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Food biodiversity includes both locally cultivated and wild food species in Guasaganda, Central Ecuador



Worldwide, the number of wild and domesticated food species is declining, which endangers dietary diversity of particularly indigenous people. Unfortunately, eating culture and traditional knowledge is also hampered when food species are no longer available.


This study reports the food biodiversity in Guasaganda, Central Ecuador, using a combination of methods aiming to inform local initiatives.

Results and discussion

The number of species includes 49 wild, 41 cultivated, and 28 semi-cultivated plants and 13 wild, 9 domesticated, and 1 semi-domesticated animal species. Although, Guasaganda is a hot spot of plant and animal diversity, a limited number of plant (3.00 SD 1.45) and animal species (2.37 SD 1.44) are available at the farm.


Increasing the number of edible species in the food system is imperative for dietary diversity. Further research should document the consumption of the reported foods, and the nutrient and biochemical content to assess nutrient adequacy of the diet.


Tropical forests are biologically diverse ecosystems that contain the highest terrestrial biodiversity per surface area. Meanwhile, 200–300 million people, mainly indigenous, are eating foods supplied by the forest; therefore, forest foods are intrinsically associated with food security [1]. Evidence shows that for forest communities the Dietary Species Richness indicator is a good proxy for micronutrient adequacy local diets [2, 3]. Unfortunately, forests and their biodiversity are quickly disappearing around the world. Deforestation and the consequent reduction in genetic resources, that includes several food species, is affecting diets at local, national, and global levels [4, 5] jeopardising the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 and 15. Therefore, sustainable development strategies require a detailed list of edible species that belong to the forest system.

Forests directly or indirectly supply goods and services that contribute to human nutrition in particular of indigenous communities [6]. To illustrate, in 2011, 10.9 kg of edible non-timber forest products (NTFPs) were consumed per capita around the world, with 9.4 kg of NTFPs consumed per person in Latin America alone, whereas only 4 kg/capita was consumed in developed countries [7]. Indigenous peoples of Peru get about 90% of their dietary energy from no less than 200 species collected in the Amazon forest [8, 9]. It is estimated that some Amazon communities which consume a high number of foods collected from the forest have a high intake of protein, fibre, 6 vitamins, and 4 minerals [8]. In the Brazilian Amazon, the consumption of fruits was found to offer an alternative protection from mercury toxicity (from gold-mining activities), as people who consumed 62 fruits in 1 week exhibited lower mercury intake than those eating mercury-exposed fish [10]. These studies show the invaluable contribution of the forest to indigenous diets and to dietary diversification.

Studies on rural communities show that their diets are usually based on a wide number of wild and cultivated foods [11,12,13]. In the Usambara mountains of Tanzania for example, 202 foods were part of the diet, with 41% of them obtained from farms and 2.6% obtained from the forest [14]. In South-West Nigeria, 27 wild foods are gathered from natural forests as well as 13 medicinal plants [15]. In the Lombok island of Indonesia, 111 plant species are part of diets consisting of 69 meals, 71 snacks, and 11 beverages [16]. In Buzios (Brazil), 65 different wild animal species are eaten, with fish being the most important source of animal protein [17]. In the Brazilian Amazon, 40 different fruit species are consumed [10]. In two rural districts of Meru in Eastern Kenya, 23 cultivated and three wild food species are part of the agricultural biodiversity [18]. More importantly, more recent evidence merging data from several low- and middle-income countries shows that the increase on one additional species in the diet the nutrient adequacy for micronutrients raises 0.03 points [2].

Beyond dietary diversity, different food species supply indigenous people with services that can be perceived to have a direct (i.e. spiritual needs, eating habits, food culture) or indirect value (i.e. carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling, nitrogen fixation) [19]. The management of these direct services associated indirect ones represent a challenge for stakeholders because indigenous perceptions are deeply rooted into the culture, which suggests that when the forest is reduced, these values could also go extinct [20].

