Colombia’s Rallying Cry

Can ecotourism mend a divided nation in the aftermath of war?

In late June, as the rains start to fall in the foothills of Colombia’s La Macarena region, something magical happens to the Caño Cristales river. The water rises, and Macarenia clavigera plants lining the river bottom bloom into an explosion of yellows, oranges, and—most strikingly—a deep raspberry red, creating what locals call a “liquid rainbow” in the forest.

Until recently, another kind of red regularly stained the Macarena region, in the territory controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The leftist guerrilla group was known for kidnapping and killing civilians in its quest to topple the government. The conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government—considered one of the longest wars in history—claimed some 220,000 lives and displaced an estimated 5.7 million over the course of its 54 years.

The war also took a heavy toll on the country’s environment. Unregulated mining, oil pipeline bombings, illegal cultivation of coca—the plant from which cocaine is made—and general degradation by the FARC and other criminal groups caused an estimated $7.1 billion in damage per year according to Colombia’s Planning Department. But conflict also brought an unexpected environmental upside: The FARC needed the trees for cover from air raids, so they enforced logging restrictions at gunpoint. As a result, the rainforests and tropical dry forests in La Macarena remain largely intact. Violence also shielded other FARC territory from the widespread environmental destruction that took place in relatively safe parts of the country at the hands of government-backed companies seeking mineral and petroleum resources and agricultural land.

Just this summer, on June 27, 2017, after years of negotiations and demobilization, the FARC officially disarmed. Hope is on the horizon for the first time in half a century, but so are many hurdles. It’s a critical time for Colombia to decide what its future should look like, including the fate of vast stretches of territory once held by the FARC. While some look to exploit these newly accessible resources, conservationists, the country’s national park service and the Ministry of Tourism are putting their efforts towards converting former conflict zones into ecotourism hubs, with hopes of revitalizing the country’s broken economy and empowering its rural communities.

FARC-controlled Territory

Prior to the start of peace negotiations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had a huge presence across Colombia. In 2012, that area included 28 department sand 262 municipalities throughout the country. Today, ecotourism sites are popping up in regions formerly controlled by the FARC. Source: Indepaz

Rebuilding an Economy

While most Colombian cities remained relatively safe during the past half-century, rural areas bore the brunt of the war. Regions under guerrilla control had little to no state presence for decades, and the lack of a government-run economy fueled illegal activities. Throughout most of the conflict, Colombia was the world’s largest producer and exporter of cocaine. The FARC generated some $200 million to $3.5 billion in revenue each year from trafficking the stuff. While the drug trade represented less than 1 percent of the country’s GDP in recent years, this is big business for Colombia. The market won’t die with the FARC’s dismantling.

“Drug violence in some areas has actually increased with peace,” says Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami who studies conflict and drug trafficking in Colombia. “We have criminal groups that will step in and take over where the FARC have left off. There will be pockets of violence around the coca trade in Colombia for at least the next half-decade if not more.”

To prevent rural areas from spiraling into criminal hotspots, and to bring much-needed sources of income to its citizens, the government must grow the rural economy. For farmers who currently grow an estimated 360,000 acres of coca—the plant from which cocaine is made—the FARC has long provided both protection and high compensation, with farmers often cashing in at more than double the price of traditional crops. To counter this, the government launched crop substitution and subsidies programs last year. While these programs have potential to shift the mindset on a local level, they haven’t always been effective. In order to qualify for crop-substitution, an entire region has to first become coca-free, meaning that farmers have to wait months or sometimes years to receive government benefits after they stop growing coca. Even in areas that do qualify for crop substitution, farmers sometimes still make less money between crop sales and subsidies than they did selling coca—and given the lack of roads and other types of infrastructure, options are limited for people in rural communities.

“Drug violence in some areas has actually increased with peace.”

