The Paramo is a natural, high-altitude non-forest ecosystem, covering approximately 35,000 km2 in the Tropical Andes extending across Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and northern Peru (11º North to 8º South) (see map Annex 8). The Paramo is an ecological archipelago, distributed along the highest parts of the northern Andes. It is characterized by high biological, cultural and landscape diversity. Paramo is the most biodiverse high mountain non-forest ecosystem in the world. Its vegetation is dominated by characteristic giant caulescent rosettes, shrubs and bunch grasses and several well recognized emblematic animal species live in Paramo. The Paramo functions as a biological corridor for many of its most important inhabitants, both animal and plant species. The spectacled Andean bear (Tremarctosornatus) roams the corridor and the associated cloud forests from the Cordillera de Merida in Venezuela down to Peru. The condor (Vultur gryphus), which can easily fly 150 km/day, will only fly over zones of Paramo and farmland uninterrupted by urban areas. The puma (Felis concolor) operates across a mosaic of Paramo and forest. Many of the birds of the Paramo are dependent on remnant polylepis "islands" that provide food and shelter for them throughout the entire high Andes. The floristic symbol of the Paramo, Espeletia, is one of the best examples of diversification and adaptive radiation in a novel environment. The genus Espeletia contains about 130 species endemic to the northern tropical Andes, extending from the isolated Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Colombia and the Sierra Nevada Range in Venezuela, southward to northern Ecuador. The seeds are wind dispersed but lack wings or hairs so their colonization has been a slow process and must move across intact stretches of Paramo. Paramo also serves as a source of wild germplasm for cultivated potatoes and other Andean roots and tubers. An analysis of the International Potato Center's germplasm databank indicates that 45% of the wild solanum species (out of 5,200) and 30% of the oxalis species (out of 400) were collected above 3500 m where this montane grassland prevails. The Paramo of the Northern and Central Andes are ranked as globally outstanding and of the highest conservation priority at a regional level. Paramo also include mosaics of upper montane forests (commonly dominated by only a few tree species, like Polylepis spp.) that are also classified as biodiversity hotspots in the Andes.
The Paramo is situated above the zone of closed Andean forests, often replaced by intensive potato and vegetable production, and below the glacier line usually between 3,000-3500 m and 4,500 - 4700 masl. The cold humid tropics where Paramo is found are a unique environment combining a tropical climate regime (yearly isothermy, little fluctuation in day length or radiation levels) with low temperatures and frequent frosts. These conditions combined with high rainfall give rise to the Paramo in the Andes. They are differentiated from the Puna to the south by gentle and continuous rainfall (approximately 900-2500 mm/yr), cloudiness, and relatively constant and low temperatures. These conditions have brought about many adaptations in flora and fauna and resulted in a high level of endemism. The environmental conditions, their position on top of the Andes, as well as their deep, high organic soils, give them a vital role in the regulation of Andean hydrology. Conservation issues of the Paramo naturally combine biodiversity and water regulation objectives. The lower Paramo belt coincides with the upper limit of agriculture. Due to the wet and cold climate, productivity is low and ecosystem fragility is high (low resilience to change and high susceptibility for degradation).
1.4Threats and Barriers to Effective Biodiversity Conservation in the Paramo
Effective conservation of the Paramo requires adequate understanding of the long term trends underlying land use in the highland regions. In all countries that share this ecosystem these trends include continued and unsustainable expansion of grazing and agricultural areas responding to urban demand for produce. This is accompanied by a continuous shift from agriculture-dependent livelihoods to a more diversified range of rural livelihood activities including household cash flow from temporary and permanent national and transnational migration, growth in highland urbanization, commerce, rural agro industries and services (flowers, dairy and tourism). This scenario is situated within a context where political agendas marginalize farmer populations in general and Andean populations in particular thus greatly limiting their access to real development opportunities.