Thereafter, environmental change is a barrier to eat local food biodiversity whether wild or cultivated [21]. The reduction of forest-food availability leads people to consume annual crops that are cultivated in deforested land [22, 23]. In response to the lack of food biodiversity inventories, this study aims to document the number of wild foods that are present in the forest of Sacha Wiwua (Central Ecuador) and foods cultivated in surrounding farms, aiming to quantify the food biodiversity, which can potentially contribute to the conservation of species that support dietary diversity and nutrient adequacy of diets.


We followed the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) guidelines to document underutilised foods and agricultural biodiversity for food and nutrition. For the study design, the main author (DP) used as a source of information a review of different methodologies used to document food biodiversity [24]. The review process is reported elsewhere (ibid.). The three selected methodologies are listed in Table 1, which were used by us to study six food-source categories, as food biodiversity is present in a diversity of landscapes. Collecting herbarium samples is a reliable methodology to create baseline information about different food species. Interviewing local people is key to understand food biodiversity as it collects, qualitative and quantitative, information on the diversity of the ecosystem without disturbing it. To reduce the disturbance of the area and to the participants, the main author (DP) used the help of two local guides, one male and one female, to become familiar to the local paths and people. The interaction between the researcher and indigenous people is recommended to document indigenous knowledge in Ecuador according to “diálogo de saberes”.

Table 1 Methodologies used to document plant and animal food biodiversity

Study area

Ecuador is one of the 17 megadiverse countries of the world. The origin of this high diversity can be explained first by its neotropical location, the pronounced Andes highlands, the influence of the Pacific Ocean, and the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands. Secondly, diversity is present in its 12.8 million hectares of forests which represent 42% of the national surface area, including the Amazon forest.

Historically, Ecuador belonged to the Tahuantinsuyo together with 3 other territories (currently known as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) which was dominated by the Inca Empire. The Incas used to collect or hunt their foods from the forests whether in the Andes or Amazon, and they practised agriculture on communal or lodge land. However, their diets changed from being diversified to monotonous due to consumption of European foods contributing to the loss of traditional eating. A small number of indigenous people were able to eat the few traditional foods which were produced in the huasipungo (a piece of land that was borrowed to grow crops for the slaves) or collected from the remaining forest [25]. Only those hiding deep in the forest were able to maintain their eating culture.

This study was conducted in Central Ecuador, in the parish of Guasaganda (see Fig. 1). The latter is located between 250 and 1000 metres above sea level in the province of Cotopaxi, Canton La Mana. Because it is a tropical area with variable altitudes from the Andes, the temperate climate allows a wide variety of vegetation and animals to grow. In the area, around 4000 indigenous inhabitants live in the rural villages that surround the forest of Sacha Wiwua (see Fig. 1). Indigenous people of Guasaganda subsist on the food produced and gathered in their ecosystem.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Map of Ecuador, the province of Cotopaxi, and La Mana. Ecuador is located in South America and Cotopaxi is in Central Ecuador along the Andes. La Mana belongs to Cotopaxi province. The map on the right shows the location of the study area with Guasaganda (black dot) and the forest of Sacha Wiwua (tree icon). The population is mainly indigenous and their eating culture is based on traditional foods

Herbarium collection of plant species

To list both wild and cultivated plant foods, we collected plant samples present in the forest of Sacha Wiwua (Central Guasaganda) and the surrounding agricultural area, respectively. By this method, the first category (wild plants) and the second category (cultivated plants) that serve as food for humans were documented. The collection of plant samples was conducted from June to August 2012, as approved by the Ministry of Environment, and by a group of trained botanical undergrads who were guided by 5 males and one female local informants. Interviewers used a semi-structured questionnaire to recall all plant with the local name and use. The inclusion criteria to identify local informants was (1) to be adult, (2) to be inhabitant of the area and being born and raised in a village close to the Sacha Wiwua forest, (3) to recognise him/her self as from indigenous ethnicity, and (4) to acknowledge their traditional knowledge of forest and cultivated foods.

In the forest, samples of edible plants were collected in line transects in the Sacha Wiwua forest and its surrounding, which were delimited by ropes and measuring tapes. The sampled forest area involved 1137.5 m2 of forest and 375 m2 of surrounding arable patches. Ten different line transects (7 in the forest, 3 in arable patches) were used with a minimum distance of 250 m between them. Because the Sacha Wiwua forest has an area of 100 ha (forest and agricultural land), our sampled transects covered 0.144% of the land.

