PERCHED AMONG HILLS AND CLOUDS AND STAFFED BY NATIVES OF THE NEARBY COMMUNITIES A near-fourty minutes hike on a mostly downhill nature trail through mostly pristine forest brings us from Mashpi Lodge to the Reserve’s “Life Centre”, an installation especially built to be the hub of the abundant portfolio of field research and investigation that is being conducted on this richly bio-diverse portion of the Equatorial Chocó Bio-region.  Arranged around a circular space of forest, simply separated from the outside by transparent netting all around and above it, the center is a portion of the very same forest, just meshed in order to conduct controlled studies and monitoring of some animal species, especially butterflies. From the inside you can see the dense forests that surround the Center as well as the sunny skies which constantly change throughout the day, providing the unequalled spectacle of watching the clouds being born in the warmer lower subtropical valleys below and climbing magically over the rolling hills. mashpi-misty-jungle The circular garden-like area is open for Mahpi’s guests who take guided tours of the installation, enriched by the explanations of the Lodge’s naturalist guides and the Life Centre’s staff.  This is actually one of the highlight visits for the Lodge’s guests. The Centre is directed and supervised by Mashpi’s young Ecuadorian Resident Biologist, Carlos Morochz who works with four full-time assistants, all of them natives of the neighboring communities. In addition to the garden-area, there are a couple of adjoining  rectangular-shaped spaces, not open to the public, which function as rustic yet adequate laboratories for the in-house research and investigation processes which require isolation and tranquility. A common feature of the entire area is the luminosity that makes visitors and workers feel in the actual open forest. The “flagship” project of Mashpi’s Life Centre is a special study to determine the “Genetic bases for the structural coloration” on several species of butterflies.  The selected species were carefully chosen and restricted to a relatively small number of them in order to concentrate the research on quality rather than quantity results. The project intends to look for the actual gene which is responsible for the structural coloration of each species and to monitor practical cases of one of science’s most interesting facts: speciation. The basic work begins with the classification and numbering of the collected specimens so that a rigorous methodology supports the further gathering of information and the subsequent monitoring of each individual. The natural serenity of the place creates the ideal conditions to work with total concentration. Scientific research is a matter of patience, devotion and dedication.  It takes endless hours of watching, comparing, taking notes and systematizing information. Trial and error is part of the process. When this task is undertaken with passion and enthusiasm, the seemingly boring chores become pleasant music to the ears.  In Mashpi’s Life Centre, in addition to the leadership and inspiration provided by the Resident Biologist in charge, the four young assistants who form the permanent staff are all crossed by a similar characteristic: they love what they do and wouldn’t change it for other type of work. staff-mashpi-lodge Each one has a specific task as part of a well-orchestrated team work. It is really inspiring to watch them completely immersed on their daily chores, whether an apparently tedious routine or a more thrilling part of the study.  Three out of four members of the permanent staff are natives of the neighboring community of Mashpi while one was born on the not-too-distant town of Pacto. Before joining the Mashpi Lodge and Reserve’s project, their life was the one of most inhabitants of remote rural communities in many parts of Ecuador, mainly dedicated to agriculture, farming, commerce of local products and other related activities. Currently, Augusto, Nixon, Darwin and Joselo commute one and a half hours (one-way) every day, five days a week, from their homes to Mashpi’s Life Centre in order to spend their time learning the complex yet captivating facts behind the awesome universe of nature and contributing to the preservation of these enchanting and biologically rich forests.  Having had mainly basic rural schooling, nowadays they have a direct hands-on opportunity to learn and to master some practices that could lead them to become themselves researchers or environmental managers and to improve their standards of living. They have certainly embraced their work with passion and a long-term vision.  It is fascinating to watch them patiently detecting the eggs which have been naturally laid by the butterflies in the “host” plants, collecting them, classifying and numbering them and then placing the specimens on small glass-enclosures with specific functions. The processes include detailed monitoring of how the eggs evolve into pupae, chrysalis and later to fully-fledged and often multicolored wonders of the flying insects’ world: butterflies. Augusto is the youngest of the team.  At his present age of twenty years, he has already been at the Centre almost four years.  Like the rest of his colleagues (perhaps with the exception of the more extrovert Nixon), Augusto is slightly shy, quiet and totally concentrated in his duties.  However, when asked about his work at the Centre, his answers in words and facial expressions clearly evidence how much he enjoys what he does. On a previous visit a couple of years ago, when he was eighteen, he had to give an explanation to a special group of visitors about the evolutionary processes in the life of butterflies. His talk, in Spanish, could have well been delivered by a widely experienced naturalist or even a university professor. I ask him now what is it that he enjoys the most about his work and he answers without hesitation that he loves watching minute by minute, day by day, the fantastic metamorphosis process through which butterflies undergo on their predominantly short life-spans.  He also confesses that he is fascinated and intrigued by being a daily witness of evolution. And asked about what he expects in the future he is also concise and with a smile he affirms that he would like to see the results of his work benefiting the conservation of “his” forest and a better life for himself and his people.  Nixon and Darwin coincide with their younger colleague and add also their interest in learning English. They all recognize that being part of the Mashpi team provides them with a great source of labor which they greatly enjoy.