested quinoa

“Since I was a child, I always liked being involved in defending peoples’ rights. My father was a leader, so I used to go with him to the mingas - community meetings - to organise our collective work.“

- explains María Elena

Maria Elena speaking at the assembly of the members of the UCCOPEM fair

That’s exactly what she’s done as President of UCCOPEM, the first young woman leader in the organisation’s history. 

In 2016, UCCOPEM joined the National Land Coalition of Ecuador (Plataforma por la Tierra y los Territorios Sostenibles), Ecolex, the local government and other actors, to create a conservation area that could protect the local ecosystem while safeguarding people’s livelihoods.

Stalls selling agroecological products at the UCCOPEM fair

The process to create the conservation area was designed to be as participative and inclusive as possible.

Together, local communities determined what they deemed the most appropriate forms of ecosystem management, expressing their needs and interests.

Throughout the process, local communities didn’t just have a seat at the table; they were leading the conversation.


Farmers from UCCOPEM, selling their products at the fair

Susana, farmer from UCCOPEM, selling her chicken at the fair

In 2019, after three years of collective work, the Mojanda Conservation and Sustainable Use Area was officially established - also referred to as ACUS.


View of the laguna Mediana de Mojanda

“Everything we have been able to overcome is thanks to our collective work, benefiting not individuals, but rather the entire community. Before, massive amounts of tourists were allowed to come up here and make bonfires and leave their rubbish.”

- María Elena

“The first thing that was done was the limitation of the agricultural frontier, then we surveyed  flora and fauna, and land tenure and, fourthly, the municipal ordinance to declare the ACUS. Thanks to the declaration, our forests have flourished, fires have diminished, and tourism has been regulated.”

- Luis Catucuango, Director of Environmental Management of the Municipality of Pedro Moncayo

By regulating water supply, mitigating floods and droughts, and promoting biodiversity, local populations are better prepared to confront the effects of climate change.

The declaration is just the beginning of a long road ahead, which included later the approval of the Mojanda Water Protection Area (APH), key to expand and reinforce protection of the territory and water resources at the national level. 

Luis looking at the flow of the lagoon

view of the new irrigation channel

None of this would have been possible without the experience and precious knowledge of the older generations on how to conserve life and nature.

But now, according to María Elena, it’s in the hands of her generation to ensure that this significant but first step is carried through.


“I dare say my generation already has environmental awareness. Mojanda is no longer just a place where we go up to take a photo, but we see conservation as the objective and we need to preserve our ecosystem, not only for us but also for our daughters and sons.”

- María Elena

Learn more about how ILC is improving people-centred land governance in Ecuador in a summary of our contributions