Conservation, biodiversity and pastoralism in the Llanos Orientales of Colombia

by Greta Semplici

A temporary river, called a caño, breaks our journey to the Reserva Esperanza where I will be spending some days with a family to learn about their livestock management and their environment. We managed to get through a part of the flooding savanna where they reside in the Llanos Orientales of Colombia.

Near the border with Venezuela, the Llanos has a complex socioecology which includes mountain ranges, piedmonts, and savannas. When I visit, it is the end of the rainy season and the savanna is beginning to dry up a little. But there are many mirrors of water reflecting the shadows of clouds, as well as much water hidden below a blanket of grass and pasture.

Mud and dung accompany our steps after we leave the vehicle and cross the river by an improvised wooden bridge. It is late in the day, but the sun is still high and hot. A layer of sweat covers our bodies, cooling us at the touch of a summer breeze. “The weather is changing,”, Eduardo, my host, says. The breeze comes from the north and it indicates the arrival of the dry summer. Alternating between eight months of rain and four months of sun, the llaneros, the people of the Llanos Orientales, have adapted to two extreme seasons that dictate the rhythm of life.

Summer is the time to work, to fix the corrals, to fill the troughs, to plough the soil, to assist with births and the care of the young animals, and to sell them while it’s still feasible to move through the flooding savannas. Winter, the rainy season, is a time to wait. It’s a time of long afternoons looking at the pounding water and the thunders that break the clouds with flashes of light. The water covers the land completely, making any movement difficult. In the short breaks from rain, armed with boots and sombreros, the vaqueros go out on their horses to check the livestock: where they are spending their nights, and whether they are staying healthy. Otherwise, it is the time to sing and play the Cuarto, a local four-stringed guitar.

Inspired by the vast stretches of land, grass, ponds and swamps, wild animals, and livestock that surround farm life, the llaneros have developed a strong intimacy with their territory. They sing about their cows, zebus with long horns. Their sing about their beloved capybaras that cross the savanna to play in the water at every sunset of the winter. Like the deer, the birds, the turtles, everything about the llaneros is obstinately about their unique territory, despite the arrival of motorbikes to replace the horses, and despite the oil and the cultivation of rice that are breaking land, threatening the very intimate essence of llaneros culture.  

We arrive at the finca, the farm house in the middle of the savanna, surrounded by approximately 1000 hectares of land. It is a small farm. Here the land seems neverending. The neighbours own 40,000 hectares; on the other side, another neighbour owns 70,000 hectares of land. The notion of ‘neighbour’ in this context seems bizarre to me. But to get to the finca, we crossed at least three large corrals belonging to other families, and our vehicle certainly did not pass unobserved. A beautiful house, with yards and large rooms, many trees (of which a huge mango planted by the indigenous population who previously lived here), next to mandarinas, oranges, and palm trees, chicken and pigs’ corrals, welcome us. I am greeted with a tinto, a cup of Colombian coffee, before I am shown my room that opens on the eastern side of the farm, with a view of magnificent sunrises across the savanna.

The finca was inherited by Eduardo from his father together with the land, added to more land that he bought from the inheritance of his sister who moved to the nearby settlement. When Eduardo’s father arrived in the llanos, he was selling salt. At that time, salt came from mines rather than the sea, and it was certainly not the yellow powder of mineral salt that they give to livestock today. Salt came in big blocks from the mines, and was thrown to the land where it was left to melt while being licked by the cows when they needed it. Sometimes Eduardo’s father would also swap salt for calves, and so began building his capital to the point where he could buy land and build a house. Eduardo is a gentle man, proud of his family, and proud of his animals, work, land. He is passing the wheel to his sons, whom he ensured would never lose the “amor por nuestra tierra”: “the love for our land”.

He sees the threats posed by a changing world where motorbikes are becoming more important that the horses; where the youngsters are distracted by mobile phones; where money is the only driver of life dictating what to do, and what principles to follow; where children do not know what a capybara is; and land is sold to oil and rice, until only a desolated desert of nothing but dust will remain. Against all of this, he and his wife, Libia, have fought every day through the education of their children, who are now grown up and have made the decision to return to the finca.

