Ecuador is a relatively small country (283,561 km2; about half the size of France) with an extremely varied geographical landscape and extraordinary biological diversity due to its equatorial location, the presence of the Andean mountains that run the country’s length, and the influence of marine currents on the coast (MAE 2010a). Ecuador is considered to be one of the world’s megadiverse countries (Mittermeier et al. 1997) and the Amazonian region includes large tracts of intact natural forest of global conservation significance (Bass et al. 2010).
Ecuador is divided into four distinct biogeographic regions: the Amazon, the Andes, the Pacific coastal plain and the Galapagos Islands. The most recent figure for the total forested area of Ecuador is 9,599,679 ha (MAE 2011a) and around 80% of the forest is located in the Amazon Basin, which makes up 47% of the national territory (RAISG 2009). Of the remaining forest area, about 13% is near the coast and the final 7% in the Andean highlands (Stern & Kernan 2011). The percentage of natural forests vs. plantations has yet to be determined but is currently under analysis.
The annual rate of change in forest cover in Ecuador is variable between time periods and information sources due to different methods of analysis. According to data from 2000, an estimated 198,000 ha of forest were being lost every year, equivalent to an annual deforestation rate of 1.5% (CLIRSEN 2003). Recent data from the Ministry of Environment, however, indicates an annual change in forest cover on continental Ecuador of 0.68% (74,300 ha/yr) for the period between 1990-2000 and slightly lower, 0.63% (61,800 ha/yr), between 2000 and 2008 (MAE 2011a). The MAE study divided continental Ecuador into six regions: (1) Amazon, (2) Eastern Andean slopes, (3) Western Andean slopes, (4) inter-Andean valleys, (5) Coastal plain and (6) Southern Andes. The results, however, have an estimated error of up to 30% due to the difficulty of finding cloud-free images for certain regions of the country, particularly in the north-western Esmeraldas Province (coastal plain).
For decades, Ecuador has experienced major changes to its forest cover. The principal drivers of deforestation in Ecuador are ever-increasing areas of subsistence and commercial agriculture and cattle ranching, illegal logging and the exploitation of non-renewable resources such as oil, gold and other minerals, accompanied by road construction and subsequent colonization. Most of these commercial activities are important to the country’s economy; Ecuador is a largely agricultural country, and oil and its by-products are an important source of foreign exchange.