Despite being one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, Orinoquia is also one of the least protected, at a high risk of conversion and of suffering the effects of climate change. With the declaration of 68,000 hectares of natural savannas as part of the new Manacacías National Natural Park (in Meta department, Colombia), a new era begins for the future of nature and people in this iconic landscape where TNC has been working in Latin America.
Far in the distance, a curtain of black smoke distorts the endless undulating savanna landscape. The fires are at a great distance, much farther than they seem, but the air is so clear and transparent that one can see the fires from inside the Manacacías National Natural Park. Beyond the “hillock,” how locals call these unique seasonal tropical savannas full of water and biodiversity, livestock farming is still one of the main activities. And in the eastern plains of Colombia, it takes place in combination with the traditional burning of pastureland to ensure its regrowth and thus, food for the animals.
The smoke also reminds Gustavo Guarín, an experienced cowboy who today works as guide at the new National Park, of the times of war in this mountain range that borders the municipalities of Puerto López to the north, Puerto Lleras to the east, and Mapiripán to the south. An area that used to be an enclave of the largest cocaine laboratories in the country, and where various illegal armed groups operated. Their activities left hundreds of victims in their wake, along with a massacre still alive in the memory of Colombians today.
Don Gustavo was born in the San Martín municipality, the last inhabited place before one enters the thickness of the savanna. Being a child, he learned to horseback in the range and mastered his understanding of the dynamics of summer and winter. He remembers the old days walking among the hillocks, refreshing himself in the crystal-clear waters of lagoons surrounded by moriche palms, and fishing in the waters of the Manacacias river , that is born in the savanna and flows into the Meta River. Gustavo knows how to move his feet to scare away the anacondas and caiman alligators (an endangered species today) in the swamps; he knows how to look carefully in the horizon to find the deers, chestnut-colored horses, tapirs, armadillos, jaguars, and the small monkeys jumping between the trees. He can identify birds simply by their singing, and loves to wait patiently for sunset on a hill to see the giant anteater walking on the plain, wagging its tail to the rhythm of the rolling savannas.
My relationship with the Range began when I was 12 years old. Right here, there was a ranch called La Gloria that belonged to my uncle, and I would come here; that’s why I love this land, I love it, and I take care of it,” said Gustavo, his eyes filling with tears. Like many people from the plains, he is full of pride and feelings when talking about his land and its customs, which are intimately connected to the magnificent landscape, denoting people's relationship with the nature surrounding them. Cultural manifestations in this part of Colombia translate as cowboy and joropo songs, whichhave been declared Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
Protected Tropical Undulating Savannas
Among the reasons for the Manacacías Range to be declared a National Park is its high ecological importance and the fact that it houses samples of ecosystems with little representation in the National System of Protected Areas in Colombia (SINAP) but that are well-preserved, such as tropical seasonal savannas, gallery tropical forests, wetlands, and bodies of water (rivers and lagoons).,
“The Manacacías is a unique water system since it has a direct hydrological connection with the Andean rivers of the Meta department. Likewise, it has an important hydrological role in the Orinoquia. Its hydrological regulation index is comparable to ecosystems in the Amazon,” says Tomas Walschburger, TNC Colombia’s Senior Scientist.
Wildlife hunting is just one of the pressures in the region. The Orinoquia, considered the second-most diverse basin in the world after the Amazon, is also the region with the smallest extension of protected areas in Colombia. Extensive livestock farming, monoculture of introduced forest species, and palm oil crops are some of the practices that are already visible on lands adjacent to the park, which, if not managed sustainably, can affect the loss of biodiversity, change the habits of fauna and flora, cause the fractioning of biological corridors, and even contaminate water sources with pesticide residues.
To put it in numbers, a study from the National Federation of Palm Oil Growers of Colombia (FEDEPALMA) identified an increase of 76% in cultivated areas in the San Martín de los Llanos municipality between 2010-2012 to 2019-2020. In the Meta department, the increase was 52%. It is worth mentioning that Colombia is the largest palm oil producer in Latin America and the fourth in the world; and that the Colombian government’s bet for the Orinoquia is implementing a production-development model that includes expanding cultivated areas, starting with the great extensions of savannas that many consider “wastelands.”
Among the pressures on the outskirts of the park are selective logging, fishing, unregulated tourism, settlement developments, invasion and illegal occupation of private land, and uncontrolled burning that, when added to the projected high temperatures due to climate change, can increase the impact of fires, affect biodiversity, and the distribution of animals and plants. On the other hand, TNC’s hydrological models have projected that in less than 20 years, water availability will decrease by 40 percent in the dry season due to climate change and soil conversion.
Conservation Mosaics for Manacacías
And so, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) joined in supporting the creation of the Natural National Park Serranía de Manacacías with the generous contribution of 5 million dollars from American donors, including the Wyss Foundation and Art into Acres through Re:wild. The Colombian government is using those and additional resources to acquire 37 family properties that today make up the Manacacías National Natural Park, which cost $25 million.
“As members of the Rey family are delighted to know that these natural savannas will continue to be preserved for future generations just like we knew them, thanks to our parents. The park’s establishment makes us feel that our family’s legacy will remain over time, which is a gift for everybody,” said Dagoberto Rey Mora, one of the former property owners of the land that today are part of the National Park
The success of the park’s declaration is largely due to the social agreement put forward by the National Natural Parks (PNN) and the property owners. “This is a unique park created by the people. Our vision is for the community to continue being involved in conserving these savannas, and that they offer tourist services and share their knowledge and culture with visitors,” said William Zorro, the current director of the Manacacías Park, who was part of the declaration process.
Other organizations were also part of the process, such as the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, the Natural Science Institute of the National University of Colombia, WCS Colombia, WWF, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the La Macarena Special Management Area (Cormacarena), and the Alliance for the Conservation of Biodiversity, Territory, and Culture.
However, the challenge for TNC does not ends here, says Claudia Vásquez, TNC Colombia’s director. The park's creation is one part of the organization’s goal of conserving 200,000 hectares of the Manacacías Range. “To avoid having the park become a conservation island, we have been working with landowners in its buffer area to incorporate sustainable livestock farming, production practices, and conservation strategies.”
Since Manacacías was declared Colombia’s 61st Natural National Park, livestock activities are no longer permitted in the 68,000 protected hectares. And although our guide Don Gustavo Guarín no longer rides on horseback through the dense plains but rather on a 4x4 truck with tourists who have gone to see the natural wonders of that corner of the Orinoquia, he continues to sing the cowboy llanero songs a capella and speak aloud to animals, plants, and bushes that now have a new future.
*TNC would like to dedicate this story to the memory of Edimer Hernández, an employee of National Natural Parks who worked with us and the communities to make the conservation of these savannas a reality.