One of them, Pedro, is 33 years old, and had a life in the capital city working as aircraft mechanic. He came home after 8 years to find the tranquillity he missed in the city, and “to work for his own” without squander all savings in rent, transportation, food. Similarly, Andrés, 35, returned to the finca after many years working for the Colombian military force, and spending five years as a mercenary in Dubai. He had one simple objective: to make money to go back to his farm, build a house, buy a motorbike, and get livestock. Puche, 30 years old, worked for an oil company until the money was enough to start buying calves and building up his herd.

Their cattle are marked differently to signal the different owners, but they share the same savanna, the same water troughs, salt dispensers and woods for shade. The cattle roam free. Extensive management really means something here. The cattle are out there, somewhere, in the savanna. We can barely see it, following the growth of pasture and the flowing of water. The dry summers are tough times for the cattle, when water is scarce and they compete with wild animals for it.

The rainy winters, however, are no easier. Ticks, mosquitos and fevers bother the cattle. And yet they have grown accustomed to this place, and it has proven the most sustainable way to maintain stable production in the territory, which other economic and political interests are trying to dismiss.

For a long time, the extensive flooding savannas of the Llanos Orientales have been seen as stretches of nothing but wasteland, unproductive and awaiting development. The national government has generally been more concerned with the central parts of the country and has ignored the flooding savannas for many years. That is, until oil was discovered.

Oil companies started opening the first roads about 20 years ago. At first transportation was minimal, done largely on horses or on avionetas, small aircraft placed at the disposal of the livestock farmers by the national livestock association. Every farm had a small rustic landing strip, and they could call for food to be delivered from the markets, or for emergencies. This service was stopped mainly because of the side use by narco-traffickers and rebel groups, who still have a large presence in the selva crossing between Colombia and Venezuela. Roads also started to be built by the oil companies, transforming the land into something hitherto unknown.

Primero las petroleras, entran… que pensábamos que era un daño al ecosistema inmenso, pesábamos que era la destrucción. ¡Lo que no entendemos era que atrás venia el arroz! Y es preocupante el arroz, acaba con todo. Con el ecosistema, con la fauna, con todo, flora…con todo, con todo, con las costumbres. El arroz viene acabando con todo. Y por lo general no es gente de la región, es gente que viene de otros lados. Arroceros.”

Eduardo recounts the history with me, with a good dose of contagious desolation. “Todo pasa atrás de las vías!”. “Everything follows the construction of a road” – a sentence which echoes some memories of my fieldwork in Turkana County, in the northern Kenyan drylands by a young herder explaining me his understanding of development while watering his shoats at a family well.

First came the oil companies. Locals thought that this already meant the end, an irreparable wound on the land. “What we did not know is that behind the oil, there was the rice preparing to come!” The rice cultivations are endangering the conservation of the savanna. People from other parts of the country come here and rent land to disillusioned farm owners – “who see the quick money”, as Eduardo says, “and end up impoverished.” After some months of production with a hefty dose of pesticides and agro-chemicals, the land degrades to a state of unproduction, and it is then abandoned, with little to be done except try to turn it back to pasture. Meanwhile the land owners have sold their cattle, and “cuando ellos reaccionan, ya es tarde”: when they react, it is already too late, concludes Libia, with the voice of someone who knows what is being lost. Their culture. Their green horizons. Their zebus.  And the capybaras.

The day after I arrive is a Saturday, the day of inspection of the livestock. In the winter they inspect the cattle twice a week, on Wednesdays and on Saturdays. In the summer, they go off every day to check if there is water in the troughs and how the young animals are doing. It’s a sunny day, and I go with Eduardo and Pedro on horseback to see where the cattle are and how they are doing. We are also checking if the salt dispensers are still full, and add some where needed. We check the pumps for the water troughs, most of which work with renewable energy, solar panels or windmills: the rest are powered by generators. These are “pozos profundos”, as they call them, deep wells, 15 metres deep; but they tell me that others have begun to dig down to 50 or 80 metres below ground.

We check if the new electric fences are working, as they often short circuit during the rainy season. And the morning passes, as we gallop through swamps and ponds followed by deer and capybaras. “It is not true when they say that we, the campesinos, are destroying the environment”, Eduardo tells me later on, when night has fallen and we stay on chatting after a dinner of meat broth and boiled plátanos.They are lying when the say that the livestock kills the faunacould you see it today?