Each plant found per transect was collected in duplicates and prepared in situ by drying the leaves in a wooden cabin using fossil gas, and subsequently placing the dried leaves in between corrugated carton panels to identify them with a unique label. The label listed country, family, scientific name, author, the area where the plant was collected, a brief taxonomic description, local name, use, name of the botanist who collected the sample, an internal code, and project name.

Plant use was documented when one informant indicated the edible part and use and other two informants confirmed the information. The use was documented by transcribing their local perception (e.g. fruit, vegetable, phloem sap, starchy food, bush meat, flesh). The importance of using local classification when studying food biodiversity has been recognised elsewhere [26, 27]. The applied methodology minimised the ecosystem disturbance by collecting only the necessary plant material and using existing walking paths.

Interviews on plant foods

We conducted interviews with peasants to document the number of foods that were cultivated on the farms and were semi-domesticated in their home gardens. Interviews were conducted from July till September of 2012. A convenient sample of 137 farms was studied. All 36 villages of Guasaganda were included reaching 3 to 4 farms per village. The inclusion criteria for participants involved (1) only one person per farm, (2) who responded to be in charge of the food production, whether male or female, (3) provided oral consent to enter the farm. Plant samples were not collected at the farms.

Interviews were guided by an interviewer who asked semi-structured questions about the use, cultivation, and domestication. Per farm, the total number of edible plants was documented. Different codes were given to each cultivated and wild plant. Those species found in home gardens, which were collected from the forest, were coded as semi-cultivated (third category).

Interviews on animal foods

Group and individual interviews on animal foods were conducted in December 2012 and January 2013, respectively. Animal samples were not collected because the legislation in Ecuador does not allow collecting animals in forest areas. To document wild animal foods 3 focus groups were organised with adults (a total of 4 male and 11 female) and 3 with elderly (a total of 5 male and 6 female), each group in a different village. Adults aged from 19 to 56 years and elderly from 56 to 91 years. A total of 25 peasants were interviewed by the main author (DP) using a semi-structured questionnaire about local names and the use of wild animal foods. Interviews were recorded using a Philips digital voice tracer (LFH 0667 DNS) and a microphone. Participation to focus groups and personal interviews was voluntary with written consent before the interviews.

To document the number of domesticated animals with edible use per farm, we interviewed 40 farmers using a semi-structured questionnaire about the use and local names. Species which were reported to be in home gardens were coded as semi-domesticated.


This study used a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis. The herbarium collection was analysed qualitatively. Each species was coded, for the different uses (fruit, starch, plant sap, vegetables, legumes, spices, colourant, or stimulant) and category (wild, cultivated, semi-cultivated), and listed in a table using the local name, scientific name, edible use, and habitat. The count of foods according to the three categories was illustrated using bar charts.

Qualitative analysis was conducted to the transcripts of the focus groups on animal foods. To reduce bias, transcripts were coded by the author of this manuscript (DP) and an additional researcher. The list of animal foods was retrieved using NVivo (QSR, V8) for each category with the codes “animal food” “wild” and “domesticated”.

The number of species present in the farm and home gardens for plant and animal species was analysed using in RStudio, Inc. Summary statistics were reported to analyse the central tendency (mean ± SD). A non-parametric two sample (Wilcoxon test) one-sided test was used to test if the mean number of semi-cultivated species was significantly higher than the number of cultivated species at the farms. Kolmogorov-Smirnov tests and box plots were used to examine normally distribution and equal variances, respectively. We used a non-parametric test because normality was not present, and the variances were not equal between groups.

The scientific name of each plant was given following the botanical binomial nomenclature and using the official names provided the local herbarium and confirmed by an online database (, V1.1). To report the scientific names of animals online databases for Ecuadorian mammals (, birds (, and freshwater fish ( were used.


In total, 112 edible species were documented in this study. This count is the number of locally available foods of Central Ecuador, Guasaganda, which were reported as the nutrition indicator for food biodiversity for FAO [28].

