A Bird’s-Eye View of Colombia’s Fragile Beauty (Part 2 of 3)

This week in Marseille, France, the 6th annual World Water Forum is bringing freshwater experts together to discuss solutions to today’s water issues. CI’s recent video about Colombia’s threatened páramo ecosystems — which supply critical fresh water to Bogotá — will be screened at the forum; here on our blog, CI cameraman John Martin gives a behind-the-scenes look at filming the spectacular aerial shots in the video. Read his previous post.

It is 6 a.m. on the first day of our aerial cinematography expedition. We arrive early at an airport outside of Bogotá and meet with our pilot, Captain Oscar Sandoval, and his ground crew. Our helicopter is parked outside with the Cineflex camera system mounted on its nose.

Captain Sandoval, or “Capi Oscar” as I begin to call him, notifies us that we must wait for the weather to clear before takeoff. Around the airport, we have beautiful blue skies — but not in the páramos. Capi Oscar has been monitoring weather reports all morning, and the surrounding mountaintops are covered in wind and clouds.

For hours, Ron and I wait in the lounge, checking our emails and awaiting updates from Capi Oscar. Around 3 p.m. we are told that the weather is clearing up and we can give it a try. Our flight plan for the day is to reach the páramo of Guerrero, one of the most important páramos surrounding Bogotá. It alone provides 15 percent of Bogotá’s fresh water, but this páramo faces major threats: illegal coal mining, uncontrolled potato farming and the impacts of climate change.

John Martin in the helicopter. (© CI/Photo by John Martin)

In the helicopter, I ride up front in the co-pilot seat, while Ron is seated in the back with his helmet and camera control console. I wonder why only he is wearing a helmet, and not Capi Oscar or I. One final check of the camera and the control tower clears us for takeoff. After getting the okay from the officers at the Colombian National Police base — and their anti-narcotics yellow Lab — we head for the skies.

Flying in a helicopter at 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) is not what every pilot wants to do. Taking off from an altitude of about 9,000 feet (2,743 meters), with a full load of fuel and the Cineflex system rigged up, and then climbing several thousand more is no easy task. Then you have to consider the weather, winds and finding the perfect light to film the tops of the páramos — not to mention keeping the camera lens dry amid the constant moisture from the tropical clouds.

My main job in the cockpit is to assist Captain Sandoval with the coordinates of the sights we intend to film; as I have already visited these places on the ground, I can much more easily identify them from the air. I must also translate into Spanish the various helicopter flight maneuvers that Ron needs to achieve those “Planet Earth” type shots.

My other task is to look out for electrical wires, which are everywhere and look like nearly-transparent strands of spider web. Running into one of these wires in midair could be fatal.

On the way to the páramo of Guerrero, we fly low and slow over two of Bogotá’s most important water reservoirs, Neusa and Tominé. Less than a kilometer to the west of Tominé is the ancient Guatavita Lagoon. Guatavita is a pre-Columbian sacred lake of the Muisca people, the chief of whom was said to have covered himself in gold dust and adornments before plunging into the emerald green waters of the lagoon to make gold offerings to the sun god and mother earth for all the well-being his people would receive. The Spanish conquistadors referred to him as “El Dorado.” Who knows — this could very well be the earliest form of payment for ecosystem services.

At 4:30 p.m. we move on and begin our climb up to the páramo of Guerrero. Below, we see the wide expanse of the savannah of Bogotá — a high-plateau valley surrounded by mountains, where water has accumulated over thousands of years forming lakes, lagoons and marshes. This water supply has made the savannah ideal for agriculture, especially potatoes and one of Colombia’s biggest exports: flowers. As we climb up to over 13,000 feet (about 4,000 meters), we can see the transformation of vegetation from montane cloud forest to sub-páramo, and finally páramo.

Looking down from the air, I am reminded of a pie chart divided in thirds: one-third páramo vegetation, one-third illegal coal mining and one-third potato farming.

Sadly, very little páramo remains. The tops of the páramos are being encroached from the bottom up by potato farming. As temperatures have increased dramatically in recent years, the potato plants — which thrive in cooler temperatures — are not yielding the same crop. Therefore, potato farmers are razing páramo ecosystems in order to grow their crop at higher, cooler elevations.

After more than an hour of flying over the beautiful, yet damaged páramo of Guerrero, we head back to base before sunset. It’s been a successful first day of aerial filming, yet one that provides us with a disconcerting new perspective on the potentially irreversible impacts that humans are inflicting on the fragile ecosystems that keep Bogotá functioning.

John Martin is CI’s senior video production manager. Learn more about CI’s efforts to protect Colombia’s páramos.


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