The Paramo is highly threatened and only approximately a third of its whole extent is well conserved. The major threat is the advance of the agricultural frontier (outside and within protected areas), mainly originating from people in search of agricultural land and the resulting encroachment of socio-economic activities on pristine areas and natural habitats. Overgrazing and erosion has resulted in severely degrading about half of all Paramo area that is currently under use and the resulting low productivity has brought about poverty and socioeconomic instability. This local poverty has forced people to colonize other, formerly unused Paramo areas. In this way, poverty results in intense land use and further degradation. Unfortunately, at this time there are not enough livelihood alternatives for Paramo farmers, so advancing agriculture will increasingly affect the remaining conserved area. At present, there are a number of local conservation projects in Paramo whose interventions have managed to somewhat slow down the rate of Paramo transformation at several sites. However, these projects are site specific and have relatively little national impact. As a result, the conservation of Paramo as an ecosystem, its international corridor function and its importance as a water harvesting area for several major watersheds, is highly threatened in the absence of a regional Paramo conservation effort.
The major threats to Paramo biodiversity are the direct result of social actors that live and use the natural resources within the Paramo, and of external demands for its environmental goods and services. More specifically:
Prevalent land-use practices particularly in agriculture, range and livestock management (overgrazing), mining, industrial forestry and tourism. Current land use practices constitute the most important and widespread direct threat to Paramo biodiversity. The fragility of the Paramo ecosystem allows for limited land-use practice since even small impacts cause disruptions in Paramo ecology and hydrology. However, since most of Paramo is privately or communally owned, it obtained a productive purpose; mostly for grazing and potato growing. Both activities, generally applied without environmental considerations, result in deterioration of vegetation cover and composition and of soil stability and local hydrology. Mining, particularly wide spread in Peru but also in South Ecuador and Central Colombia threatens Paramo integrity locally and contaminates waterways. A few decades ago, industrial forestry was advertised as a sustainable production method in Paramo, but the current extension in the neighborhood of 150,000 hectares of exotic tree plantations especially in Ecuador and Peru, lack native biodiversity and deteriorate local hydrology. Finally, the present attention paid to Paramo as an adventure tourism destination constitutes a threat for biodiversity of frequently visited areas like Mérida (Venezuela) and Cotopaxi (Ecuador) through all-terrain vehicle traffic and uncontrolled camping, littering and trekking.
Uncontrolled fire as a management tool in range management and agriculture.It is difficult to find an easily accessible area of Paramo that has not been intentionally burned once or several times. Fire is applied by the vast majority of farmers in Paramo to remove tall growing tussock grass and to allow for new growth of fresh shoots. However, a much larger area than the one needed for extensive grazing is usually burned. Several other reasons for burning (terrain preparation, cultural belief and mere vandalism) have resulted in the homogenization of Paramo vegetation (disappearance of fire sensitive species and vegetation types like shrubs and shrub land; expansion of fire-tolerant species and open grassland), the disappearance of important fauna (large mammals) and have rendered otherwise inaccessible terrain open for grazing. Paramo vegetation is able to recover from fire but this takes more than a decade. The recurrence of fires in a shorter period of time precludes this recovery from taking place.
Ill-planned regional development projects (infrastructure, agriculture, urbanization). In many local and regional development plans, no specific environmental consideration is paid to Paramo. Particularly the Paramo segment which is not formally included in protected areas, designed by central governments, is often seen by local governments as low value wasteland, where miscellaneous development projects should be implemented to somehow profit from these areas. Therefore, local and regional development plans promote the use of Paramo for unsustainable productive activities like industrial forestry and potato growth, but also large infrastructural projects (road construction and water reservoirs) are situated in Paramo since it is relatively cheap to do so and no large population numbers have to be relocated. In Ecuador, the recent construction of three main inter-provincial roads has affected large pristine Paramo areas with landslides and new colonization. Reservoirs for drinking water and electricity generation have flooded hundreds of hectares of Paramo wetlands in Colombia and Ecuador.
