- The U.S.-based Rainforest Trust and its Colombian partner, Fundación ProAves, bought 477 hectares (1,178 acres) of land around El Paujil Nature Reserve, expanding the protected area to 3,983 hectares (9,843 acres).
- El Paujil Nature Reserve in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley is one of the last bits of remaining lowland rainforest in the region.
- The Magdalena Valley, sandwiched between the Chocó and Amazon rainforests, is rich in biodiversity and home to several endemic species, many of which are endangered.
- It has lost almost 98 percent of its forest area over the years, due to logging, coca production, cattle ranching and other agriculture activities. These threats have only increased since the end of a decades-long insurgency in 2016.
QUITO, Ecuador — Environmentalists have made a major advancement in saving the last remaining bit of rainforest in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley by expanding El Paujil Nature Reserve. The reserve is the first protected area in the valley.
The Magdalena Valley runs through the center of Colombia, between the Chocó and the Amazon rainforests. This unique location is rich in biodiversity and several endemic species. But the region has also seen some of the worst deforestation in Colombia’s history, and has lost almost 98 percent of its total forest area.
In March, U.S. environmental NGO the Rainforest Trust and its Colombian partner, Fundación ProAves, bought 477 hectares (1,178 acres) of land around El Paujil, expanding the protected area to 3,983 hectares (9,843 acres) in total.
The reserve is “sandwiched in a unique refuge of rainforest that’s millions of years old, and has many endemic species found nowhere else,” Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman told Mongabay by phone. “It’s an extremely important area,” he said.
Salaman said the purchase was “incredibly strategic” as it’s the last piece of property with road access to the core rainforest area. Buying this land restricts loggers, and other interests, from accessing the rainforest.
El Paujil was established as a reserve in 2003, aimed at saving the critically endangered blue-billed curassow (Crax alberti), also known as El Paujil in Spanish. The turkey-sized bird is found nowhere else on Earth, and is considered one of the world’s most endangered species.
The area is also home to the brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), listed as one of the 25 most endangered primate species in the world, and the Colombian subspecies of the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris columbianus), which was believed to be extinct before it was rediscovered in the region in 2013.
Over the years, logging, ranching, illicit coca plantations and, more recently, oil palm have caused major deforestation in the valley, and devoured the habitat these endemic species depend on for their survival.
War, peace and conservation
During the more than 50 years of armed civil conflict in Colombia, the threats to the lowland rainforest of the Magdalena Valley were particularly complex.
More than 270,000 people were killed throughout the country during the war, mostly in rural areas where armed groups fought over control of territory and natural resources. In the Magdalena Valley, not only had local farmers already converted large swaths of land to cattle ranching, but this was propelled by paramilitary groups who gained control of the land in the late 1990s, according to Alex Cortes, conservation director of Fundación ProAves.
Cortes, who has worked in conservation in the region since 1999, said these armed groups violently displaced the mostly poor communities in the valley and converted their land to cattle pasture for the groups’ own personal consumption and financial gain.
During this same period, the region also became a hub for coca production, the plant used to make cocaine, which became another major threat to local forests.
Since the signing of a peace agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government in 2016, the threats to the country’s forests have actually increased. The prospect of peace meant that Colombia’s countryside was now open for developers, and forested areas became magnets for agriculture development and resource extraction.
From 2015 to 2016, deforestation in the country shot up 44 percent; 178,000 hectares (440,000 acres) of forest were lost due to this new wave of land development. Deforestation continues to rise steadily every year, according to Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).
This increased demand for land has also caused a spike in land prices, encouraging small farmers to sell their property to large agribusiness, or city dwellers to invest in rural areas.
Salaman said the Rainforest Trust had been negotiating with the previous owner of land parcel abutting El Paujil for almost 10 years before making the final purchase in March. He said the organization paid a “higher price than they were comfortable with,” at around $285 per acre, or about $700 a hectare, but added the price of land was rising so quickly they couldn’t afford to wait.
Most of the land on the expansion had already been deforested for ranching, Salaman said, and more than 100 head of cattle had to be removed after they purchased the property.
“We’ve been purchasing land in Colombia since 1991 and we have seen a massive spike in the price of land, and basically in the next couple of years it will be impossible” to buy, Salaman said.
“Local people value deforested land four or five times more than forested land. To them forests are not productive. Ironically, to us they are,” he added.
Conservationists agree that among the main causes of this new land development are deficiencies in the peace agreement. The first point in the peace deal speaks about rural development and reform, and promises to give land back to local communities that were displaced; but it doesn’t outline a clear process of how this should be done. The agreement also doesn’t mention anything about conservation practices, so there are no regulations in place to prevent new land titles being awarded in forest areas.
“Peace has actually been the worst thing for conservation in the area,” Salaman said, “and has given a massive boost to the drivers of deforestation.”
Colombia does have a National System of Protected Areas, administered by the Ministry of the Environment; but according to Salaman, it’s focused on protecting the highest mountain peaks and the lowlands of the Amazon rainforest. It neglects the subtropics and lowland inter-mountain areas, such as the Magdalena Valley. This is one reason why it’s important to buy property and create protected areas, he added.
Earlier this year, Colombian President Iván Duque created a National Development Plan to address the high rate of deforestation in the country. The plan has been criticized by environmentalists as not actually seeking to reduce deforestation, but to maintain it at a steady rate. The NDP is currently being debated in Colombia’s congress.
Cortes said the government needs to do more to work with local and regional governments, conservationists and environmental organizations to protect the country’s remaining forests. This is the only way to fight large environmental threats, since local actors are the ones who best understand local conservation needs, he added.
At El Paujil reserve, Salaman said the main focus of the new area will be on species recovery and ecological restoration. This will largely be achieved by allowing natural restoration of the land instead of active reforestation efforts. The reserve has always used this method of natural restoration, Salaman said, and over the past 10 years it has already seen an increase in the populations of the blue-billed curassow as well as other wildlife previously thought to have disappeared from the region, including tapirs, jaguars and other birds.
“We can’t save everything,” Salaman said, “but we can save the most important areas for species found nowhere else.”
Banner image: El Paujil reserve. Photo courtesy IUCN.
About the reporter: Kimberley A. Brown is a Quito, Ecuador-based freelance multimedia journalist who regularly covers the intersection of indigenous land rights and effective conservation. You can find her on Twitter at @KimberleyJBrown.
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