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Páramo People: The Story of Water in Colombia

Riding into one of the páramos, 40 miles outside of Bogotá

To have water in Bogotá, you need the páramos.

Stark, tall mountains encompass valleys of highland shrubs, rosette plants and grasses. Welcome to the páramos. Páramos are tropical, highland tundra with high biodiversity that provide essential ecosystem services like water supply. Colombia is home to more than half of all páramos in the world. I've been in Bogotá for two weeks with project leads at Conservation International Colombia who are working to preserve this delicate ecosystem with community-based, scientific-driven projects such as the creation of a Conservation Corridor between the páramos outside of Bogotá. Today we're on a field visit from Bogotá.

Some 40 miles away from the third largest city in South America and you'd think you were in the remote stretches of an Alaskan summer. No roads. No buildings. Pure páramo.

90% of water in Colombia has its origin in páramos

This isn't to say the impacts of humanity aren't seen here. We're visiting a páramo in restoration: over the last eight years it has been recovering from intensive cattle grazing, a practice that began when the Spanish introduced livestock to the Americas. Hints of the land's history with people are seen in the non-native grass that can still be found in bunches and the traps set to catch feral dogs that still wreck havoc on native wildlife. There is still much to be done to restore the landscape, but seeing how vivacious the páramo has recovered thus far gives hope.

To have the páramos, you need the clouds.

Providing water to some 9 million residents is no easy feat. The aquifer, creeks and rivers that flow to Bogotá start here, filled one drop at a time by the condensation of fog. Plants catch the clouds, drawing the water to their roots and the soil. Frailejones stretch on for acres, their leafy crown welcoming the mist. Moss dangles from the sparse trees, arms outstretched and waiting to catch the vapor.

They do their job: below, the ground is like a heavy sponge. Each step we take is met by a puff of warm, humid air and progressively wetter feet. Not only does the soil represent a sink for water, but it holds a substantial amount of carbon. Carbon sequestration is just another valuable ecosystem service that the páramos provides. Protecting and restoring this ecosystem can help provide yet another buffer to the impacts of climate change.

Water captured from the vegetation seeps down into the aquifer or runs somewhere downhill into the many streams, creeks and rivers.

The páramos give an important reminder about the interconnectedness of our planet. The clouds that bring moisture to the páramos are brought by the winds and humidity from the Amazon Forest, more than 300 miles to the southeast.

To have the páramos, you need the flora and fauna.

A healthy ecosystem is the sum of its healthy, productive parts. Plants, animals and fungi above and below ground regulate each other, creating a balanced network of life. Hummingbirds and insects help pollinate the plants in the páramo, fungi help decompose organic material in the soil, wild fruits and seeds feed the rabbits, guinea pigs, and birds, which then feed the Andean condor, Andean fox and spectacled bear.

The páramos are home to many endemic species, species that are found no where else in the world

The oso de anteojos (or spectacled bear, Andean bear) is the only remaining native species of bear in South America. Scattered through the Andes mountains from Venezuela to Colombia, Ecuador to Bolivia, the bear is under threat from habitat loss and begrudged farmers who blame them for killing livestock. We find evidence of a bear as we hike: scat, claw marks and leftovers from a recent meal. Nearly 95% of the speckled bear's diet is plant-based, including bromeliads and palms.

I sadly didn't take this picture...

CC image courtesy of

We walk in silence, hoping to catch our bear: a rustle in the bushes, a sighting in a tree. We stop, peering at a dark mass on a distant branch. When we realize it's just a tree formation we continue on, slightly disappointed but in high spirits; the sun has come out and we can see the distant mountains surrounding our valley. It's the rainy season and such a clear vista is rare.

In the páramos I am struck by the simultaneous emptiness and activity, silence and sound, grandness and intricacy. No hum of city, of cars or Transmilenio buses. Wind races across the tundra. Bees buzz around to flowers. The crunch of leaves beneath our feet. Look up and you see land stretching on forever, a tapestry of greens and blues. Look down and you see an artist's interpretation of the galaxy.

Bogotá is said to be one of the few large cities where the water is so pure that you can drink it straight from the tap. Her citizens -- and I asked many -- are proud of their water, and proud of the páramos. What they might not know is the risk their natural heritage faces from development, cattle, and agrochemicals. Wealthy weekend homes are popping up like rampant acne across the face of the Earth. Páramos not as luck has the one we visit are still plagued by hungry hoofed beasts and their ranchers. While vast, páramos are delicate. The warming effects of climate change are expected to make this vital ecosystem all the more vulnerable.

We are 70% water. If you live in Bogotá that 70% comes from the páramos.

So, in effect, you are 70% páramo.

Protecting this ecosystem isn't just about protecting the rare, unique species that are only found in the páramos. Nor is it just about protecting the stunning landscape for generations of Colombians and foreigners to appreciate.

It's about protecting ourselves.

To learn more about the páramos in Colombia, check out this short documentary by Conservation International:


For the month of October, I'll be traveling in Colombia and Brasil through an exchange with the Water & Cities Initiative of Conservation International. This post is part of a series of posts regarding conservation, water and urban issues in Mexico City, Bogotá and Rio de Janeiro.

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