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Campesinos bring life back to a deforestation hotspot in the Colombian Amazon

  • More than 700 campesinos from the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá have started restoring 4,762 hectares (11,767 acres) of degraded rainforest in one of Colombia’s deforestation hotspots. To date, they’ve planted almost a million trees.
  • In collaboration with researchers from SINCHI, the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute, and the Association of Community Action Boards (Asojuntas), the families have recorded more than 600 plant and more than 100 animal species in the area.
  • Environmental education, research and restoration activities have also included children and teenagers from several communities, with many young people motivated to pursue environmental careers by applying to universities.

Liliana Camargo remembers Cartagena del Chairá as rich in nature. In her memory, the area had the greenest mountains, the freshest water and the healthiest biodiversity in the department of Caquetá in Colombia. In recent years, however, cattle ranching has destroyed a large portion of the town’s forests. The economic needs of the campesinos, driven by historical government neglect, pushed residents to expand their farms farther and wider, turning the municipality of Cartagena del Chairá into a deforestation hotspot in the Colombian Amazon.

“People have demolished up to the edges of the streams; they have demolished the species-rich salt flats. In summer, there is little water; it is scarce now. There are people who must evacuate their livestock to other farms, which was never before seen in Caquetá,” says Camargo, the community manager and president of the rural village of El Billar, one of the 46 such communities that make up the area known as Cuemaní.

“All of this has happened because the people no longer have a sense of belonging,” Camargo says. “We’ve lost forests and wild species have fled. We have trampled on nature so much.”

A new pasture two to three years after deforestation in the Cuemaní area. Image courtesy of Maolenmarx Tatiana Garzón.

Locals cut down 130,000 hectares (321,200 acres) of forest in the Cuemaní area between 2002 and 2021, according to data from SINCHI, the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute. Of this, 15,737 hectares (38,887 acres) of forest cover disappeared in 2021 alone. This gives Cartagena del Chairá the third-highest rate of deforestation of any municipality in Colombia.

“Since last year, with the national government, we have been working on a strategy to contain deforestation, which seeks to transform active deforestation areas into centers of development for forest economy and biodiversity,” says Maolenmarx Tatiana Garzón, a researcher at SINCHI. “In other words, [we want] these forests to serve communities in a sustainable way and that they serve as the source of development.”

A workshop for planning property restoration scenarios in the town of El Guamo. This involved the creation of a map where each landowner noted the location of their property, adjacent areas, vegetation, water sources, roads and other aspects. Image courtesy of Andrea Saavedra.

Between September and December 2023, several communities in Cartagena del Chairá, working in collaboration with SINCHI, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Association of Community Action Boards (Asojuntas), began restoration on 4,762 hectares (11,767 acres) of deforested land. Today, they’ve planted almost a million native trees. More than 700 campesinos who used to cut down trees to survive are now the guardians of a growing forest.

“Teenagers, children and adults began to receive training so that they could learn the value of conserving nature,” Camargo says. “We all work hand in hand. Now, wherever there is a fallen tree, we go there to plant [another].”

A group of locals being trained in bird-watching. Image courtesy of Mónica Peñuela.

The value of conserving the forest

The program has several objectives, all falling under the banner of valuing forests, both for the biodiversity they host and the livelihoods of the campesinos who depend on them. Experts from SINCHI have led various activities under the program, including recognizing species, lessons on the bioeconomy, and restoration.

“[The NGO] Asojuntas told us that SINCHI had … a project in which we could stop the cutting down and burning of forests. So we met with the most prominent leaders from each community; we started suggesting ideas and everything progressed, from milestone to milestone,” Camargo says.

Communities held meetings in Cuemaní to understand what becoming a center of development for forest economy and biodiversity (NDFyB in Spanish) entails. They’ve since become involved in forest governance, environmental education, land monitoring, and a payment system for forest restoration.

A gathering of community members in Cuemaní. Image courtesy of Maolenmarx Tatiana Garzón.

“The goal has been for the Community Action Boards to be the true protagonists [in] containing deforestation,” says Arístides Oime Ochoa, the president of Asojuntas. “Who better than the owner of the farm to be the one to protect their own property? This way, deforestation could be contained [to prevent] a domino effect, because, here, we are all guards to prevent deforestation.”

Community members have grown increasingly interested in forest restoration.

