20 Years of Conservation in Colombia

As Conservation International (CI) celebrates our 25th anniversary, we’re excited to share stories of our success from across the globe. Today, CI-Colombia co-founder José Vicente Rodriguez looks back on 20 years of conservation work in his home country.

CI-Colombia co-founders José Vicente Rodriguez (foreground) and Rod Mast (background) un-sticking a boat in Colombia's Bahia de Barbacoas in 1995. (© CI/Photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

On a December day in 1975, my wife Blanca Nelly and I decided to get married and start our own family. Exactly 16 years later, on December 17th 1991, Rod Mast and I officially created CI-Colombia — with me as its first local director — and I began to build my second family at CI. It’s hard to believe that that day was now more than 20 years ago.

Rod came to CI in July of 1989 with a clear understanding of the biological importance of Colombia, a love for Colombian culture — and even a Colombian wife, Angela. He and I had become brothers-in-arms years earlier, having worked together on sea turtle and cotton-top tamarin conservation.

With strong support from CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann and President Russ Mittermeier, we commenced a cascade of ideas that have accumulated over time to bring us to where CI-Colombia is today. At the time, this decision sparked the greatest challenge of my life. My house was our first office, and my family members — Blanca Nelly and my children, particularly Juan Carlos and later Alejandro — were our first employees. Taking on a program with various financial constraints, what we faced in those early days was no easy feat, but thanks to the passion and the support of our growing staff, we overcame those challenging moments and positioned ourselves for a solid future.

Rod Mast (left) and José Vicente Rodriguez (right) in the Andes in 2010. (© Morrison Mast)

Thanks to the generosity of our first donors — The Mario Santo Domingo Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and others — we began our work within the regions of Chocó and Amazon. In Chocó, we helped to develop sustainable markets for non-timber products, such as tagua, wax and fibers, and created the Chocó-Manabí Conservation Corridor, which is located within Colombia and Ecuador. We also developed a biodiversity program within the Amazon region, and today we have two biological stations, Centro Ambiental en La Pedrera and Mosiro Itajura-Caparú.

We have since expanded our efforts across the country — and beyond. Together with Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama, we are supporting marine conservation and sustainable use of resources in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, an ocean territory larger than Mexico. We have also established Colombia’s REDD+ board, and we are currently executing REDD+ forest carbon activities in La Guajira and Amazonas.

Educating the Public
My reflections on generating changes on public attitude have always been that ignorance is the worst enemy of conservation, because if you don’t value what you have, you don’t take care of it. To combat this ignorance, we have created many publications over the years, now numbering more than 80 titles printed and over 1 million copies distributed.

One of our most significant publication series has been the “Tropical Field Guides,” which has come to fill an empty niche in the American tropics. Titles such as “Turtles and Crocodilians of the Tropical Andes” and “The Primates, the Parrots and the Amazonian Fish of Colombia” have played a vital role in sharing scientific knowledge in the region.

Black-mantle tamarins in Colombia. (© CI/ photo by Haroldo Castro)

We have also created a series of small books about groups of endangered species, and published huge quantities of field guides for children. Never before in Colombia has there been such a wide dissemination of free books dedicated to spreading knowledge about biodiversity: 80,000 copies of each. These were followed by other series of manuals that were oriented towards stimulating the application of proper monitoring methodologies between amateur and professional naturalists.

Scientific Collaboration
In order to proceed with true sustainable development, every country needs strong scientific knowledge that takes into account the value of its ecosystems and biodiversity. To this end, we have built programs to repatriate accumulated biological information from museums and private collections and make it accessible to decision-makers and the general public. These actions have demonstrated the importance of managing conservation information that is updated, geo-referenced and analyzed by interagency alliances.

An example of these successful initiatives is ARA, a database that collects biodiversity information from across Colombia. With support from countless organizations in the country and around the world — including museums, universities and NGOs — this decision-making tool has been adopted by principal government agencies, including the Ministry of Environment.

Milestones in Freshwater Conservation
In addition, the first World Congress of Páramos in 2009 and the creation of the Chingaza-Sumapaz-Guerrero Conservation Corridor in 2011 have been important events that have highlighted and provided strategies for the conservation of our most essential ecosystem service: fresh water.

The corridor ensures a safe drinking-water supply for the city of Bogotá and its surroundings, which impacts more than 10 million people. As a result, the corridor enhances farming systems, protects the environment and secures freshwater deposits. In addition, the conservation corridor has mitigated the effects of climate change through reforestation projects, conservation agreements and other strategies. (Learn more in the video below.)

As a result, we could say that over these first 20 years we have narrowed our focus on modern challenges without forgetting our roots. Our efforts have been reinforced by fortunate arrival of my friend Fabio Arjona as executive director of CI-Colombia. Due to his refined knowledge of environmental services, his visionary outlook on the issues posed by climate change and his tremendous capacity for dialogue with political and financial figures, we are confident in our ability to have an enormous impact within public politics and make successful steps toward a better tomorrow.

Finally, I want to express my profound gratitude to all of my friends, to those individuals who have directly or indirectly been part of CI-Colombia, and especially to the members of our current staff and those who are no longer with us. Thanks to their contributions, we achieved the many successes that we can share with you today.

The future still holds many challenges, but the continued support and commitment of both staff and supporters will help us confront it.

José Vicente Rodriguez is the co-founder and scientific director of CI-Colombia.

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