Last month, Margarita Mora traveled to southern Colombia to document the implementation of conservation agreements with local communities through CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.
Nine days ago, I arrived in La Pedrera, Colombia. I was supposed to leave yesterday, but the commercial flight that comes here once a week never arrived. Today they told us that it might come tomorrow. In the meantime, there is little point in stressing out about not being able to leave; I’d rather reflect on my trip and keep learning about all the challenges that this unique region faces. The plane will come for us eventually, right?
La Pedrera is a small town located on the Caquetá River in the Colombian Amazon. The town has electricity for only a few hours per day. During that time all the shop owners turn on their TVs and radios. Men, women and children sit on the street to watch TV; as I look around, I see that many of them are currently engrossed in a Japanese soap opera.
This town is very diverse. Here in La Pedrera, you find families from different indigenous groups who came attracted by access to goods such as salt and fishing hooks and basic services like health and education. There are also families who arrived from conflict regions of Colombia looking for a peaceful place to settle.
Surrounding La Pedrera there are indigenous and other rural communities in charge of managing more than 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of primary forest. Biodiversity within this area is threatened by unrestricted hunting and overharvesting of fish. Therefore, engaging communities in conservation is crucial for the protection of the resources in the region.
Between 2000 and 2004, CI-Colombia worked with three indigenous reserves and two rural districts in the region to develop resource management plans. The communities surrounding La Pedrera identified overharvesting of fish in nearby lakes as one of the main problems in the region. This was not only an environmental problem but also a social problem, as fish is the main source of protein for these families.
Early in 2008, CI-Colombia and the communities, with the support of CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, decided to implement conservation agreements to address threats to the fisheries and improve management of the lakes and creeks.
Under the agreements, the communities committed to:
- Stop fishing pirarucu and arowana in the protected lakes and creeks;
- Forbid fishing during the spawning season;
- Use artisanal fishing gear instead of more destructive methods;
- Establish fishing quotas for other species; and
- Participate in surveillance activities to prevent outsiders from fishing in their conservation areas.
In exchange for these efforts, community members receive an economic incentive in cash equal to the average wage rate. The benefit package also includes funds for the natural resource committees to ensure they have the means to report problems to authorities, and also to promote the conservation agreements model in neighboring communities.
Almost five years later, local people are reporting that the fisheries are recovering and that fish are more abundant than before.
During my visit, the CI-Colombia team, together with the president of the rural community of Madroño and the natural resources secretary, took me to the lakes protected by Madroño. Arriving at one of the protected lakes after an hour-and-a-half hike, we talked with community rangers and spent a night in their hut. In the morning the rangers took us around the three lakes in a canoe to ensure that no unregistered fishermen were fishing. We also looked for arowanas and pirarucu, the two fish species being assessed on an annual basis to determine the health of the lake.
The next day we went to the campsite of the Indigenous Reserve of Camaritagua, formed by people from at least 10 different indigenous groups. Here the rangers are very busy, as families from Camaritagua and other communities fish all day long in the creek. To ensure that the fishermen are not using nets or other destructive fishing gear, the rangers register all the boats entering the creek. Before leaving for the day, the fishermen and the rangers count and record the number of fish caught. This has been a successful mechanism for controlling overfishing.
After our visit with the rangers, the leaders of Camaritagua invited us and other members of the community to their maloka — a traditional house — to talk about the conservation agreements.
Here men and women shared their thoughts and expectations and asked us about our opinions. They emphasized the importance of protecting the lakes as a way to also protect their territory and their culture. They were also interested in knowing if the project was going to continue next year (it will). It was very interesting to listen to the ideas of the community members, for whom tobacco and mambe — a mixture of coca leaves and ash — are musts for any kind of discussion.
The last afternoon, we hiked the tallest hill near La Pedrera. From the summit you could see an ocean of forest and the Caquetá and Apaporis rivers. The sun setting behind the clouds and the forest was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. On our way down it was already dark. It was magical to walk in the forest by night guided only by the moon, the stars and our flashlights.
After this visit, it is clear to me that thanks to the conservation agreements, fish populations and the animals and forest surrounding the lakes and creeks are being protected, and that the communities are receiving direct benefits from conservation. Nevertheless, there is still plenty to do in the region to ensure that these communities will be able to maintain protection of these unique sites far into the future.
Margarita Mora is the manager of Latin American programs for CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.