Río Claro Nature Reserve is a private sustainable development initiative* established with the principal objective of protecting the tropical rainforests that yet remain in the northernmost parts of Colombia´s Central Andean Mountainrange. Widely recognized by the international scientific community as one of the world´s most biodiverse regions, Colombia´s Central Andes have unfortunately suffered an immense amount of deforestation. The project actively contributes to the conservation of this region by protecting the River´s watershed and its associated ecosystems.
As one of its fundamental pillars, this conservation initiative works hand-to-hand with multiple educational institutions (both national and international), endorsing and supporting multi-disciplinary research activities, scientific communication projects, and environmental education at a variety of levels. In parallel, the Nature Reserve works incessantly to empower local communities in processes that guarantee social inclusion and development in harmony with nature conservation.
The reserve opens its doors to the public, offering a variety of nature and adventure activities, in order to allow an ever-increasing urban society the opportunity of enjoying and reconnecting itself with its natural environment. The resources obtained from these activities provide the core funding to maintain and expand the reserve´s conservation footprint.
Extensive cattle-farming, mining, aquaculture and other large-scale economic activities represent a serious threat for water conservation and the survival of natural ecosystems. It is therefore a priority that states and their governments take conscience that regions of exceptional biological value have to be integrated and preserved in order for these to continue housing genetical information that finds itself on the brink of extinction.
GEOLOGICAL ORIGINS AND HISTORY
The formation of Rio Claro´s watershed (Cuenca del Rio Claro del Norte), has its origins in sedimentary deposits from the Devonian Period (419-358 Million Years Ago) associated to the Magdalena River paleo-trench. The current area delimited by the Orinoco (towards the East) and the Magdalena (towards the West) formed part of a large shallow-sea that received the sediments deposited by the Amazon River, which at the time flowed from south to north, originating in Brazil and forming a large delta in present-day Colombia. As the Central Andean mountain range emerged, the limestone sediments that deposited during the Devonian Period were transfromed into marble crystals that were gradually exposed and sculpted by Rio Claro´s waters, conforming the canyon that we see today.
The geomorphological origins of the canyon are associated with the Palestine Fault-System (Sistema de Fallas de Palestina) which runs several hundred miles along the Magdalena Valley. In the region, this system is comprised by a series of fault-lines (Jetudo, Mulatos, Palestina and Cristalina faults) which were caused by the gradual elevation of the surrounding territory. These fault-lines mark the limits between the sedimentary Chibcha Territory (Territorio Chibcha) and the Tahimí Territory (Territorio Tahimí) of igneous origin. All of these dynamic tectonic processes occurred when the region was submerged beneath the shallow-sea that extended west into the Guayanese Shield (Venezuela).
Four Million years ago, the shallow sea began to subside as the limestone deposits emerged in a process marked by several maritime regressions. Finally, around 2 million years ago, waters withdrew permanently, coinciding with the emrgence of the Isthmus of Panama and the separation of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The emergence of this territory allowed the Amazonic Rainforest to propagate into the Magdalena region intermixing with biodiversity descending from the northern hemisphere through the Panamanian Isthmus. This process was responsible for the region’s exceptional condition as a crossroads of genetic information from North and South America.
Such conditions are responsible for Rio Claro´s remarkable tropical karst forest. The watershed´s fauna and flora adapted over millions of years to conform this special ecosistemic niche, characterized by limestone substrates rich in calcium and other minerals. The elevated grade of biological endemism observed in the region is precisely due to the adaptation of species to this singular ecosystem. These unique biological characteristics are one of the fundamental reasons why this territory must be protected from large scale commercial operations (mining, aquaculture, exploitative tourism) that threaten the survival of the ecosystem. The reserve’s primary objective is to secure and conserve as much of this territory as possible.