Increasing water demand by numerous stakeholder groups coupled with water use and land tenure conflicts and unequal access to water. All inter-andean irrigation fed agriculture uses water that originates from Paramo. Since much of this agriculture as well as the irrigation systems are not very well planned, the demand is not covered by the current infrastructure. Access to irrigation water is very unequal and the well planned, large irrigation projects tend to benefit powerful stakeholder groups like the dairy farmers and flower growers in the high plains around Bogotá and Quito, leaving smallholders directly around Paramo without access to irrigation. As a response, the latter have built a large network of inefficient, private irrigation channels without reinforcement causing the over pumping of Paramo wells and high water conveyance losses. Land tenure conflicts tend to exacerbate the problems since control over irrigation water is linked to land ownership.
Side effects of armed conflicts.Especially in Colombia, where armed conflicts are present particularly in rural areas, the side effects of violence are threatening Paramo. Armed groups (regular and irregular) are present in a limited number of Paramo sites to control certain areas of the country, once occupied by another group. This presence includes camps and heavy transport and very little environmental considerations are taken. The Colombian Sumapaz national park, one of the major continuous Paramo areas in the Andes, was an important communication area of irregular armed groups five years ago, until the Colombian army took control and physically located several thousand troops in the area. Other areas, e.g. on the Colombia-Ecuador and Colombia-Venezuela border, suffer from new colonization by refugees from armed conflicts within Colombia. Finally, the cultivation of illicit crops, particularly poppy, is common practice in Paramo areas that are under control of irregular groups.
Paramo habitat reduction as a result of upward displacement of vegetation belts resulting from global warming trends. Climatic change results in a trend of warmer conditions globally, but even more intensely so in mountain areas. In the mid to long term this results in an upward displacement of vegetation belts but in practice it results in a more rapid advancement of the agricultural frontier. In typical potato cultivation zones like Carchi (Ecuador), Nariño and Boyaca (Colombia) or Trujillo (Venezuela), the potential upper limit of potato growth has risen to well over 3000 meters during the last decades. Since pests and diseases follow this trend, the highest limit is preferred and actively occupied particularly by potato seed producers.
The barriers that make effective biodiversity conservation in the Paramo difficult are:
Excessive reliance on classical agriculture as a source of income and food security. The opportunities currently available to Paramo residents to switch towards more Paramo-friendly activities, including non-farming income-generating activities that may lower the pressure on the Paramo, are limited. Families living in the Paramo may diversify their income-generating activities provided that these alternatives are viable. Some examples of alternative complementary livelihood activities include ecotourism (or rural tourism), handicraft, apiculture, organic agriculture and rural agro-industries. However, most farmers have limited access to infrastructure, services and markets and thus rely on classical agriculture, not being able to include improved farming activities (including adding value to agricultural products) and alternative non-farming activities to improve their livelihoods. Community organization, access to financial services and appropriate training are necessary in most cases.
Disarticulation of local, regional and national planning and execution efforts. Since Paramo is a natural ecosystem spanning several countries, and important for biodiversity conservation but also for water regulation, CO2 mitigation, erosion control, tourism and wetland management among others, different environmental initiatives implemented at different scales affect Paramo (e.g. international conventions, national biodiversity and forestry policies, watershed management regulations, protected area management). Many of these are poorly coordinated, which jeopardizes the effectiveness of the present environmental political setting in Andean countries.This disarticulation is also present in research, conservation and development policies.
Weak inter-sectoral policy coordination promoting ecosystem management.There is a weak or absent coordination between national and international policies in different sectors for mountain ecosystem management and the conservation of biodiversity related to the water cycle. Environmental legislation in general and land and water regulations in particular, need to be coordinated amongst national sectors to avoid legislative gaps and to resolve possible conflicts that could result in the lack of protection for the Paramo ecosystem. Recent developments associated with the International Mountain Year 2002 have promoted the establishment of national committees to support strategic action in mountain ecosystems. These initiatives need to develop into institutionalized inter sectoral, public-private effective policy coordination entities if they are to become effective.