Plant foods

Table 2 lists all 90 local plant species that belong to 35 botanical families which were reported to be edible during the plant inventory. According to our categorisation, 49 plant species were found in the forest and identified as wild, whereas 41 species were found to be cultivated on the farms. We identified 28 semi-domesticated species which were found in the forest and in home gardens. The number of wild and cultivated plant species is illustrated in Fig. 2.

Table 2 List of edible plant species, wild, and cultivated, in Guasaganda, Central Ecuador
Fig. 2
figure 2

Number (n) of edible wild (grey bar) and cultivated (stripped bar) plants reported in Guasaganda, Ecuador. Bars show the total number of species for each category, sharing 28 semi-cultivated species which are represented by the black bar

According to the use reported by participants, out of the 90 plant species, 71 species are eaten as fruits, whereas 7 species as starch source, of only 2 species the phloem sap (the fluid of the plant) is used, 5 species are consumed as vegetables, faba beans (Vicia faba L.) as legume, cilantro de monte (Eryngium foetidum L.) is used as spice, achiote (Bixa orellana L.) as food colourant, coffee (Coffea canephora Pierre ex A. Froehner ) is used as stimulant, and cacao seed (Theobroma cacao L.) is used for chocolate, and the aril as fruit. Ninety-one food items add to the list of local food biodiversity with cacao counted twice because it has two uses (seed/almond and aril).

The mean number of all edible food species (both cultivated and wild plants) is 3.10 ± 1.45. The mean number of edible semi-cultivated plant species is 2.5 ± 1.3, whereas the mean number of cultivated edible plants is 1.5 ± 0.8. The mean number of semi-cultivated plants on the farms is significantly higher than the number of cultivated plants with a 5% significance (p value < 0.001). In average, farms have 1.2 cultivated fruits and 1.2 staples, also 1.8 semi-cultivated fruits, and 1 semi-cultivated vegetable.

Animal foods

Animal species identified as edible include 8 freshwater fish species, 10 different mammals and 4 fowl (see Table 3). Thirteen species were reported as wild from which 10 were mentioned during the interviews to be in danger of extinction, therefore, stated to be less consumed. Nine species were identified as domesticated. Only one participant mentioned having a sahino (Tayassu pecari) on his farm (semi-domesticated) and to be the only person domesticating this animal, which was confirmed by visiting the farm. Out of the 22 animal species, three fish species (campeche, cholia and pampanito) were not identified with scientific names due to the inadequate description during the interviews. The total number of food items of animal origin added up to 27 because chicken (Gallus Gallus domesticus), cow (Bos Taurus), and pig (Sus domesticus) had more than one use. The mean land designated to animal husbandry is 13 ha with a minimum of 0.2 ha and a maximum of 50 ha. The mean animal species in the studied farms is 2.37 ± 1.44. The number of wild and domesticated animal species is illustrated in Fig. 3.

Table 3 List of edible animal species available in Guasaganda, Ecuador
Fig. 3
figure 3

Number (n) of edible wild (grey bar) and domestic (stripped bar) animals reported as edible in Guasaganda, Ecuador. Bars show the total number of species for each category, sharing one species which was semi-domesticated and it is represented by the black bar

Additional findings

An additional plant use, which was reported during interviews, is medicinal plants. The latter plants were not grouped as foods, because participants did not associate their consumption with energy intake (no kcal intake), but they were associated with a medicinal use. Table 4 lists the plants perceived as medicinal by our respondents and the medicinal use documented elsewhere. Medicinal plants are prepared as infusions, known as “aguas aromáticas”, which are consumed in a frequency of 3 times per day. Medicinal infusions can be prepared using any of the 14 different plant leaves (7 found in the forest and 7 in home gardens).

Table 4 Locally wild or semi-cultivated plants with medicinal use in Guasaganda, Ecuador, that are reported elsewhere

Interviews with local farmers allowed us to document the traditional diet. Respondents mentioned that their diet is composed of mainly three meals per day, and often a local fruit is consumed between meals. Usually, milk is consumed in the morning immediately after milked. The first meal is mainly composed of local starchy food, which is accompanied by a small portion of protein such as eggs or cheese. Lunch contains plantains whether cooked, fried, or roasted in preparations with fish, beef, pork, or cheese. People collect fruits from the forest or the farm, and they eat and share the raw fruit with neighbours or family. Maize is consumed in salads or in pastry. In the evening, medicinal tea with “panela” (sugar cane produce) is consumed. The photos of the most consumed foods can be seen in Additional file 1.