CURRENT CHALLENGES TO RÍO CLARO´S CONSERVATION
Until 1970, 95% of the territory surrounding Rio Claro´s watershed was occupied by tropical rainforests. That same year, the Colombian Government initiated the construction of an interstate highway know as the Autopista Medellin-Bogotá, without undertaking any rigorous scientific analysis of the impact this project would have on the last remaining tropical forests of south-eastern Antioquia. The highway cut exactly through the middle of important marble and limestone deposits, causing the mobilization of large mining operations to the region. Two companies, Argos and Sumicol-Corona, specialized in the production of cement and limestone aggregates, were given mining concessions to exploit the deposits located in Rio Claro´s watershed. In order to extract prime materials, these companies have had to destroy hundreds of hectares of tropical karst forest, which took millions of years to evolve into the present ecosystem.
After the completion of the highway megaproject in 1981 and the arrival of mining companies, other phenomena alien to the region started to emerge. Extensive cattle-farming, responsible for the destruction of the majority of forests in the Mid-Magdalena region, started to trepidate on the forests located in the mid and lower parts of the watershed. Many of the surrounding forests were thus voraciously transformed into grazing-fields for cattle, and the protruding limestone cones leveld by the action of large-scale mining operations. The forest immediately adjacent to the river, unsuitable for farming, was left relatively unharmed. On those grounds, and during that time, that Rio Claro´s Nature reserve started to study and protect the flora and fauna of the region, inviting scientists, teachers, and students from the country´s most prominent universities and academic institutions to form part of an ongoing conservation process.
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND KNOWLEDGE DISSEMINATION
The first botanical studies performed in the region by Renteria (1981-84), Prance, Haffer and Hernández (1982), called attention to the important biodiversity present in Rio Claro´s forests. These studies related the exceptional levels of biological endemism in the region with the presence of karst deposits, furthermore suggesting that the region was home to forests that were possibly relicts of an ancient pleistocene refuge. Starting in 1984, studies undertaken in Rio Claro by the biologist and botanist Alvaro Cogollo (disciple of Rentería) identified more than one thousand plant species, of which more than one hundred were unknown to the global scientific community.
For more than 35 years, a multitude of theses and research projects developed within the reserve have yielded a vast amount of scientific knowledge concerning the ecosistem and its geological substrates. This information has been produced by institutions both around the globe, and at a national level, generating profound interest from the scientific community and general public alike. Since 1981, when the reserve formally opened its doors to tourists, schools and academic institutions, communicating this scientific knowledge has been a fundamental practice in the reserve´s operations.
CONSERVATION FOR THE FUTURE
Conservation, research and education are our principal objectives, these are directed to the visiting public and are a fundamental part of our work, at a local level, with the multiple communities that inhabit the region. However, beyond strict wildlife conservation, accompany these local communities in sustainable development processes that involve environmental education & awareness, permaculture and ecology, at a variety of scales, as a strategy to guarantee the long-term continuity of this endangered environment in harmony with the development of its inhabitants.
The possibility of deforestation in this region is severe, and the efforts to preserve these last relicts are few. If current deforestation rates are sustained, the lasts patches of forest within the watershed will have dissapeared in less than ten years. Aware of the many challenges faced by Río Claro´s ecosystem, the reserve* directs financial resources originating from nature and adventure tourism to the urgent conservation of the last forests in the middle and upper regions of the river´s watershed. To the moment, and not without great effort, 20 forested areas - ranging from 30-150 hectares each- have been preserved from imminent destruction. In order to avoid the isolation of these sectors, the reserve* is currently leading the initiative to connect these forests via biological corridors that secure the exchange of species and genetic information.
The preservation of Rio Claro's remaining tropical forests, located in the middle and upper regions of the watershed, is of utmost importance. The conservation of these ecological systems is important not only because they represent some of the last Andean tropical forests remaining in the Magdalena Basin, but also due to significant benefits they bring to the mid and lower regions of the watershed. These ecosystems protect the fountains and creeks that feed the river of its crystal-clear waters. Canyons and deep valley walls in the upper areas of the watershed form slopes of over 50%, representing an elevated risk of landslides and erosion. The forest cover that still inhabits these areas is a key factor in assuring soil retention, playing a significant role in the prevention of lkarge-scale disasters that would otherwise threat the human and animal populations living downstream.
