Inspiration for Acción Andina’s

ECOAN’S 20+ Year Model of Community Reforestation in Peru’s Vilcanota Mountains

ECOAN & Acción Andina

Indigenous communities in the Cordillera Vilcanota (3000 a 4500 masl) of southeastern Peru started reforesting their communal lands in 2001. It is ECOAN’s time-tested community forest restoration model that is the inspiration and flagship project for Acción Andina, an ambitious forest restoration movement encompassing South America’s seven Andean countries which share a narrow 3,000 mile corridor supporting a unique, globally rare, and rapidly disappearing high mountain forest ecosystem. Constantino (Tino) Aucca, ECOAN’s Co-founder and President, is also founder and President of Acción Andina.

Acción Andina currently includes restoration projects in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. There, on-the-ground conservation organizations, working with local, national and international partners, are restoring and protecting the vital ecosystems of the world’s highest altitude forests. Growing at altitudes up to 5,000 meters, just beneath Andean glaciers, these native Polylepis forests have tremendous capacity not only to absorb mist from clouds, but also to capture water from melting glaciers. Transforming eroded landscapes into healthy soil, streams, and wetlands, Polylepis forests ensure that glacial melt reaches nearby mountain villages as well as lowland towns and cities.

Polylepis forests protect threatened animals and plants, including wildlife able to migrate to higher elevations for refuge in the age of global warming. Polylepis watersheds also feed into the headwaters of the Amazon. Despite the substantial contributions of Polylepis forests, their importance, until now, has been largely overlooked. By unifying a growing number of dedicated local conservation leaders and their organizations and rural communities into a multi-country program, Acción Andina can achieve significant ecosystem restoration.


For over twenty years, ECOAN has been partnering with indigenous communities in the Vilcanota mountains to provide long-term restoration and protection of native Polylepis forests in the high Andes of Peru. As villagers watch the glaciers just above these forests retreat in the age of climate change, they’re highly motivated to regrow their high altitude forests for water security, as Polylepis can capture glacial melt and precipitation.
ECOAN’s community reforestation model has resulted in the planting of nearly 4 million native trees in Peru, including 1.74 million Polylepis in the Vilcanota. Perhaps the most striking and defining characteristic of ECOAN’s approach is the emphasis on forging trusting, enduring relationships with the people planting and protecting the forests. ECOAN staff speak the local Quechua language. Villagers are highly regarded as decision-makers (deciding, for example, where to plant the trees on their communal lands), and their cultures are deeply respected.


ECOAN’s leader, Tino Aucca recognized from the start that meaningful community benefits -- shared among all the people of a community -- are a prerequisite for long-term forest stewardship. Even before founding ECOAN, he brought much-needed medical supplies to the remote villages, similar to the one he grew up in. As the mutual respect and trust between ECOAN and the communities grew roots, the people embraced “conservation thinking.” Everyone -- from the very young to very old -- takes their communal reforestation responsibilities seriously. They no longer burn the forest. They don’t permit their llamas, alpacas, and vicunas to eat the young trees they’ve grown and planted. Instead, they are regrowing their lost and degraded forest to ensure water security for their children and the generations to come.


Project Highlights

Located in spectacular Andean mountain landscapes above the Sacred Valley of the Incas near Cusco, Peru, the Vilcanota Project covers 102,000 hectares (approx. 250,000 acres) where more than 25 indigenous communities are restoring their degraded and deforested communal lands with native Polylepis forests, primarily for increased water security. The Vilcanota Project’s holistic approach to forest ecosystem restoration includes helping communities gain title to their lands and establishing Private Conservation Areas (PCAs). Project priorities also encompass local conservation leadership training, food security programs, and establishment of microbusinesses that celebrate and promote indigenous culture (in pre-Covid times, for example, women’s textile cooperatives and mountain guiding on the Inca Trails).


During the Covid-time of food and health insecurity, ECOAN was responsive to the needs of the local people, providing emergency food and supplies and face masks. Employment in the tree nurseries has also been particularly helpful to these families living in remote areas where government help is often nonexistent.


Threatened animals and plants finding refuge in the Vilcanota mountains’ Polylepis forests include:
Andean Condor
Vultur gryphus

One of the world’s largest flying birds and the largest raptor, the Andean Condor can soar to 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) on air currents. It is also one of the world’s longest living birds, with a lifespan of 50-70 years.

Spectacled Bear
Tremarctos ornatus

Threatened by habitat loss, the Spectacled Bear is the only surviving species of bear native to South America, and primarily a herbivore.

Royal Cinclodes
Cinclodes aricomae

Critically endangered, this bird’s total population is estimated to be fewer than 300 individuals.

Marbled four-eyed frog
Pleurodema marmoratum

Living at 17,700 feet above sea level, this is the highest altitude amphibian in the world. Recent research indicates that this species is responding to climate change by expanding into new upslope habitats. Two poisonous glands above its hind legs, which look like enormous eyes, can fool predators into thinking it is a much larger animal.

Andean mountain cat
Leopardus jacobita

This endangered, small wild cat is native to the high Andes of Peru (as well as Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina).

Orchid Telipogon peruvianus
Telipogon peruvianus

This critically endangered, endemic, highly restricted species grows in the forests of Polylepis pauta. Many individuals occur in the same place and several of the epiphytic plants can grow on a single tree. The orchid’s habitat has been severely affected by deforestation.

Anticipated outcomes

The Vilcanota Project is contributing to the success of Acción Andina and the UN Decade of Eco-Restoration by continuing, at an ever greater scale, to grow and protect native Polylepis forests. Restored forest ecosystems provide the priceless benefits of water security and refuge for endangered wildlife.

This project is the inspiration for Acción Andina’s long-term goal of protecting .5 million hectares (over 1.23 million acres) of remaining Polylepis forest while restoring an additional .5 million hectares of high priority native Polylepis forests over the next 25 years in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela. ECOAN’s work with the villagers of the Vilcanota will continue to be a model of effective conservation leadership, not only for Acción Andina, but also for eco-restoration initiatives around the world committed to results-driven, collaborative, long-term, science-based community reforestation.

The Vilcanota Project continues to benefit at-risk human populations, improving livelihoods and fulfilling the following UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by:

  • Capturing and protecting great quantities of water in the Polylepis forest watersheds and highland wetlands. (SDG6)
  • Capturing global warming carbon emissions in the soil as well as within the Polylepis trees. (SDG 13))
  • Improving the health and well-being of remote communities by:
    • Providing jobs growing trees in communal and family nurseries. (SDG1)
    • Increasing food security as food crops can be grown along with Polylepis seedlings in the tree nurseries. (SDG1)
    • Replacing traditional cookstoves (which emit toxic fumes) with efficient, clean-burning clay stoves that reduce the need for firewood. (SDG1)
    • Bringing doctors and dentists and much-needed medicines to the people.(SDG1))