Indeed, the journey in the savanna with horses could have also been a wild animal safari tour, as picturesque as a brochure of some remote place in Africa. At one moment I was looking ahead, with a soft breeze caressing my neck from behind, resting for a second from the horse’s steps. I was looking at a pond, partly made by Eduardo with the help of a tractor to make it deeper and collect more water. A group of capybaras crossed the pond, splashing water in a game of noise and light. Three deer were drinking some water from the shore, while two big turtles silently swam in the water. Around the feet of my horse, a group of baby owls, colour of sand and with big eyes, bobbed along, playing with the grass moved by the wind.

Eduardo and Libia established their finca as a reserva natural de la Sociedad Civil, a private form of conservation promoted by the Red Colombiana de Reservas Naturales de la Sociedad Civil, which in 1993 was included in the national legal framework for conservation, alongside public parks and other more standard approaches. Colombia is a leader in private conservation in South America. In the Orinoquia region there are at least 60 private natural reserves, which fight against the oil companies and the rice plantations that lead to the destruction of the savannas. Agro-toxins, roads and other infrastructure, and other transformations of a natural landscape maintained by vaqueros over centuries, are putting the savannas are in danger. Wildlife is reducing, dying out or running away to the pockets of woods and pasture conserved in the reservas.

As a hydrologically driven landscape, with many months of running water that filter down to the deepest parts of earth out of sight, the use of pesticides and other chemicals is also endangering the fish population that grows up here before it reaches the rivers and the sea. “It definitely also affects the food that’s produced for human consumption,” Libia tells me with the fervour of a fighter. Private natural conservation, as promoted by the Alianza Sabana, does not mean “remaining quiet, leaving land to its state of primordial origin and being eaten away by shrubs and bushes,” says Lourdes Peñuela, a leader for the conservation of the Colombian flooding savannas. She promoted the motto: “Conservar para producir, y producir conservando”: “conserve to produce, and produce conserving”, now included in the national plans for conservation.

The reservas, in other words, are active forms of conservation which allow for sustainable human presence and production. “Only when you use it, you conserve it,” adds Lourdes, giving the example of turtles’ eggs, much beloved by the llaneros. “If you like to eat turtles’ eggs, then you need to conserve them. First you need to know where they lay the eggs, then you have to protect them. You eat five and you leave ten.”

The movement of private reserves is promoting a systemic approach to conservation – one in which all elements of the socio-ecological system cannot be separated: the ecosystem (the flooding savanna, with its rhythms and cycles), the productive components (livestock production and family farming), and the social component (the family). “Todo eso hay que entenderlo en una dinámica relacional”: “all of this must be seen relationally”.

And there is no conservation without action. Lourdes is firm in stating that conserving does not mean abandoning. On the contrary, conserving implies clear objectives and actions. Indeed, to become a reserva natural, one must present a conservation plan, alongside a profile of the area to be conserved and the activities proposed both for conservation and production.

The ultimate goal is to promote an approach to livestock production that is convenient for the owners, to turn them into allies for conservation, by ensuring revenues and an economically sustainable enterprise, while conserving and protecting the native pastures that cover the savannas, as well as the wildlife. The pillars of this approach are conocimento, conservación, y uso: to know, to conserve and to use.

Eduardo shows me a picture on his phone. It’s his father, with a horse, in front of the same Colombian flag at the entrance to the finca. In the background is the same windmill that his father built for water consumption at the house. Eduardo asks me to look beyond the mill, the horse, the flag. “What do you see?”. A stretch of what I imagine (the picture is black and white) a golden stretch of flat savanna, bare except for a blanket of grass, probably with water hidden below.

Then he takes me outside to the same spot where the photo was taken. I see the flag, I can imagine the horse, and I can see the mill. All around: the caño that passes in front of the house this time of the year, trees and small woods, close and distant. “Vegetation is increasing. We are not destroying the land… we are making it grow!”

Thanks to the management of livestock and the presence of wild animals, spreading seeds and fertilising the soil, the savanna is being modelled into a complete ecosystem, one which allows the co-existence of families and their livestock, and the wild animals, and the pastures. They are also planting some “módulos de sombras”, areas of shade, for the cattle and wild animals to use in the dry summers.

Everything here is thought out for the cattle and the wild animals: the water troughs, the woods, the wild fruit. “I would not go anywhere where I cannot see the capybaras”, laughs Pedro one night while swinging on the hammock, looking at the black savanna in front of us where the only lights come from an oil plant on the horizon and a canopy of stars above our heads.

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