COMMUNITY AND CONSERVATION
Establishing nature conservation areas within the watershed is a practice that must go hand-to-hand with the social fabric that inhabits the territory. In order to guarantee the sustainability of both the endangered ecosystems and the communities that inhabit this territory, alternative models for agricultural development and land use have to be adopted at a local level. Part of our mission is to promote and accompany the development of sustainable agriculture projects which act as Agroecological Lighthouses (See UC Berkeley), especially in the upper regions of the watershed where communities interact day-to-day with fountainheads and tributary streams that give birth to the river.
Amidst poverty and state neglect, the colombian armed conflict forced many farmers to adopt coca farming, among other illegal crops, as their only means for subsistence. The former, combined with the growing effects of extensive cattle-farming, had a transformative effect upon this region. The majority of farmers in the communities that conform Rio Claro's middle and upper region are aware that a hectare of deforested grassland is more valuable than a hectare of land with forest cover. This reality, induced by the economic pressure driving large-scale extensive cattle farming, is responsible for the deforestation fo the majority of the watershed.
The creation of new (successful) models of land use and conservation is a fundamental aspect that must be applied to the watersheds that find themselves higly affected by the antropic actions of farmers, miners, industry, urban and semi-urban populations. Climate change, the planet's environmental crisis, and the endangered natural ecosystems demand such an approach, for the benefit of future generations, not only human generations, but of all living beings that inhabit this planet.
In Colombia, the majority of watersheds that tribute their waters to the Magdalena-Cauca Basin have been deforested. The country's central Andean region has lost over 95% of its natural ecosystems, mostly due to the lack of clear policies at a state level, and the lack of environmental consciousness from the part of farmers, agricultural industries, and mining operations.
At a time when global civilizations and communities around the entire planet start to face the first great environmental crisis of their history, it is urgent and necessary to promote watershed conservation and recuperation strategies in order to amend the effects of previous models of colonization and deforestation applied along hundreds of decades throughout the entire globe. Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, have been all but totally devastated and deforested by anti-ecological models for land-use. The development of Agriculture, Extensive Cattle Farming, Industrial monocultures with intensive use of Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc have demineralized soils and altered the microbiotic ecosystems fundamental for the sustainability of life.
One of our primary roles as a natural reserve is to foster, within the communities located in the watershed, new models of cattle-farming and agriculture based on the principles of agroecology and permaculture as an economic philosophy. This work is performed in close collaboration with community leaders, local authorities and CORNARE - the designated national environmental authority for this region.
Every day, more terrains within the watershed are being purchased by extensive cattle-farmers. We destine over 30% of the income generated from tourism activities to the acquisition and protection of land within the watershed, in order to avoid the transformation of these forests into grazing pastures, or mining territories. Additionally, we support pilot agroecological projects in community and school gardens where children and parents learn new techniques and modes of cultivating food and medicinal plants. Our long term goal is to help communities develop organic agro-ecological production chains, with a clear focus not only on the primary stages of cultivation, but also in the production of aggregate-value goods, of necessity to regional, national, and international markets.
SUSTAINABLE HUMAN CONSERVATION
The survival of these natural reserves depends on the consolidation of alternative methods for agriculture, cattle farming, mining and industrial development throughout the region. These productive activities must ensure the survival of natural ecosystems, forests and springs that guarantee the long-term sustainability of the region. Such a model, adjusted to the local conditions of each watershed, must be replicated and adopted throughout the entirety of the Magdalena-Cauca basin, profoundly affected by deforestation and environmental mismanagement. More than 80% of the country´s population has found their home, and derived their productive activities from territories within the Magdalena-Cauca Basin. Perhaps the most prominent articulating feature in Colombia´s geography, this basin has been severely deteriorated by contaminated effluents streaming from villages, towns, and cities along the heart of the country. The Rio Claro watershed, located within the larger Magdalena basin, has a small contamination footprint in comparison to other streams. Yet it is of utmost importance to adopt watershed management as a systemic practice.
