To understand Eduardo Martinez's ranch, imagine the usual ranching challenges plus one that trumps them all: Regularly dealing with armed thugs, who, on any given day, could kill you and your family.
For years, that was Eduardo’s reality. As a rancher in eastern Colombia’s Orinoco grasslands, he was caught between fighting by leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
Extortion and armed militant visits became monthly occurrences. Each year, these militants murdered more of his fellow ranchers. Eduardo was a gentle rancher living in a place controlled by increasingly violent men, men described by journalist Mark Bowden as “masters of cruelty.”
The violence is over now. Asked what sustained him then, and the answer is simple: Hope. Hope, and what surrounds him on his 20,000 acre ranch: his family, his traditions, the cattle and birds and the endless grass that stretches to the horizon.
Today, Eduardo envisions his ranch’s future: improving cattle productivity while also conserving his grasslands and their wildlife, with assistance from The Nature Conservancy. With increasing energy development and globalization pressures, it’s a challenge.
But Eduardo knows this: As significant as those challenges are, they’re nothing compared to what he has lived through. He has his ranch, and he knows the power of hope.
To reach Eduardo’s ranch from anywhere, it’s hours of dusty, bumpy, pot-holed road. Yopal, the nearest city, is a solid hours. And Eduardo’s ranch is, relatively speaking, not very remote.
Eduardo ranches in the Department of Casanare (the equivalent of a U.S. state). The ten-million acre department includes some 10,500 ranches—and three roads. Cattle are still moved by horse or by boat on larger rivers. It’s part of a 40-million acre grassland that covers a large swath of eastern Colombia and western Venezuela—known as the Llanos by locals.
Eduardo’s grandfather homesteaded La Finca Esperanza—in English, Hope Ranch. Like many ranchers, Eduardo can’t imagine living anywhere else—a belief put to the test by the years of violence.
Until five years ago, the area was largely controlled by right-wing paramilitaries, groups that originally formed to protect landowners and the government from three leftist guerilla groups. But they were not affiliated with military, and soon, as Eduardo says, “The cure became worse than the disease.” As groups on all sides became increasingly involved in the drug trade, ideology became indecipherable, and violence ever more common.
Eduardo recalls the time sixty of the notorious FARC rebels camped out just behind his ranch’s patio. As they ate breakfast, the men stripped down and bathed at his well. For three nights, Eduardo says, he stayed awake praying for FARC to leave peacefully. Sometimes, when the rebels left, they killed the whole family as they departed.
After they left, he says, he spent three more days praying the paramilitaries wouldn’t show up. If they did, it almost assuredly meant they knew he allowed the FARC to stay on his property. And if they knew, that meant one thing: He was a dead man.
Seven years ago, the new Colombian government’s campaign against illegal armed groups intensified, with great success. With that came a new era for Llanos ranchers like Eduardo: an era in which they didn’t have to fear for their lives.
Continued on Page 2: Charting the Future
Matt Miller is a senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy World Office. He writes frequently about conservation for the Conservancy on nature.org, as well as the Conservancy's blogs Cool Green Science.
Matt is a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Living Bird, Sports Afield, Bugle, Mule Deer, Grist and many others. He has traveled around the world in search of wildlife and stories.