Mercedes Murillo (62) attends to her cows on her farm. 16 acres of her land are designated for
pastures, San Martin, Meta, Colombia. Mercedes has also designated four acres of
Mercedes Murillo with baby cow Mercedes Murillo (62) attends to her cows on her farm. 16 acres of her land are designated for pastures, San Martin, Meta, Colombia. Mercedes has also designated four acres of © Juan Arredondo

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Cattle and Conservation: What's Working in Colombia

Mercedes Murillo attends to her cows on her farm, San Martin, Meta, Colombia.
Mercedes Murillo, rancher Mercedes Murillo attends to her cows on her farm, San Martin, Meta, Colombia. © Juan Arredondo

Colombia covers less than one percent of the world’s land mass, yet it harbors more bird species—over 1,900—than anywhere else on Earth, and it is second only to Brazil when it comes to overall biodiversity.

Mercedes Murillo, a rancher who lives in the rural lowlands of the Andean foothills southeast of Bogotá, is focused on only one kind of animal: the cattle she raises to produce milk and other products to sustain her family and provide income. She is one of about 630,000 cattle ranchers in the country, 80 percent of whom own 50 or fewer animals. 

Colombians have endured years of conflict that have left many in poverty. Growth in the agricultural sector could improve their situations and their country’s economic outlook while also helping to meet the global demand for food, which is expected to increase by more than 50 percent in the next 30 years.

However, this growth would come with a cost. Rapid changes in land use put biodiversity at risk, and cattle ranching can take a serious toll on a landscape. And these are no ordinary landscapes: from mountain peaks and valleys to lush jungles and stunning beaches, Colombia is a country of natural treasures. That’s why over the past decade, The Nature Conservancy and partners such as the World Bank have collaborated with thousands of Colombian ranchers like Mercedes, funding efforts to increase the productivity of their land and animals and to preserve biodiversity. Mercedes worked with local technicians to plant native trees in strategic arrangements and rotate her cattle around different fields to allow vegetation to regrow. In a short period, her herd’s milk production increased. “I used to have more cows, but they gave less milk,” she says. Her herd is benefiting from eating a more diverse diet and having the opportunity to cool off in the shade of trees that are storing carbon and providing food and shelter for key wildlife species. 

Velvet Fronted Euphonia
Velvet Fronted Euphonia A velvet-fronted euphonia. © Joseph Blowers
Long-Tongued Bat
Long-Tongued Bat A Pallas's long-tongued bat feeding from a banana flower © Jeffrey Munoz /TNC Photo Contest 2019
Velvet Fronted Euphonia A velvet-fronted euphonia. © Joseph Blowers
Long-Tongued Bat A Pallas's long-tongued bat feeding from a banana flower © Jeffrey Munoz /TNC Photo Contest 2019

“We monitored sustainable cattle ranches in five regions, and we found 521 bird species, including 42 migratory species and 18 endemics,” says Andrés Zuluaga, TNC’s Northern Andes and Southern Central America lands coordinator. “We are also working to understand how birds and bats are reacting in landscapes managed with these techniques.” Bird and bat populations are particularly important because they disperse seeds that expand the forest and pollinate plants that produce food. They also eat insects that can spread disease. As Andrés says, “Birds work by day and bats work at night!”

Mercedes Murillo attends to her cows on her farm, San Martin, Meta, Colombia where 16 acres of her land are designated for pastures.
Mercedes Murillo with cow Mercedes Murillo attends to her cows on her farm, San Martin, Meta, Colombia where 16 acres of her land are designated for pastures. © Juan Arredondo

About 4,000 ranchers have directly benefited from the technical support. “The demonstration farms are in strategic areas,” says Andrés. “They are sites for field trips and trainings on issues related to biodiversity conservation that have a positive impact on productivity. We have reached more than 20,000 additional farmers through these opportunities, and we are creating peer-to-peer exchanges so that they can support each other.” 

“If we can apply what we’re learning about carbon storage, wildlife and productivity on small farms to corporate operations, we can truly meet our conservation goals.”

Land Coordinator

Colombia’s national cattle ranchers’ association, Fedegan, is a key player in the partnership. Its involvement gives ranchers the confidence to trust the different land management approaches, and it gave the partnership access to policymakers who can help fund and scale up these kinds of practices. Looking ahead, Andrés says the successes to date will help the partners influence ranchers who manage larger numbers of cattle. “If we can apply what we’re learning about carbon storage, wildlife and productivity on small farms to corporate operations, we can truly meet our conservation goals.”

As for Mercedes, she says, “I feel much better now because I have acquired a lot of knowledge. I am a very happy sustainable livestock farmer!” For Andrés, working with people like Mercedes is the key to a brighter future. “I would like to work in a country where people and the environment are at peace,” he says. “Together with many partners, we are showing that it is entirely possible.”