CORPORATE ALLIANCE FOR CONSERVATION
During the last decades, it has become increasingly fashionable for large corporations to talk about environmental sustainability and social responsibility. On many occasions, these concepts are adopted at a superficial level, more with the objective of complying with certain national or international regulations than committed to the task of preserving the environment. International entities and national governments have agreed to millennium goals, among other conventions that tend to buffer or reduce the industrial, agricultural, livestock and mining impacts that affect all natural ecosystems, renewable and nonrenewable resources. However, sustainability and conservation must be a politics of profound conscience and knowledge that truly achieve the objectives they state, with the purpose of stopping and reorienting unsustainable and limitless development practices that characterize our contemporary human civilization, and that have severely endangered the environmental sustainability of the entire planet.
Within our watershed, both national and international firms have allied to exploit mineral resources for the production of cement and limestone aggregates. Others have taken unmeasured percentages of the river’s waters in order to run large aquaculture operations, generating severe negative impacts on the river's ecosystem and water quality, and hiding from authorities by abiding to regulations only on paper and seldom on fact. These affectations have had profound impact, by extension, on the watershed's human population.
We are convinced that it is necessary for all the social and economic actors that inhabit the watershed to agree and cooperate towards goals of mutual respect that assure the conservation of life, ecosystems, and water, contributing to collective benefits, and ensuring the climatic and environmental equilibrium of the entire territory. Miners and fish-farms, together with livestock producers are never our enemies or contestants as long as they commit to the region’s true and profound environmental sustainability. Our goal is to commit as many actors as we can to this common goal: aquaculture industries, mining companies, large and small scale agricultural operations, farmers, villagers, and other community members. Together, we aim to correct and construct modes of production that guarantee sustainability and environmental equilibrium throughout the territory.
Our principles on this matter focus on resolving these issues first by means of dialogue and cooperation. With the purpose of mediating and untangling environmental issues with our neighbors -many of which practice industrial activities that do not envision conservation as an end to their activities, but rather calculate their productivity on the acceleration of exploitative capacities - we have recurred to the principles of association, used by communities of living beings in nature. These principles suggest cooperation between opposites and contraries, as long as no actor surpasses the limits that guarantee mutual conservation and sustainability.
We consider water as a spinal cord of life. It is the fundamental compound that guarantees economic, social, and environmental sustainability for all, including the entirety of natural beings that have inhabited this entire region, for hundreds of millions of years. Jaguares, pumas, tigrillos, osos de anteojos, puerco espines, cajuchas, tatabras, zainos, guaguas, borugas, and other thousands of animals, along with the infinitude of plants in the forests, represent the life that has existed in this region long before any humans invaded their territory.
Our mission is to build towards sustainable human development and natural conservation that guarantees life to all the dwellers of this territory. We are determined that this can only be sustained by working together to eliminate the poverty and misery in which many families across the region were faced to live. During the last decades, most locals had to endure the actions of armed groups that, during the worst years of the Colombian conflict, displaced families from their homes by means of mines and armed violence. We work for a much needed reconciliation and peace that can allow for the construction of a new paradigm of natural conservation hand in hand with sustainable human development that does not compromise the sustainability of Rio Claro del Norte and its watershed.
HOW TO HELP
Visiting and staying at the Natural Reserve is the principal way in which national and international tourists can contribute to this development program. Resources from tourism and associated activities are directed towards the preservation of the last forest relicts that cover the upper part of Rio Claro’s watershed. We are currently designing a program for certain actors and individuals to adopt a hectare of land within the watershed, supporting agro-ecological and community led-development initiatives. People and groups who participate in this project are incorporated in activities with communities and forest conservation, and will be able to visit and work with the protected areas of the reserve.