—Bruce Bagley, political scientist at the University of Miami

While farming—both legal and illegal—is the largest source of income for rural Colombians, extractive industries also loom large in the countryside. Colombia possesses large reserves of coal, oil, gold, and precious stones that are harvested through large corporate mines. Throughout the war, the Colombian government relied heavily on revenue from these industries, and President Juan Manuel Santos is known for courting multinational corporations for large-scale mining and extractive projects. In peacetime, as new mineral-rich territory opens up, the need for economic growth may simply promote the reliance on these industries.

Considering the risks of extraction, and the limitations of agriculture, conservationists think ecotourism could provide the economic counterbalance needed to sway the country toward protecting the environment. And that’s not without evidence. In 2016, tourism surpassed coal, becoming the country’s largest source of foreign revenue. “It is a critical time where the country is going to decide to pursue a model based on ecotourism—the Costa Rica model—or just exploit every resource that they have,” says John Myers, the Conservation Innovation Director with the World Wide Fund For Nature in Colombia. ”Tourism and conservation need to be intelligent allies because there are many other competing interests moving aggressively.”

Risks and Resources

Colombia has no shortage of ecological marvels to attract foreign travelers. After Brazil, it is considered the most biodiverse country on Earth. It boasts more species of birds and orchids than anywhere else in the world, and the second greatest number of amphibians. The country is positioned in the Amazon rainforest, contains a swath of the Andes mountains, and claims both Pacific and Atlantic coasts; this gives Colombia a wider variety of ecosystems than nearly anywhere in the world.

In the years since the launch of peace talks in 2012, local tour companies have begun advertising trips to Colombia’s new frontiers, including destinations like the Ciudad Perdida, an ancient ruin recently controlled by the FARC and Chocó, the country’s Pacific whale-watching hub where kidnappings and murders once took place with some regularity. While traveling to these remote regions is not without risk, a decline in FARC activity has been accompanied by a drop in violence, one of the greatest impediments to establishing Colombia as a travel destination. From 2000 to 2015, kidnappings in Colombia fell from more than 3,500 to 210 annually; and in 2016 the homicide rate hit a 40-year low.

State-run tourism agencies have jumped on the opportunity, investing millions on campaigns to promote Colombian destinations, and to establish tours in former conflict zones. So far, it seems to be working. Since the mid-2000s, tourism has grown an average of 12.2 percent per year—more than three times the global average. There has been a particular focus on specialized ecotours, such as birding and orchid hunting. These activities require expert guides who receive higher pay, and tend to focus on the isolated rural areas most lacking in development.

In total, tourism is expected to create approximately 154,000 new jobs in the country by 2025 and to generate between $17.6 and $22.5 billion a year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. That’s hugely promising; but there are no guarantees.

The transition from war-torn to welcoming will not be easy. Drawing tourists to a conflict zone is a challenge, no matter how beautiful or biodiverse it may be. Not to mention the difficulty the country faces in ensuring tourists have a safe and enjoyable stay once they get there. Compared to the well-established wildlife preserves and nature parks in many other parts of the world, Colombia’s tourism infrastructure is sparse. Most rural areas lack hotels, restaurants, and the specialized personnel needed to organize and lead adventure tours. And the same lack of roads that stymies opportunity for people who live in rural areas limits the ability of ecotourists to visit these regions without chartering expensive flights or enduring exhausting jungle treks.

Still, top political figures in Colombia frequently cite tourism as a critical component of the post-conflict economy, and, in February, a group of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates issued a statement affirming the expansion of tourism as the key to sustaining peace. Proponents often use the success story of Caño Cristales to make their case. Attracting some 10,000 tourists a year, it is now one of the headlining trips for adventure tour companies, and has become a critical source of income for local guides in La Macarena. The river features prominently in the government’s tourism campaigns, which help to draw more than 2.5 million tourists to the country annually.

