Just 80 km (48 miles) from the capital city of Colombia lies the Andean moorland of Guacheneque, with a total area of 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) including the municipalities of Villapinzón, Machetá and Chocontá (Province of Cundinamarca) and the municipalities of Úmbita and Turmequé (Province of Boyacá).
Despite its importance as a strategic location and provider of environmental services, potato crops, fodder and cattle ranching are endangering the moorland.
Marcela Bernal Cuesta, Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) M. Sc. in Regional Urban Planning discovered that these actions are not being carried out by local rural folk of the area: “Although the majority of their crops are for self-sustenance, the large potato producers of Bogotá and nearby townships are those renting the lands and carry out large crops and cattle ranching”.
After checking the land ownership of the Andean moorland, provided by the Agustín Codazzi Geographical Institute (IGAC, for its Spanish acronym), the researcher discovered that there is a prevalence of small farmsteads (lands between 2 and 10 hectares [5 & 35 acres]) and even smaller farmsteads (less than 2 hectares), with 282 and 253 properties respectively, which occasionally have been subdivided due to inheritance rights between several inheritors.
This, in most cases, has made land size insufficient for rural folk to develop productive activities and receive income, therefore some decide to extend the agricultural frontier over protected areas or rent their small farmsteads to larger farm owners.
In order to identify the issue, Bernal worked with the 3-m method, including multi-scalability, where she identified and contextualized the moorlands around the world; second, multi-temporality, analyzing the transformations man had subjected this ecosystem during the pre-Hispanic, Hispanic, Republican and current eras; and third, multi-dimensionality, based on information obtained from the first two stages, she identified physical-biotic, historic-geographic, sociocultural, socioeconomic and political-institutional aspects which allowed her to understand each one of dynamics and the conflicts present in this Andean moorland.
She also observed that approximately 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) are destined to potato crops and cattle ranching. Although at first, the amount may sound irrelevant, some of these activities are carried out within the confines of the three protected natural reserves of the moorland: the birth of the Bogotá, La Cuchilla, and Frailejonal.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that according to a 2005 census, the population of the moorland was 60,619 inhabitants, although 8,414 people actually take resources from the moorland, most are low-income and low-technology rural folk devoted to growing potatoes and small cattle ranching.
For Professor Nohra León, former director of the Environmental Studies Institute (IDEA, for its Spanish acronym) and Deputy Academic Director of the Faculty of Sciences, what is happening to Guacheneque moorland is a sad example of what occurs in all Colombian moorlands: “Large farmers have discovered that when they crop at higher altitudes they need fewer agrochemicals, lowering their production costs, but the environmental costs are lethal to the soil, the environment and the water streams, which in many cases from the origin, they are tainted by pesticides”.
According to a joint 2016 IGAC and the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute report, of the 2.9 million hectares (7.2 million acres) of the total moorland areas in Colombia, between 500,000 and 600,000 hectares have been used for agricultural activities.
Precisely the lack of adequate coordination between environmental and urban regulations has opened the door for moorlands not having the strategic value they deserve, although being an essential part of the cities.
In this respect, María Patricia Rincón Avellaneda, Academic Coordinator of the UNal Regional Urban Planning Master´s Program and Bernal´s Thesis Director, says that the territorial development plans have especially focused in urban areas leaving rural areas with less detail level.
“In case of the moorlands, the only alternative to carry out coherent and articulate plans and programs would be a joint action of all municipalities that are within its jurisdiction”, added Rincón.
The break-up has also fragmented property, as lands are divided for rent or sale, producing greater degradation of the ecosystem. For Bernal, it is important that the preservation strategies for the moorland begin by including the rural folk, who should be taken into account when designing regional development plans.
“The solution is not telling them to abandon their lands, as these have been their only method of sustenance for many years; it is essential to come to an agreement with them and point out the borders of where they are allowed to crop”, she added.
Therefore as a way to create greater environmental awareness, Bernal proposed the PGA which are already being applied in other areas and are an economic contribution from the citizens to rural folk for leaving a portion of their lands with native forests, which serve as a protective barrier and environmental preservation.
She also proposes environmental corridors as regional preservation strategies as, “The strong intervention in the Guacheneque moorlands has caused fragmentation of the ecosystem, interrupting the natural flow of species, producing loss of biodiversity and wild flora and fauna; therefore, these corridors ensure that these ecosystems fragments are connected and expedite species interconnection”, she added.
If the fragility of the moorlands is recognized and rural folk, forest wardens, regional corporations, the Colombian Ministry of the Environment and Rural Development and the NGOs can come to agreements, they can conceive a territorial planning that guarantees the main ecosystemic benefit of the moorlands: water.