Helping ranchers conserve endangered cloud mountains

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Sustainable Cattle Ranching

By Cara Goodman and Diego Ochoa – The Nature ConservacyColombia’s cloud forests are jewels of biodiversity in the Andes Mountains — as rich in species as the Amazon, although only 1/14th the size in total area.

But at least 50 percent of these biological treasure troves have been cut down by neighboring cattle ranchers who need new grazing land — endangering the habitat of animals found nowhere else on Earth.

So The Nature Conservancy and partners are introducing the ranchers to new farming methods that could save the cloud forests — and increase ranchers’ profits as well.

“It is a unique chance for my children, it is a benefit for us, for our community,” says local rancher Aristóbulo Infante.

Restorative Ranching

The project centers on Encino, a village 125 miles north of the Colombian capital of Bogota.

Encino — like many villages in the Colombian Andes — is relatively poor. Most families depend on their cows’ milk and meat for subsistence and trade.

Small-scale ranchers have been cutting down the nearby cloud forests of endangered Humboldt oak and converting it to grazing land. The practice has emperiled not just the oak, but habitat for rare fauna such as the Black Inca hummingbird, the spectacled bear, and the gorgeted wood-quail.

The Nature Conservancy teamed up with Fundación Natura, a Colombian conservation organization, and the USAID Parks-in-Peril Project to introduce Encino ranchers to new methods and technologies that could make farming more than 125,000 acres of their lands less destructive and more productive:

  • Planting high-protein grasses so the cattle can graze on far less land and still consume plenty of calories;
  • Building “live fences” made of living trees instead of metal wire or wood so that ranchers can create habitat corridors for local wildlife and allow soil and natural vegetation to regenerate;
  • Planting trees that the ranchers can later chop down for firewood and avoid harvesting any more endangered Humboldt oak; and
  • Constructing water tanks for cattle and fencing off rivers and streams to keep cattle from eroding riverbanks and polluting waters with excessive silts and soils.

Making the Decision to Conserve

But these steps required money — money few Encino ranchers had.

“We needed to provide these ranchers with the economic incentives, opportunities, and practical tools so they could earn a good living but also conserve the natural habitat,” says Daniel Arcila, the Conservancy’s private lands coordinator in Colombia.

“So we offered to subsidize the ranchers while they tried out our technology and methods,” he says. “In exchange, the ranchers agreed to not cut down any more forests. Almost all the local ranchers agreed — everyone could see it was a win-win relationship.”

Now, 24 ranchers have signed conservation agreements and are beginning to employ the new conservation strategies on their lands.

“Converting degraded lands to healthy ones is a slow process.” Fundación Natura’s Leiber Peñalosa says. “It takes time to change people’s attitudes, and it takes nature time to restore itself. The process begins with a decision to conserve—the process begins in the landowner’s mind.”

And those minds seem to have been converted.

“Applying new technologies, we will soon have higher incomes, better milk and meat production, and more livestock, more firewood, and more productive pastures,” adds Rafael Cardenas, an Encino rancher. “It’s progress — for all of us.”

Cara Goodman is a marketing specialist and writer for the Conservancy’s South America work. Diego Ochoa is a resource information officer for the Conservancy’s South America work. 

Nature picture credits
(top to bottom, left to right): © Diego Ochoa/TNC (Cattle grazing near cloud forest in the Andes Mountains, Colombia); © Diego Ochoa/TNC (Rancher Aristóbulo Infante reads the conservation agreement)

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