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Protection of Páramos



Lack of Agrarian Reform Results in Conflict

Current socio-environmental conflicts in the páramos are not altogether new. These issues can be conceptualized on both geologic and human timescales, as the story of the páramos takes place over millions of years. Yet most of the conflicts have coincided with human interventions over the last century. Páramos formed about three million years ago when our planet entered the Holocene, an interglacial geologic period. Through a slow speciation process, plants and animals developed new characteristics and adapted to the changed, colder climate. The páramos today are largely areas of cold and damp weather with temperatures dipping below zero degrees at night and reaching only about six degrees Celsius during the day. For centuries, the páramos were largely uninhabited due to the harsh climate. However, they were ancestrally utilized by indigenous peoples and regarded as sacred areas for the Muiscas, among other pre-Columbian peoples.

Merging the disciplines of arts and sciences, biologist and visual artist Catalina Giraldo produced this film to help envision the ecological history of the Northern Andes where the páramo ecosystems have evolved over the last 2 million years. As we begin to understand the consequences of human-provoked climate change, we learn that these biodiversity hotspots are particularly vulnerable.


The páramo de Guerrero is considered the most transformed in Colombia given that 47% of its natural cover has been altered in some way.

Although modern agrarian reform was first attempted in Colombia in the 1930s, the 1972 Pact of Chicoral was a major setback in achieving agrarian equity and kept rural land consolidated in the hands of a landholding elite. As an alternative to real land redistribution, the Colombian government kept propelling landless campesinos to settle in what it deemed tierras baldías or "empty lands", including páramos, where the soil only allowed for limited crop growth, primarily of potatoes and onions. Campesinos were displaced into higher mountainous regions as plantations and large landholdings took over or consolidated their historical hold over fertile valley areas in the interior of the country. Farming and livestock became the primary economic activities of campesinos in or near the páramos alongside small-and-medium-scale mining. In the years following the integration of the páramos into the agricultural frontier when government policies promoted the expansion of agricultural and livestock as part of Green Revolution-based agricultural development, industrial mining interests also began to intensify in these areas. All of these factors would lead to future conflicts with environmental conservation agendas. 


Source Water Contamination

The case of the páramo of Guerrero: In this presentation, anthropologist Felipe Pachón shares his research on the social economic context of campesino communities in the páramo of Guerrero.  The project intends  to counter the stigmatization of campesinos as "predators of the environment" by explaining their agrarian history, the impacts of the Green Revolution, and their relationships caring for the territory.


Since 2000, Colombian oil production has increased by a third and natural gas production by 70%. The surface occupied by mining titles increased from 1 million hectares, in 2000, to 8.5 million in 2010. Between 2000 and 2001, coal production doubled, turning Colombia into the eleventh largest coal producer in the world and the first largest producer in Latin America (WWF-Colombia 2017, 22).

Ley 685 of 2001 invited foreign investors to partake in the extraction and exploitation of gold and other mineral deposits in the páramos. As a result, large domestic and multinational companies like Vancouver-based Greystar Resources became interested in exploring these areas. As the economic value of these mineral-rich ecosystems became more apparent, socio-environmental conflicts increased between local communities, state and corporate actors, and regulatory agencies. Eventually, under the pressure of industrial mining expansion and the impacts that this industry would have on drinking water supplies for the country’s major cities and strategic biodiversity, environmental authorities advocated for the conservation of the páramos. Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá obtains its drinking water from the páramos of Sumapaz and Cruz Verde. Likewise, the páramo of Belmira supplies water to the metropolis of Medellín and the páramo of Santurbán provides water to the city of Bucaramanga.


Law 1450 of 2011 enacted a sweeping prohibition of all economic activity in the páramos after a contentious delimitation process that provoked controversies among local populations who felt excluded from decision-making processes and whose livelihoods were negatively affected by the legislative iniciative. However, this delimitation process and its controversies has also raised national public awareness and concern about the importance of preserving the country’s 

páramos. It has raised questions about the need for urban citizens to also assume responsibility for the care of their sources of drinking water. In addition, it has provoked necessary public debates and interesting consequences for the participation of paramuno communities in environmental decisions and territorial ordinance and governance strategies.   

Images of different modes of landscape transformation, rural livelihoods, and range of actors present in and near the páramo of Sumapaz.


Economic Activities in the Páramos

- Agriculture and livestock makes up 20% of the total intervention in the páramos.

- 350,000 people live in the páramos of the country.

- Around 49% of the páramos in the world are in Colombia.

- 36% of the municipalities in the country have territory in the páramos.

- Of these municipalities, 10 of them have 70% of their territory in páramo areas.

- The total area of páramos in the country is 2.9 million hectares.



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Listen to a conversation with Carlos Alberto Morales, member of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Sumapaz (SINTRAPAZ).

Calos Alberto Morales tells the story of the creation of SINTRAPAZ in the context of "La Violencia" which built off of agrarian organizing in Sumapaz in the 1920s and 30s. The organization emerged as  a campesino proposal for peace after years of violence.

He explains SINTRAPAZ's role in the defense of campesino rights, land distribution, titling, and other activities, such as working with other social organizations to implement conflict resolution, establish environmental protection norms, build infrastructure, and guarantee educational services given the absence of state presence in the region.

Carlos shares how the organization and campesino 

communities have been able to conserve the páramo. Campesinos do not share the same capitalist values that imply destruction for accumulation and deforestation of large tracts of land. He argues that campesinos deserve this stewardship recognition.

More recently, SINTRAPAZ has taken on the defense of human rights in the midst of the armed conflict and defended the territory from megaprojects, such as hydroelectric dams and large scale tourism. Carlos argues that dispossession does not only happen through the use of armed violence, but also via conservationist discourses and interests that seek to privatize water.


Source Water Contamination

The páramos are a specialized ecosystem with plants, such as the frailejones, that collect water from the atmosphere and pass it through to the soil.  This process has made the páramos the source water for much of Colombia. Water travels from the páramos to streams, rivers, and aquifers that reach many parts of the country. Removal of the unique plant-life and compaction of the soil through cattle ranching dramatically reduces the ability of the land to capture water and to hold it. Similarly, tillage of the soil and the introduction of agrochemicals for large-scale potato farming destroys the páramos.   Animal feces and agrochemicals enter the water contaminating it near the source. Animal feces can contain pathogenic microorganisms that wash into flowing waterways.  The water may be used to irrigate agriculture downstream leading to human infection when fruits and vegetables are consumed. Insecticides such as chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate commonly used on potatoes, have been associated with developmental, respiratory and neurologic impacts to children living near their application.


Interethnic Legal Differences

There are fundamental differences between the treatment of indigenous peoples and campesino communities in the Colombian legal system. Indigenous peoples now have legal recourse based on international human rights conventions, such as ILO-169, which recognizes their right to prior consultation among other special protections guaranteed in the country´s 1991 Constitution. As of now, there is no official political recognition of campesinos in the agrarian census of the country. Nor are they recognized as a vulnerable social group, requiring special protections, or as having culturally specific family and economic structures and relations with their lands and territories. Often, there is a lack of appreciation for their contributioun to national food production and food sovereignty. 

The unequal and differential protection of rural communities can cause tensions between them. It is important to note that while the goals of indigenous peoples and campesino organizations may have many overlaps and they share experiences of armed conflict and agrarian-based forms of violence, there are at times interethnic tensions between and amongst these rural groups.

Protection of Páramos


source water contamiation
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