This study demonstrates that 112 edible species are available at top of the food system for consumption whether wild, semi-cultivated, or cultivated. Also, 14 medicinal plants were reported because they were perceived as having an important role in food biodiversity. Indigenous people in Guasaganda, Ecuador, can diversify their diets by consuming local wild, semi-cultivated, and cultivated foods. Wild foods include 49 plant and 13 animal species whereas cultivated foods include 41 plant and 9 animal species. A meta-analysis of 26 different countries has reported that in order to increase dietary diversity in one food group, farmers require to increase the number of species in 16 crops or livestock [36]. The latter infers that dietary diversity can potentially be reached by farmers only when they cultivate in regions with high food biodiversity.

Our study is the first reporting the availability of local food species in the forest of Sacha Wiwua and surrounding farms. An additional study has reported that traditional knowledge to cultivate/raise the reported foods or collect/hunt them from the forest, and to prepare them in traditional meals is a solid behavioural factor present which, in all age groups, is positively influencing dietary diversity in Guasaganda [21]. Both studies are to inform any local intervention to promote the cultivation of food biodiversity in the area aiming dietary diversity and sustainability of the food system.

Our study reports a higher number of food species compared with other studies conducted in other South American indigenous communities [8, 10, 13]. The main reason is that we used a double-layer methodology to record 6 different categories of foods. Our combined methodology interviewed peasants who described the food biodiversity including all wild, cultivated, and semi-cultivated plants and animal foods by using scientific names, which was lacking in the literature. Sustainable nutrition interventions towards SDG2 require measuring a combination of indicators in order to assess all the food system, including the total number of species.

A previous study on dietary species richness in Guasaganda reported a list of food species consumed, including raw and industrially processed foods documented from 24-hour dietary intake recalls [2]. The list, however, does not specify the number of locally cultivated foods. The study of Passos et al. (2007) reported only a list of traditional fruits and fish in the Brazilian Amazon recorded by 7-day intake record for only fish and fruit intake. The list of fruit species is limited to 40 species recorded during the studied season, which excludes fruits with different seasonality. Two studies conducted in the same area in the Peruvian Amazon reported a different number of traditional food species. The study of Roche et al. (2008) reported the consumption of 20 TFs in the Peruvian Amazon but did not use scientific names, whereas Creed-Kanashiro et al. (2009) identified 82 traditional foods using scientific names. The combination of collecting food samples and interviews is necessary to document all foods regardless of seasonally.

Our findings suggest that the provision of fruits is an ecosystem service of the Sacha Wiwua forest. Our results indicate that indigenous people in Guasaganda have mainly fruits (71 species) available for consumption whereas few staples (7 species) and vegetables (5 species) are available. Because fruits are an important source of micronutrients, it seems imperative to promote the consumption of local wild and cultivated fruits for health. A body of evidence shows that wild fruits are rich in micronutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals which are essential for health [37]. Also, these are culturally acceptable and therefore easy to incorporate into nutrition interventions [21]. Termote et al. (2012) reported that consumers of wild edible foods in D.R. of Congo consumed significantly more fruits than non-wild food consumers. Boedecker et al. (2014) found likewise that wild-edibles consumers had a significantly higher Women Dietary Diversity Scores than non-wild edible consumers. Consistently, Powel et al. (2013) propose that despite wild foods minimally contribute to energy intakes they contribute to dietary diversification. The number of species available in the studied traditional food system has been reported to contribute to dietary diversification of rural women [3].

Despite the total high number of food species reported in this study, a limited number of cultivated fruit and vegetables species and staples per farm was observed. High food biodiversity in the studied region (defined as the total number of edible species inventoried) is thought to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition to find a large farm diversity (cultivated and semi-cultivated species). A reason for the low number of plant species found at the studied farms might be that farmers in Guasaganda are dedicated to family farming, which is characterised by sharing and interchanging foods between farmers in a community. Furthermore, the main income-generating activity is animal feed production and bovine milk production, which limits the number of species to a few commercial species. A few animals (Holstein, Gyr and Jersey) and pastures (such as Axonopus scoparius (Flüggé) Kuhlm., Paspalum dilatatum Poir, Brachiaria decumbens Stapf) are prevailing. Further research requires conducting an analysis of milk production’s impact combined with forest conservation incentives and the restoration of pastures. There exists evidence that the combination of milk production and forest conservation, in southern Ecuador, would not eliminate poverty among small farmers because incentives are insufficient (ibid.).

The additional finding of this study is that home gardens are sites used for the domestication of wild species, which have mainly a medicinal use. The study of home gardens composition and plant species richness is increasing in tropical countries [38]; however, further research of Ecuadorian home gardens is still needed [39, 40]. Because most of our home gardens informants were female, we suggest that future interventions in Guasaganda should concentrate on the empowerment of women to manage home gardens particularly for the cultivation of medicinal plants and vegetables. Medicinal plants are important to be promoted as these are used to prevent diseases and vegetables because there are only a few vegetables present at the farms.

Additionally, bio scientist should study home gardens as a supplier of medicinal plants. Biochemical analysis of medicinal plants is required to identify the bio components responsible for the medicinal properties claimed by indigenous people and validate results in Table 4.


Nature provides humans with a number of species that serve as food to have a high dietary diversity, which is the basis for healthy diets. In highly biodiverse food systems are the combination of the forest, farms, and home gardens that supply with a large number of species, which are eaten by peasants and their families. However, the number of cultivated species in the farm is limited (particularly vegetables) whereas the higher number of species (particularly fruits) are in the forest. Local cultivation of vegetables and medicinal plants is highly recommended. This study guides future strategies that promote the reduction of malnutrition and deforestation aiming human and environmental health.

Availability of data and materials

The data that support the findings of this study are openly available in figshare at, DOI: In addition, the former DOI shares the research permits for botanical collection and participant’s interviews.



Digital object identifier


Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Non-timber forest products


Standard deviation


Sustainable Development Goal


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Many thanks to Holger Cevallos, Ronald Vinces, and Angelica Torres at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral, for their methodological recommendations.


This work was funded by the International Foundation for Science under grant code E- 4954-1.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors made substantial contributions to the conception and design of the work. DP and PV were responsible for the acquisition of the data. DP and WV conducted the analysis and interpretation of data. All authors have drafted the final version of the work with substantial revisions and have approved the submitted version.

Authors’ information

The main author (DP) is a professor and researcher at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral with special interest on Human Nutrition and Rural Development. She shares indigenous ethnicity and is devoted to nutrition education for the conservation of natural resources in Ecuador and sustainable diets. Her post doc in Columbia University is related to Ecuadorian dietary guidelines using local food species towards SDG2. She linked the following authors to conduct the present study. Dr. WV is currently working at the Department of Plant and Crops at Ghent University, Belgium. He has ample experience in conservation and use of agrobiodiversity in underutilised Latin-American foods. Prof. RE was Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral with special interest on research in the field of Agricultural Economics and Natural Resources. Currently, he directs the rural Research Centre in ESPOL. Prof. PVD lectures and provides practical training for Bio-Engineers of the FBE at Ghent University, specialised in Agricultural Sciences and Land and Forest Management. PVD also is a lecturer at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences, Czech University of Life Sciences (Prague, Czech Republic).

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniela Penafiel.

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Ethics approval and consent to participate

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment provided a scientific permit allowing researchers to collect plant samples (permit no. 03-12IC-FAU-FLO-OPAC/MA). The Ministry of Health provided approval for the interview on food consumption (MSP-DIS-0056-2012). All protocols were revised and approved by the institution review board at Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL).

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Additional file 1.

Annex 1. Number of Plant and Animal species with edible use. Annex 2. Most consumed fruits. Annex 3. Most consumed starchy foods. Annex 4. Most consumed protein source. Annex 5. The food system 

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Penafiel, D., Vanhove, W., Espinel, R.L. et al. Food biodiversity includes both locally cultivated and wild food species in Guasaganda, Central Ecuador. J. Ethn. Food 6, 25 (2019).

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