But tour operators aren’t the only ones interested in capitalizing on the newly accessible site. In March 2016, Hupecol Operating Company—a petroleum company with roots in the U.S.—was granted a fracking permit along the border of La Macarena, near Caño Cristales. The project’s permitting process moved forward without an assessment of the potential for environmental damage to the river. When word of this began to spread, the potential threat to the valuable tourism resource triggered public outrage, and forced President Santos to stall the project’s contract until an environmental impact study could be conducted. While the delay was seen as a victory for ecotourism advocates, the final decision is still pending, and pressures for extraction in other parts of the country continue to mount.

new tourism jobs are expected in Colombia by 2025

On the Ground

There are no walls at the schoolhouse in Santa Rita de la Sierra. The desks sit on a concrete slab beneath a roof of zinc sheets, and the dense jungle creeps in across the floor. It’s an appropriate setting for today’s lesson, a training course for hiking guides. 

The hopefuls are all from the community of Santa Rita, a 4,000-acre territory in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern Colombia. The 89 families that live in the town all arrived over the past several decades through a government relocation program for people who lost their land to the armed conflict.

The training course, hosted by the Peace Corps the day after peace talks closed with the FARC on August 25, 2016, is part of a program designed to transform the group of primarily subsistence farmers into tour guides. The Santa Rita guides start their training by developing a trail through different points of interest in the mountains near the town and then practice guiding skills by leading volunteer tourists on hikes.

Today was the dry run, and for the first time in as long as he can remember, Wilfredo Acósta, 52, one of the trainees, was not afraid to enter the forest. After a strenuous morning of hiking, his rubber boots are caked in mud, and beads of sweat squeeze out from under his baseball cap and down his forehead. When Acósta speaks of ecotourism in the area, his voice sounds upbeat. “When people come here, we hope they forget all the stories of conflict,” he says. “We want to show that we are moving on and looking for another form of life.”

Acósta is no stranger to such rallying. The rural farmer was born the year before the war began and has known no other way of life. He saw his family murdered by FARC paramilitaries and had his land usurped by armed rebels. He came to Santa Rita in 2000 after being displaced for a second time. A year after he arrived, right wing paramilitaries—criminal groups spun off from private militias created to fight off the FARC—swarmed the mountains, invading his fields and spreading terror. Three times, government planes, sponsored by U.S. anti-drug operations, poisoned his cacao plantation with chemicals meant for the nearby coca plantations.

Over the past four years, the government has brought a decline in paramilitary activity in Santa Rita through bloody military campaigns and hard-fought negotiations, and the region has become safer. Acósta now has a healthy cacao crop that he sells to a local cooperative for export, and he is looking to tourism as a way to bring more money to his community. Exactly how that should be done, and who should benefit, remain points of tension, however.


Dividing up the Spoils

In addition to its potential benefits on local economies and rural development, the government sees ecotourism as one of the most promising employment opportunities for former FARC soldiers as they rejoin civilian life. “The guerrillas spent years in the jungle, getting to know the trails, the rivers, the wildlife all in order to better manage these areas for the war,” says Julián Guerrero, the vice president of tourism for ProColombia, an export-promoting arm of the Colombian government. “Now they can use that knowledge in service of peace.”

The FARC, too, has a vested interest in aiding rural development. Aside from its criminal activities, the guerilla force is a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist army. FARC leaders espouse the idea of fighting for the people and elevating the peasant class. The peace agreement gives the FARC a stake in politics and provides former guerrilla leaders with the opportunity to run for office and forward these ideals. The FARC’s ability to spur progress in the rural areas where it has influence is critical to the organization’s ability to gain political supporters.

Yet, while the government has grudgingly embraced the inclusion of the FARC and its allies in its development plans, there are many others who vehemently oppose the government’s support of FARC leaders, soldiers, or anyone, such as coca farmers, who benefited from the group’s decades of illegal activity. “The peace agreement leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Acósta says. “The government wants to give money and opportunities to people who have lived outside the law when they should be helping us, the victims and the poor.”

Beyond government subsidiaries, there are other concerns over who will benefit from Colombia’s historic peace agreement. Many are worried that new investments and economic growth in the private sector will center primarily on large corporations and multinational companies. While ecotourism is often portrayed as a way to protect land from enterprises, tourism more generally may also bring its own share of big business. Since 2012, large U.S.-owned hotel chains like Best Western and Wyndham have expanded their Colombia operations, while many local businesses don’t have the capital upfront to build such sizeable structures.