“Since there was a large investment, there were resources that stayed in the community,” says SINCHI’s Garzón. “What [the communities] sought, through a process of assisted natural regeneration, was the ability to begin restoring forests that have been degraded and taken over. Although the forests have retained some of their structure, when you enter, you realize that there are many species that no longer exist because they have been removed.”

Communities began to explore the forest to discover, in detail, the species that live there and determine how to act.

Researching to restore the forest

When it came time for the experts from SINCHI to visit Cuemaní in late 2023, a community organization was already there to welcome and work with them.

“We walked for about three or four hours toward the middle of the mountains,” Camargo says. “We set everything up; a tent was put together to place the computers and tables to press the [botanical] samples. In the early morning, we’d get up to make breakfast and lunch, pack them and go to the jungle to collect samples.”

Residents of Cuemaní during a training session on pressing plant samples. Image courtesy of Mónica Peñuela.

Community youths selected the areas to study, then climbed trees and cut pieces of bark to sample. Meanwhile, ground teams analyzed, photographed and took samples of the local fungi.

Using these procedures, the teams cataloged 623 plant species, 273 of which had some use for the community: 127 food species, 112 timber species, and 97 medicinal species.

“The teenagers saw how cool it is to work as a local expert and that they can earn money [too],” Camargo says. “Some were already graduating high school and [now] want to study agroforestry engineering. They want to train [themselves] not to deforest, but to begin to care. That is an achievement.”

The restoration work involved the collaboration of 723 families planting more than 984,000 individual trees and palms, such as achapo or tornillo (Cedrelinga cateniformis), sangretoro (Iryanthera laevis), palmas de milpesos (Oenocarpus bataua) and the Amazon açaí (Euterpe precatoria). Communities planted them in areas that had been selectively logged or had lots of fallen trees.

They planted about 200 trees per hectare, or about 80 per acre, across 4,762 hectares.

“The local experts conducted a verification and georeferencing process,” Garzón says. “In other words, we have spatial information ready for tracking and monitoring.”

Researchers from SINCHI carried out georeferencing, creating restoration and farming zones. These zones can now be monitored. Image courtesy of Jorge Murillo.

Teams of scientists and local experts were also dedicated to documenting animals in the area, where they recorded 154 bird species, 24 amphibian species, 11 reptile species and 21 mammal species.

Meanwhile, experts held a series of 99 workshops on ecological restoration, conservation, forest governance and agroecological development.

“Parents took their children to the training [sessions],” Camargo says. “A teacher gathered the children in order to teach them using paintings and posters. Each child drew a tree, its richness and why it is planted … This way, children ended up being involved in this issue.”

The future of the forest

Camargo, her son and a neighbor have created a nursery to grow native trees. On her small patio, there are now more than 300 seedlings of various species, ready to be planted in the forest.

“We are ‘planting’ rubber trees and trees used for charcoal so that, if there is ever a new project, we already have those small trees bagged and ready to distribute to water sources, where there are streams. That is what stayed with us: the ability to care and conserve for ourselves. Now, we would like to receive support to establish a bigger nursery in the future,” Camargo says.

Trees in the small homemade nursery on Liliana Camargo’s patio. Image courtesy of Liliana Camargo.

Meanwhile, the youth of the area are learning how to collect botanical samples.

“There is not always an opportunity for professionals to visit the area, so now there are people able to do that work in case it becomes necessary,” Camargo says.

The general message for families, youths and farmers, according to Camargo, is to take care of the forest, because the future and community development depend on it.

“Now, the environment, the jungle, the protection of the mountains [and] the care of nature is more relevant. Before, we would walk through the mountains with our eyes closed and we didn’t know the value of every tree, of every species,” Camargo says.

The future that she imagines is one in which the forest again appears the way she remembers it: completely green and inhabited by numerous animals that roam the territory without fear. Little by little, they’re achieving that.

“Before, when we would go to the farm to pick lemons, we would find a tapir lying down with the cows. Once people started to cut down the trees, tapirs were no longer seen nearby. Neither were pigs, deer or parrots. But now, they are returning. It makes us happy to find the animals again, and that happens by stopping the noise of the chainsaws,” Camargo says. “It fills me with pride that the animals are returning to a peaceful place.”

Sunset in the rural village of Santa Fé del Caguán. Image courtesy of Maolenmarx Tatiana Garzón.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 17, 2024.

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