The private companies helping conservation in Colombia

By Beth McLeod
The World Tonight, Bogota

Image caption,
Colombia's mountainous plains are home to a host of flora and fauna

"If there was an Olympic Games for biodiversity, Colombia would be up there on the winner's podium."

Jose Yunis, the director of the Nature Conservancy in Colombia, is understandably proud of his country's abundant array of flora and fauna.

"We have the greatest variety of birds anywhere in the world, we rank third in reptiles, we have fish that you won't find in any other place. We have 10% of all the world's species here, in our jungle, mountain and water ecosystems."

In the Andes, 3,700 metres above sea level and only 30 miles (48km) from the capital Bogota, is the wild paramo or mountain plain.

It is a bleak, silent landscape and home to some rare species.

Signs along the road warn of spectacled bears, the only bear indigenous to South America, and andean condors soar on warm air currents high above the plain.

Mr Yunis is particularly fond of the pale green, pineapple-shaped "frailejones" which grow from the mossy ground.

Image caption,
Frailejones grow from the mossy ground

"This is a very special species indeed. It has furry leaves that trap water from the fog and rain. The paramo is like a sponge soaking up water, it's where the lakes that supply our towns and cities form."

But this delicate ecosystem is under threat.

Just a little further down the valley the paramo stops abruptly, and a pastoral idyll begins.

Small fincas, or farmhouses, dot the hillside. Farmers wearing the traditional poncho and sombrero drive cattle along the road. And from the river's edge right up to the valley's dizzying summit there are neat rows of crops, clinging tightly to the steep mountainside.

Although picturesque, the farms are starting to encroach on the paramo. The andean forest, which should form a transition between low and highland, has all but disappeared, chopped down by the farmers to make way for their crops of potatoes, corn and carrots.

Mr Yunis said this would have disastrous consequences.

"When the rain comes the land will be washed away into the river, there are no trees left with deep roots to keep the soil in place. In 20 or 30 years, if we keep treating the land like this, it will be a desert; no plants, no animals, nothing at all," he said.

Deforestation is a major problem in Colombia, especially in its rainforests.

Every year around 400,000 hectares are cut down by settlers to make way for fields.

The war which has raged for years between left-wing guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups is now calming down, meaning that rural areas which were very dangerous are habitable once more.

The valley above Bogota was once the main route from the city to guerrilla hot spots in the south of the country. But a concerted campaign by the government against guerrilla groups such as the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has made it safer.

Image caption,
The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers to change production methods

The soil erosion in the valley is leading to increased sedimentation of the river, and chemicals used in the crops are polluting it.

This threat to Bogota's water supply has prompted interest from some private companies, which are working with the Nature Conservancy on a project to protect the area.

It is being largely funded by Bavaria, Colombia's largest drinks company and a subsidiary of the multinational SABMiller, which uses water from the river to make its beer.

The project sees ecologists work with farmers to improve their production methods. In exchange, the farmers give up some of their land to create a protected zone around the river, so native species of plants and animals can thrive again.

But critics might argue that local people's ability to eke out a living on the land is more important than conserving the river basin and its biodiversity.

According to government statistics almost half of Colombia's population of 44m live in poverty, which means they survive on less than 280,000 pesos (£100) per month.

But the Nature Conservancy said the project would help these people too.

Image caption,
It is vital to preserve indigenous species, Mr Yunis said

"Take cattle farmers for example," he said.

"At the moment they've just got a couple of cows which have terrible pasture and don't produce much milk. We want to teach them to use better seeds, have better pasture so that they are better off, and can produce more from less land. It's a win-win situation."

In a greenhouse by the river, local farmer Vicente Vega is potting row upon row of tiny seedlings.

They are native species of trees and plants which are being reintroduced to the valley as part of the project, replacing non-indigenous ones like the pine tree.

"Insects and birds like the flowers on the native plants, they're much better than the pine, which no living thing would go near. And the pine trees were drying out the land," said Mr Vega. "The plants we're replacing them with don't."

Although the Nature Conservancy's prime aim is conservation, Bavaria would not have got involved in the project if it was just about biodiversity.

The company's sustainable development director, Juliana Ocampo, said: "Ninety per cent of our beer is water,"

"We agree with all the project's objectives but one of our strategic business priorities is improving water quality. Private companies can really help the environment, but you have to choose where you make an impact."

As the Nature Conservancy has found, the issue of biodiversity alone might not be enough to attract the funds needed to save habitats, unless perhaps an iconic species is at risk.

But if private companies can be persuaded that their interests are also at stake, there is some hope for native flora and fauna.

And considering the rate of deforestation in Colombia, projects like this will need to be implemented on a much greater scale if the country's natural riches are to be preserved.

Beth McLeod's is one of a series of reports on biodiversity onThe World Tonight running daily from Wednesday 13 October to Friday 15 October on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 BST. Listen again on BBC iPlayer.