“What’s still not clear is if people in poor communities that were affected by the conflict are going to benefit from this boom in tourism or if it will just be large hotel chains and travel agencies,” says Luis Fernando Castillo, the director of Calidris, Colombia’s largest organization dedicated to bird conservation and observation. “Specifically with birding and ecotourism, we need to realize that Colombia has some weaknesses, most notably a lack of specialized guides.”

In some areas, where conservation and tourism interests collide, NGOs have stepped in to help prop up new projects that address these needs. USAID has launched tourism trainings throughout Colombia in an effort to save critical ecosystems. The Audubon Society has developed a network of birding trails in different parts of the country, and helps birders find local guides and lodging. One such place to benefit from these efforts is Los Flamencos Wildlife Reserve, a collection of coastal lagoons and mangroves that provides critical bird habitat in the tropical dry forest and desert of the remote La Guajira Peninsula.

“The guerrillas spent years in the jungle, getting to know the trails, the rivers, the wildlife all in order to better manage these areas for the war. Now they can use that knowledge in service of peace.”

—Julián Guerrero, vice president of tourism for ProColombia

A Step in the Right Direction

One afternoon, shortly after the end of the peace talks in 2016, I join a group of sunscreen-slathered French tourists at the lagoon in Los Flamencos. The guides here are all members of the indigenous Wayuú community that resides within the reserve; the leaders are part of a local association trained in tourism by USAID in 2013.

We follow as the guides push blue wooden boats to the water’s edge. The vessels’ white sails flap in the breeze, mimicking the wings of the great egrets that wade in the shallows nearby. As we approach the lagoon, bachata music blares from a nearby house, and plastic bags and food wrappers cling to the bushes along the beach. Juan, one of the guides, sees me eyeing the litter and walks over. He hates the music, he says; it makes it hard to hear birdcalls. As for the garbage, “They’re working on it,” he says. There is an awareness campaign underway to encourage the community to manage trash.

These relatively minor aggravations are just the latest battles in an effort to make the reserve more tourist-friendly. Kinks are still being worked out, but the reserve has made huge progress in recent years. Since the ceasefire began, Los Flamencos went from receiving one group of birders per year to hosting hundreds of tourists annually. Once lacking accommodations, the reserve now has six small cabins next to the lagoon, and 17 trained guides run daily tours for $40 a head. 

As the guides finish pushing our boats out into the water, fishermen pull in their nets to let us pass. Four pink American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) take off and then settle back in the water just 50 meters away, and the tourists whip out their cameras to grab shots of the synchronized landing. Back in the early 2000s, this scene in the lagoon would have been unimaginable to the reserve’s residents. With the country still consumed by war, only hardcore birders visited Los Flamencos. At first, the Wayuú feared that these tourists, with their scopes and cameras, were surveying their territory in the interest of stealing it, as the guerrillas and paramilitary soldiers were known to do. Others thought their cameras were somehow harming the birds. 

To assess what kind of risk these tourists posed to their community, the Wayuú sent 9-year-old José Luis Pushaiana to find what they were up to. The birders’ guide, a Colombian from a neighboring province, explained the idea of ecotourism and how it could help support a stronger local economy. He also showed the local community how the photography equipment worked, which calmed their fears.

Years later, when the birding organization Calidris held a training for bird guides in the area, Pushaiana remembered his exchange with the guide from his childhood and signed up enthusiastically. He is now one of the top birding guides in Colombia and runs a program to train others from his community. 

“Before, [the Wayuú] protected the birds for ourselves because we value them, but now we are protecting them for everyone.” Pushaiana says. “It’s through the birds that we will grow our community. This is Colombia’s path forward.”

Reporting for this story was funded by the International Women’s Media Foundation

Lindsay Fendt

Lindsay Fendt is a freelance reporter and photographer who works frequently in Latin America. She primarily covers the environment and human rights, and is a 2017-18 Scripps Fellow for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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