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Páramos: An Ecosystem under Siege

February 18, 2011|

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Mayor Javier Garzon has been fighting to protect the páramo of Guerrero, the source of most of the water for the town of Cogua's 15,000 inhabitants, from agriculture and mining. He urges the federal government to be more supportive. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Páramos like Rabanal are a unique and fragile ecosystem of the Andes. Sometimes described as “water factories,” they capture water in the rainy season and release it during the dry season, providing drinking water for millions of people. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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The frailejón is a key plant in the páramos. With its velvety leaves, it captures mist from the air and leaks it to the soil. Some varieties of this plant grow only .7 inches a year. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Páramos boundaries are being pushed back by the expansion of agriculture, cattle grazing and now, mining. In the páramo of Rabanal in Boyacá, the conflict borderline is almost perfectly drawn. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Despite the fact that páramos are protected under a Forest Reserve status, high altitude crops, such as potatoes, constantly invade these areas as in Cogua a small town in the Colombian Andes. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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“Here there used to be a beautiful frailejon area,” said Cogua mayor Javier Garzón. “We confiscated a tractor and complained to the environmental agency. When they were finally commanded to stop, the farmers were already harvesting.” Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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These fragile sponge-like moorlands represent only two percent of the country, but provide drinking water for 70 percent of all Colombians. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Mayor Garzón (right) tries a soft conciliatory approach to explain illegal miners that their activity is putting at risk the water provision for their own families. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Coalmines in the Andes are frequently small-scale family business. People work under precarious conditions, mines lack health or security protocols and government inspections are rare. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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“Coke” is one of the by products of coal used to produce steel. Distilled in gigantic brick caldrons at more that 3600 F, coke ovens belch out, day and night, columns of black smoke that make throats itch and taint the trees and the soil. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Colombia is Latin America’s principal coal producer. However, the coal is not a crucial part of Colombia’s energetic diet. 70% of Colombia´s energy comes from hydropower plants, moved precisely by the force of the water that runs down the mountain from this threatened páramos. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

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Coalmines are a continuous and expanding threat to the páramo, like here in Samacá. In their operation, mines destroy the vegetation, erode the soil and pollute water streams. Image by Anna-Katarina Gravgaard, Colombia, 2011.

Colombia's páramos, a unique highland ecosystem, has been described as the "water factory" of the Andes. But rampant, and sometimes illegal, coal mining is putting it in danger.