Lack of policies and policy instruments for Paramo conservation at local, national and Andean level. At all scales, an effective policy framework that supports Paramo management, regulates Paramo use and promotes Paramo conservation is lacking. Existing examples of policy strategies for Paramo are scattered and mostly at the local (community management plan) or subregional (watershed planning) scale and none is advanced enough to provide an adequate policy framework. Only in the last few years, two of the four countries with Paramo (Colombia and Ecuador) have developed special policies for Paramo management within their biodiversity and water management strategies, but neither has actually implemented these policies on a large scale. Especially policy instruments (including economic incentives like subsidies for clean production, payment for environmental services, market development but also conservation agreements and legislation), that assure the execution of conservation strategies are lacking. Some of the existing instruments do not consider social and cultural aspects of the inhabitants of the Paramo
Lack of effective conservation strategy and international cooperation for bordercrossing ecosystems and international watersheds. Only one international policy framework (D523) includes the conservation of bordercrossing Paramo areas and this ecosystems goods and services, but this strategy has not been implemented yet. Its scope is general and therefore does not provide an applicable conservation strategy for Paramo. Both the Colombia-Ecuador and the Ecuador-Perú borders have development programs that include the conservation of mountain ecosystems but no conservation projects have been started within these programs as of yet. There is only one international watershed management program (Catamayo-Chira, between Ecuador and Peru) but it does not include bi-national Paramo conservation. Common positions of the four participating countries towards the international environmental conventions that affect Paramo are currently being discussed.
Limited expertise and capacity at the individual, community and institutional level to conserve and manage Paramo. Despite the fact that large areas of the Andean ecological zone (Paramo and puna) are open range, there is minimal expertise on grassland management in the region. Although extensive cattle grazing and its associated fires are the major land use type affecting Paramo, there are no management guidelines for cattle farmers in Paramo. For example there are few range management programs in the Andes and the research results available on the impact of fire (natural or managed) on Paramo ecosystems has been limited to a few studies conducted by international experts. Potato farming in Paramo areas is either highly intensive with high environmental, social and health costs or small scale and inefficient, but hardly any examples exist of low impact potato growing. Few Paramo inhabitants have access to the experiences with existing alternative complementary livelihood options.
Underestimation and loss of traditional knowledge and practices. A complex agriculture-based culture that combines the rich and sophisticated heritage of indigenous eco-technological systems with the crops, animal breeds and technologies introduced by Europeans of Mediterranean tradition is a hallmark of the Paramo. This agri-“culture” is extremely disarticulated and has been eroded by social, economic and political exclusion processes that dismiss the entire historical heritage of this knowledge and underestimate its present expression in some peasant or indigenous communities. Therefore, conservation and sustainable use of Paramo biodiversity will have to take into account the Andean historical and cultural basis and reevaluate indigenous and traditional peasant management of Paramo resources.
Lack of public awareness about the importance of conserving this marginalized ecosystem. As a result of low public awareness of the need for conservation and of the economic value of the Paramo, as well as the inability to efficiently value environmental goods and services combined with the lack of knowledge on sustainable management, very few policies and policy instruments have been implemented in the Paramo region to support conservation and sustainable use. Key decision makers such as national and local governments, donors, social and productive groups fail to value the importance of Paramo and therefore their decisions likely affect Paramo integrity2. Due to a lack of public awareness, there is no extensive social support for Paramo conservation activities such as payment for environmental services, the establishment of new protected areas and demand for products from Paramo friendly productive activities.
Adequate information to support decision making in Paramo is insufficient and the existing information does not reach key decision makers. Information on biodiversity, the quantification of goods and services provided by the Paramo, the impact of different land use techniques and of policy decisions on the capability of Paramo to provide these goods and services, as well as the technical basis for sustainable land use techniques is lacking. The little information that is available is scattered and difficult to access.