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EXPLORING ECUADOR

Colombia's Imperiled Choco Forest
by Miguel I. Hernadez

ECUADOR FORUM

Publication date: November 1996

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Colombia is one of the least visited, and therefore, most fascinating countries in Latin America. The true land of El Dorado, Colombia's natural wonders are still concealed in a mist of mystery and legend. Few dare to explore its snow-capped mountains, wind-swept desert, tropical forests, colorful coral reefs, vast plains. Why? Some say bad international reputation, guerrillas, drug-related violence. Parts of Colombia are definitely banned to international travellers, but if you visit the Pacific coast along the Choco Province your experience can be rewarding.

This region is still the realm of the elusive curassow and a naturalist's paradise. Don't bring your credit cards or evening dress. A hammock and rubber boots will be more appropriate here. No luxurious hotels for miles or pompous yachts, if you want to visit one of the last pristine stretches of coastline in tropical America you will likely have to rely on more humble accommodation and transportation: outboard dugout canoes, a modest hotel, or a local's hut are usually the only options. For those diehards who may actually venture into the Choco forest of Colombia, Serrania del Baudo is a good choice.

Ending abruptly in the Pacific Ocean, the largely unexplored Serrania del Baudo gives tropical exuberance a new meaning. This coastal mountain is covered by lush tropical forest that gives life to a myriad of plants, animals and crystal-clear streams. The relentless Pacific ocean clashes with the forest in a perpetual struggle for space, and every September humpback whales enter the scene. To this unique ecosystem, only Utria Sound National Park, and an adjacent Indian territory (called in Colombia resguardos) offer an incipient, yet vital, protection.

The region as a whole, known to conservation experts as Choco Biogeografico, a tropical rain forest larger than Costa Rica, extending from Panama to Ecuador along the entire Pacific coast of Colombia, flanked between the western slopes of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.

Until recently the region's thick forest, abrupt terrain and numerous rivers and streams stood in the way of progress, separating the bustling urban centers of modern Colombia from the Pacific Ocean. Only one major seaport, Buenaventura, was connected to the rest of the country by an important road. Small towns and villages, peopled by blacks and Ameri-Indians, survived in total or partial isolation.

Overlooking the breathtaking and unspoiled Bay of Tribuga, the village of Jurubida attests to this condition. To go to Jurubida one must take a small commercial plane from Medellin or Cali to the coastal town of Nuqui. From here you must proceed on a small boat toward the north several miles, or on foot during low tide. To the casual visitor Jurubida belongs to the past. Cars have not yet conquered it. Electricity and telephone are unknown.

Women dry their freshly harvested rice on the streets while they keep domestic animals at bay. Men paddle their dugout canoes to their respective plots, where they grow a variety of food crops, mostly for self consumption. Children learn to read in a one-room schoolhouse, whose walls are decorated with forest themes. Fresh water and good fishing are taken for granted, they have a near inexhaustible supply. The people who live here are the descendants of the African slaves, brought by gold-seeking Spaniards more than two centuries ago, and they have leant to share this region with the Embera people.

Going up the Jurubida river you will find an Embera village laying just e few miles from the beach. Literally carved out the tropical forest, the village is composed of a dozen or so tambos, or stilt huts. The forest here shows little degradation, and if it weren't for the dugouts beached along the river banks, it would be difficult to notice the human impact.

Traditionally, the Embera people have lived in small family groups dispersed throughout vast expanses of forest, practicing hunting and gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. To date, despite considerable outside influence, this tradition is still alive. Humberto Charampia is young member of the this Embera community who takes a long hike to Nuqui (he seldom can afford to pay for the boat ride) every week to attend school. He is aware of the outside world and eager to see it. Yet, when he returns to his village he goes back to his traditional ways. The Embera are friendly people, but they make sure you understand they are wary of outside threats. Like their Jurubida neighbors, they fear that changes are inevitably coming to their land. In fact, they are appearing over the horizon.

Several miles southeast of Jurubida the roar of bulldozers heralds the arrival of a new highway, bound to connect the coffee-producing region of Colombia to a proposed seaport on Tribuga Bay.

This is part of a grandiose development scheme formulated by the national government since 1984, which has began a radical transformation of the Choco forest an its ancient inhabitants. A particularly ambitious project is to extend the road north across Indian territory, dangerously close to Utria Sound national Park, into Panama. This would bridge the only missing link (the Darien Gap) in the Pan-American highway between Alaska and Patagonia. In the context of Colombia this means trouble. Opening up the region to the rest of the country and beyond will inevitably funnel into the region people of all descriptions, from powerful entrepreneurs and multinationals to landless peasants and outlaws. This, of course, will result in the plundering of one of the richest biodiversity preserves of the planet.

In fact, the destruction is well under way. The entire region has reportedly lost 25 percent of its original forest, and counting. Scientists warn that the rest will disappear within the next 50 years. Some ecosystems are so imperiled that as much as 50 percent of their plant and animal species are bound to vanish during the next 12 years. The culprits, so far, have been logging companies, gold mining operations and poor peasants hungry for land.

According to a recent report, industrial gold mining alone is responsible for the destruction of 80.000 hectares (200,000 acres) of forest per year, which also threatens aquatic ecosystems with sedimentation and dangerous levels of mercury. This is particularly distressing if we consider that most plant and animals species of the Choco forest are yet to be discovered by science. Approximately 3,500 species of plants are known to exist here, and scientists predicts that as many as 6,500 await identification -- one forth of which would be found here and nowhere else. Because most of the environmental degradation has occurred in populated areas and along major rivers of Choco Biogeografico, Serrania del Baudo has thus far escaped major depredation of its pristine ecosystems. The new road that is bisecting Serrania del Baudo, however, will soon facilitate its destruction. A modern seaport will inevitably doom Tribuga Bay, and the people of Jurubida will lose what they took for granted for so long.

Located north of Jurubida, Utria Sound National Park, and neighboring Indian land, stand as the only hope for long-term conservation of the area's unique ecosystems. Encompassing a rare combination of tropical moist forest, mangroves, estuaries and coral reefs, Utria has received considerable attention since its creation in 1987, not only from the government but from national and international non- governmental organizations as well. It is indeed an admirable case within the troubled national park system of Colombia. Where else in Colombia are you greeted and lectured by an expert biologist on the park's ecology?

The park also has a well-kept visitor center and relatively comfortable cabins for tired visitors, even scuba diving facilities. The sound itself forms a protected lagoon whose tranquility has lured humpbacked whales and marine turtles, among others, since times immemorial. Miles of pristine beaches, forest trails, an impressive waterfall, can still be seen here. But Utria can not exist in isolation surrounded by environmental destruction. Its 54,000 hectares (135,000 acres) are hardly noticeable within the larger Choco Biogeografico. Although other national parks do exist in the region, they are located far from Serrania del Baudo and its coastal and marine environment.

If the Choco forest is to survive into the next century, conventional economics must be redefined to include the rights of indigenous communities to self determination, the cost of biodiversity degradation and extinction, the political and social conditions of Colombia.

Large-scale development projects that so captivate powerful economic interests may turn into an ecological and social nightmare when they materialize in the context of a country like Colombia, where environmental regulations are difficult to enforce, to say the least. Indigenous people are well aware of this risk and have frequently protested against government plans, including the road. But the region is economically too important and thus changes are inevitable. Maybe you will need your credit card after all.

The author lives in Miami and can be reached via email


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