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.
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.
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