OCT 03, 2016 6:19 PM PDT

Northern Colombia's Indigenous Peoples' Lead Anti-Deforestation Conservation

The extensive natural resources of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Northern Colombia have been plumaged from years of development and war. After the Tayrona native peoples retreated into the mountains post-colonization, the lowlands were settled by peasant farmers. Development of the region intensified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the establishment of banana and coffee plantations, followed by palm oil plantations and then marijuana and cocaine cultivation plots. Because the fertile mountain was an ideal place to grow and hide marijuana and coca plants, violence from Colombia’s 50-year civil war—a war closely identified with drug trafficking—spilled into the region. In addition to cultivation,  timber extraction and fumigation to kill drug fields, has resulted in a loss of 72% of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s forests. Such deforestation over the last century is directly linked to soil erosion and sedimentation, which lead to the alternating floods and droughts of today, and threaten the native and endemic species that thrive in the unique ecosystem.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a mountain paradise, whose peaks soar more than 18,000 feet above the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Photo: www.colparques.net
The Sierra Nevada straddles three of Colombia’s northern departments – Magdalena, Cesar and La Guajira – which are experiencing even higher rates of deforestation than the country as a whole. Together, the three departments lost nearly 8% of their tree cover from 2001 through 2014.

This, unfortunately, is a trend for the country (and world). According to satellite data from the University of Maryland and visualized on the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, Colombia lost around 2.8 million hectares – more than 3% – of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014. In other words, an area of forest bigger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts was cleared in 14 years. The government has made a series of commitments to reduce human impact on the nation’s forest (including a promise to cut net deforestation in the Amazon to zero by 2020), and while last year the rate fell compared to 2014’s figures, the country still lost around 124,000 hectares of forest – an area three times the size of the second-largest city, Medellin.

But the region’s remaining indigenous groups, the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo, which are the descendants of the Tayrona, are not willing to let their sacred land go without a fight. For the last 20 years, indigenous communities have been buying land around Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park, aided by The Nature Conservancy, and now satellite data indicate this may be helping prevent deforestation, with less tree cover loss within the Indigenous territory than outside of it.

“As part of the Sierra we share the responsibility for conservation and equilibrium between man and nature. We are the interlocutors. For nature, for the animals,” says Edinson Videl Daza, a member of the Wiwa community and a spokesman for the environment. “We see the earth as our mother. Our father, the sea. The rivers and streams are living. The animals are our younger brothers,” he says.

The Wiwa use traditional conservation and cultural practices to manage forests, and believe it is their purpose to act as environmental stewards. Following Mongabay News, “TNC has purchased 5,241 hectares of the Sierra over the last 20 years under programs that transferred ownership from cattle and crop farmers to the Arhuaco, Kogui y Kankuamo tribes. The indigenous communities had to keep 70 percent of the land for conservation, while the remaining 30 percent could be used for traditional uses. The result? An analysis the organization carried out two years after the sales found that tree coverage was increasing in the former agricultural areas, and that the land was being inhabited by indigenous families from the higher reaches of the mountains that tend to have a more positive impact on the mountain’s ecosystems than do other communities.”
Global Forest Watch shows heavy tree cover loss in the area surrounding the Indigenous reserves and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park from 2001 through 2014. They have experienced comparatively less deforestation in the past 15 years.
Antonio Pinto, one of the Wiwa leaders expresses his feelings towards the land. “For the gringos, the mining is money, but mining strangles the flora, the fauna. They go taking out petrol, but when you take it out it’s like leaving a body without blood,” Pinto says. “As indigenous people of the Sierra we are here to help the fauna and flora, not to no plunder what is under the earth; the gold, the copper, or all the animals that are in the mountains. Humans have a liver, heart, kidneys. With the earth, it has carbon inside. Taking it is like taking out the liver. In time you see, it starts to dry out. If we find gold, we can’t take it out or sell it. It’s like the soul of our mother.”

The following video is in Spanish. Even if you don't understand Spanish, the images of the indigenous groups and their cultivation practices speak through the limit of language and are worth a watch.
Sources: Mongabay News, National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, Sacred Land Film Project
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About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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