You are here
Home > Region > International > Colombian deforestation: Cries of the forest

Colombian deforestation: Cries of the forest

Researchers at El Ceibal monitor populations in the forest
Researchers at El Ceibal monitor populations in the forest

Very few experiences compare to standing in the middle of the forest and feeling small. Being surrounded  by  nature at its wildest is overwhelming: cicadas, birds and wind brushing the top branches of trees make a unique sound. Such a strong connection with Earth is possible in the innards of ranch El Ceibal, in the Caribbean region of Colombia. There, hidden in the deep green of thousands of trees, lives the cotton-top tamarin, one of the most emblematic species of the country’s biodiversity.

Today,  Colombia  has  less  than  7400  of  these monkeys  living  in  their  natural  habitat, according to Proyecto Tití Foundation. When you finally get to see the tiny tamarin frolicking from branch to branch, it’s undeniable that  it  is  both  exotic  and  charming:  its white  furry  face – the  distinctive attribute  that  gives  it its  name, its  tiny  size  and  average  one  pound  weight  make  it a fascinating species. These small, white-crest primates are not enough to motivate government towards comprehensive preservation policies, but might prompt a start. The tamarin is the flagship of the preservation struggle of the tropical dry forest,  identified by the scientific community as one of the most threatened national environments.

Monkey species doesn't exist anywhere else in the world
Monkey species doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world

Deforestation of great swathes of the Amazon, excused by economic interests, is destroying the natural richness  of  various Latin American countries. Colombia alone is home to more than 10 per cent of currently known species, and  contains about 311  types of  continental and  coastal ecosystems,  according  to  the  Alexander  von  Humboldt  Biological  Resources  Research  Institute. Other statistics make for grim reading: the forest that oxygenates the Colombian soil is today no more than a 8 per cent  of the 9 million hectares originally found in the country, according to the Institute.

That is why this particular animal faces a catastrophe. Environmentalists are strategically using  its preservation as motivation to protect the entire area,  home to many other plants and animals in different stages of threat. Failure in doing so puts 2600 plants, 230 birds and 60 mammals under direct threat.

Spreading the blame

Released in March 2014, the Fifth National Biodiversity Report of Colombia  from the  Ministry  of  Environment  and  the UN Program  for Development  (UNPD), states that the environmental damage in the country is caused by five factors: changes in land use due to stockbreeding, illegal crops and infrastructure; decline, loss or degradation of native ecosystems due to agroindustry,  hydroelectric  generation,  mining  and urbanisation; invasions of non-native species; pollution and toxification of water due to illegal mining processes and industrial agriculture; and finally climate change.

According  to  Brigitte  Baptiste,  director  of  the  Humboldt  Institute,  the inadequate  use  and  transformation  of  ecosystems  in  Colombia  is  a  factor  among  the changes that the country has been living with for the past 30 years in a unidirectional and non-cyclic manner, causing irreversible damage. Her announcement was made at the Fourth International Environmental Fair, as the Ministry website published in early June 2014.

Other official figures support her claim. According to the report made by the Ministry  and the UNPD, in Colombia, 78 per cent of the areas of dry soil, including tropical dry forest, are affected by desertification. The total area threatened,  resulting  from  anthropogenic  processes, is more than 16 million hectares: 14.3 per cent of the country’s size. Coincidently, the main processes of  ‘’development’’  take  place  in  those  areas.  The  National  Department  of  Statistics  of Colombia manifested that in 2013, 80.3 per cent of the total agricultural land in the country is dedicated to livestock; 7.3 per cent to agriculture, and only 10.3 per cent for natural forests.

Tamarin populations are under constant monitoring
Tamarin populations are under constant monitoring

Rosamira Guillén, director of Fundación Proyecto Tití, a NGO working on the  protection  of  the  cotton-top  tamarin  since  1985, says  that one  of the biggest frustrations encompasses the way authorities operate. “We  want  to  do  a  lot,  and  sometimes  we  have  resources  and  support,  but do not have the authority to take action”. For  Juanita Aldana, biologist and expert in ecosystem services, conservation  policies  are    inefficient  because, declaring  a  zone  a conservation area does not guarantee that it will be preserved. “There are many powers and  economic    interests  in  those  territories,  and  our  economic model  prevails  over  the conservation and moral values”, she says.

That trend is visible in the country’s open policy to investment that has increased the number of mining titles granted to foreign companies in  recent years. Only in 2009, more that 4 million hectares were given to mining, as revealed by Universidad Nacional de Colombia. It is  contradictory how the government handles environmental issues: the sites exploited are the same ones pointed as requiring conservation  priority.

Overall, there are two structural problems, explains researcher Camila  Pizano, from the Humboldt Institute. First,  when the idea of Natural Reserve was conceived in Colombia, the communities residing inside these areas were not considered. The idea of an intact natural park was conceptualised, but is no more than a pipe dream. Second,  there is a poor budget for such efforts evidenced in the few staff that monitor these areas. The 5th National  Biodiversity  Report notes that only 0.27 per cent of the total national budget in 2009 was allocated for  environmental  management  in Colombia. The numbers haven’t improved: 0.28 per cent in 2010 and 2011; 0.33 per cent in 2012 and 0.39 per cent in 2013 .

At any cost conservation continues

Despite the lack of governmental tools, NGOs continue their work on raising awareness. “The fact that the state works at a different speed does not mean you cannot do things to stop the extinction of the species”, Guillén explains. “But it costs a lot more work.”

This she  knows  well.  Back  in  2010, when  according  to  the  International Union  for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the cotton-top tamarin was already considered to be in critical danger by international authorities. In Colombia it was labelled simply as vulnerable. A lot of lobbying was required to direct government attention on the results of research on the species. In  Colombia,  biodiversity  is  taken  for  granted,  and  the  social  reality  and  the economic instabilities add to the idea that people need to get something back from their own soil.

However, academics,  government  and  civil  society  may not agree  that development  policies are welcome, but environmental issues cannot continue to be ignored. After every research, Fundación Proyecto Tití reports decline in the population of cotton-top tamarins and their habitat. Although the more than 400 hectares protected in  El  Ceibal  are  a  battle  won,  it cannot be considered a long-term victory.

As Rosamira Guillén points out: “It is a world problem. It is the eternal conflict between conservation and development”.

Words by Luis Manuel Gil

Pictures: CPA – Universidad del Norte, Colombia


%d bloggers like this: