Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Investing in Ecotourism: The Key to Colombia’s Future

Contributed by Emma Bell

Jaguar Lake, La Pedregoza
Our environment concerns are constantly changing as the effects of climate change not only increase at an alarming rate, but the struggle to find short-term as well as long-term solutions ensue. Programs which encourage investment in tropical trees are essential for the well-being of the economy and just as importantly, the fragile ecosystem and the respective societies which live around it. Hand in hand with these endeavors is an industry which has soared considerably in recent years, due to Colombia’s cultural appeal – tourism. As droves of eager explorers flock to hotspots which have been immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez as well as the wild reaches of one of the most beautiful countries in South America, it is only through ecotourism and adopting its principles which can provide a more sustainable foundation for economical and ecological endeavors.

Defining Ecotourism, Putting it into Practice

Cooling off in rainforest stream
The International Ecotourism Society offers a comprehensive definition of ecotourism, stating that it is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This is the guiding theory which many organizations, businesses, charities and individuals have adopted, and there are a variety of ways to put the principles of ecotourism into practice by doing the following:
  • Encouraging conscientious travel which is non-invasive, minimizing impact wherever possible. Travelers can do this by using only established routes, using public transport where possible, cleaning up after their stay, and respecting their environment. Businesses can do this by off-setting their carbon through energy-saving practices as well as buying carbon credits from programs like CO2 Tropical Trees.
  • Building an awareness of environmental and cultural issues in the region and drawing appropriate attention to social and political challenges in an open and transparent dialogue.
  • Ensuring that profit from travel-related ventures go directly towards conservation and preservation efforts of the area.
  • Empowering local communities by giving them a direct role in decision-making, as well as helping their respective economies to flourish. Tourists should be encouraged to purchase local products and businesses should source local, ethical and sustainable goods where possible.
  • Providing an authentic and off-the-beaten track experience for travelers, enabling them to discover a part of the world through a non-corporate lens. 

Mainstream Industries and Specialized Ventures

Kayaking in the rainforest
While ecotourism has formed its own niche venture over the years with many start-ups gaining recognition for their work, many mainstream industries have also wisely invested in taking a cleaner and greener approach. Industries like cruising – which would rightfully be considered a huge carbon-emitting mode of travel – have reinvented their approach to tourism, using renewable energy and cutting down on emissions as much as possible. As big companies realize that big profit goes hand in hand with big conservation, it’s a sign that tourism is headed in the right direction. Individuals, smaller businesses and organizations play an equally vital role; the advent of voluntourism which focuses on environment-specific challenges has contributed to the overall endeavors of ecotourism considerably, providing a positive and immersive experience for locals and tourists alike. Colombia is an ideal destination for this movement as it holds the title of being the “most bio-diverse country per square meter in the world.”

Meeting an anaconda at night
Colombia’s “mega-diversity” makes it a truly spectacular venue which not only teaches awareness on a regional level, but an international one. It features a section of the Amazon Rainforest – “the Lungs of the World”, which is responsible for 20% of the oxygen we breathe, as well as a vast garden of fauna and flora. While much of Colombia’s incredible landscape has remained largely unscathed, the ravages of non-conscientious tourism and other damaging industries has taken its toll, particularly with the use of agrochemicals. Colombia – along with many areas in South America which have taken a progressive approach to agriculture and conservation – have suffered the effects of these. But with increased awareness and efforts by conservationists, activists and organizations, this can and will change.

Rainforest orchid
But how can ecotourism work in conjunction with programs such as investing in tropical trees in Vichada, Colombia? The answer is quite simple when reflecting once again on the principles of ecotourism, and taking into account the positive effects of voluntourism; these are programs which not only benefit all local economies and keep the land healthy, sustainable, and beautiful (thus increasing its touristic appeal), but can be used hand in hand with tourism to spread awareness. Whether it’s a trip to help plant trees or simply a vacation which helps to partially fund these endeavors, promoting ecotourism in a place like Colombia is a great way to share the diverse wonders this country has to offer, as well as protect it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Understanding Tropical Soils: Part 5

This article is continued from Understanding Tropical Soils: Part 4.
by Dexter B. Dombro
Making soil with biochar and compost.
Now that we have discussed some of the common problems with tropical soils, it makes sense to ask what might be the objective of using non-chemical fertilizers in tropical forestry. The simplest answer is sustainability. By this we mean more than just maintaining something at a certain rate or level. When we are talking about environmental and agricultural sustainability, we are talking about a jig-saw puzzle of interconnected pieces that produce a lasting and positive outcome. While paying the bills and being profitable are a necessary part of sustainability, the other side of that equation are better practices, better biodiversity, healthier plants and trees that imply healthier humans and the satisfaction of knowing that one is Earth-friendly. Sustainability is all of those things and more.

Agrochemicals aren't sustainable.
The soil has a soul. It is more than just a medium in which we plant things. It is full of life, the very foundation of biodiversity. Bad practices in forestry and agriculture that ignore the needs of the soil result in long term problems and a loss of sustainability. The use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides result in dead soil, removing all of the natural components that help trees and plants to be healthy, replacing them with chemical substitutes that simply don’t do the job in the long term. Ironically, the so-called green revolution that produced bumper crops in dead soils is now facing a global backlash, as farmers go bankrupt, cancer rates spike, soils are no longer able to produce and biodiversity declines. Quick profits are not a replacement for sustainability, as people all over the world are discovering.

Cebu cows can save the Earth with the quality of their manure.
What are some of the negatives caused by using agrochemicals?
  • The high cost of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. This has led to an epidemic of suicides and bankruptcies by rural farmers in many developing countries. 
  • The high cost of transportation to haul chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to rural areas from urban factories. 
  • In order to maintain productivity, ever increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers are needed, until it is simply no longer profitable for the farmer or the forester. 
  • Dead soil and a loss of the soil’s microfauna, including earth worms, soil fungi and more, with the resultant loss of biodiversity as other creatures in the food chain are affected, all the way up to humans. 
  • The loss of honey bees due to the use of herbicides and pesticides, leading to a pollination crisis in many places. 
  • Agrochemicals, especially when used in tropical soils with poor nutrient retention, can experience losses as bad as 90%, which is a very bad investment, with those chemicals ending up in the ground water and rivers. 
  • Agrochemicals do not make the nutrients trees and plants need bio-available in the same way that earth worms, fungi and other microfauna make those nutrients bio-available. 
  • It doesn’t take a genius to realize that agrochemicals cause environmental contamination. 
  • Crops, be they forestry or food related, are less resistant to plagues and diseases, requiring the application of other chemicals before they can be harvested or appear on your plate. 
  • Serious health effects on humans. For example, Argentina is now suffering from an explosion of agrochemical related illnesses. 
  • The constant use of agrochemicals causes the soil to be more compacted, asphyxiating the soil. 
  • The constant use of agrochemicals results in the soil losing its cationic exchange capacity (CEC – see Part 1), in other words it further aggravates problems with soil nutrient retention. 
  •  Agrochemicals cannot be consumed by earth worms and other beneficial creatures living in the soil. 
  • The quality of products being produced is poorer, especially where foods are concerned (flavor, ingredients etc.)
Tree planting bags with organic soil at La Pedregoza.
What are some of the benefits of implementing natural silviculture and organic agriculture solutions?
  • The use of local resources to make fertilizers at a significantly reduced cost. 
  •  No costly transport of fertilizers over large distances. 
  • Higher labor requirements resulting in greater local socioeconomic benefits, but still cheaper than the purchase of agrochemicals and their transport. 
  • Soil that is alive and healthy. 
  • The avoidance of environmental problems and degradation. 
  • Less plagues and diseases affecting one’s trees or crops. 
  • Production results that are equal to those achieved with agrochemicals, and superior when done with soil amendments like biochar (see Part 2). 
  • Organically managed soils have significantly better cationic exchange capacity (see Part 1) and soil nutrient retention. 
  • The forester or farmer is producing significantly less residual solids and contaminating garbage. 
  • Virtually all nutrients produced in natural silviculture and organic farming are bio-available to the trees and plants. 
  • Healthy organic soils have better water retention in the dry season. 
  • Organic fertilizers do not burn the roots of the trees or plants, a common problem with chemical fertilizers. 
  • A lot less soil acidity, especially in tropical soils, with the use of organic materials. 
  • Soils that are organically managed are less compacted and better aerated, which in turn assists soil microfauna. 
  • Forestry and agriculture that is more profitable. 
  •  Plantations and farms which are more sustainable and Earth-friendly, with healthier humans living and working in them.
Tree planting in healthy, organic soil.
I hope this series of 5 articles will help to explain some of the problems faced by tree planters in tropical soils, and also lead to a greater awareness of the importance of managing the soil in an environmentally friendly manner. At the Amazonia Reforestation and CO2 Tropical Trees plantations in Vichada, the La Pedregoza team is developing a new way of doing things that we like to call “natural silviculture”. This goes beyond being merely organic, to include biodiversity considerations, such as using local earth worms instead of imported California red worms. It includes amending the soil to become less acidic, with better nutrient retention, for improved crops and forest cultivations. It means applying analog forestry considerations and recreating ancient technologies like Terra Preta and Jivamritham. Perhaps most importantly it means becoming a model of sustainable forestry that others can copy, no matter where they are located, by using local resources and ingenuity.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Rio Bita – World’s First Protected River

by Dexter B. Dombro

It is with great pride that I would like to tell you about our participation in declaring the Rio Bita in Vichada, Colombia, a protected river within the Orinoco basin. To the best of my knowledge this may be the only river in the world to have been declared a protected river, with various Colombian institutions, including our non-profit NGO, the La Pedregoza Environmental Corporation, leading the way to create a world-class model for conservation. Our Reserva Natural La Pedregoza, a conservation area registered with Resnatur and with the Colombian national parks system, is located in the heart of this newly protected area. The natural reserve shares 7 km of river bank with the Rio Bita, so we can add excitement to the pride we feel regarding this achievement.

On April 26, 2014, the following 10 people signed the agreement declaring the Rio Bita a protected river:

Rio Bita accord signing ceremony.

The concept of a protected river is not to stop all human activity, but rather to insure that all activities are sustainable and are done with conservation and the protection of biodiversity in mind. This includes efforts to stop illegal hunting and wildlife poaching, to stop illegal commercial fishery, and to stop unsustainable traditional practices, like the collection of giant river turtle eggs, by providing enforcement of the law coupled with education and alternative solutions to local populations. At the same time, efforts will be made to change the practices of existing forestry and ranching operations, so that they become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. The Rio Bita is approximately 500 km in length, so this is a huge undertaking, but already the various agencies have committed over $2,000 million Colombian Pesos (well over $1 million USD) to the task, together with the navy providing regular river patrols.

Dexter Dombro signing Rio Bita accord.

Our Amazonia Reforestation project at La Pedregoza, adjacent to the natural reserve area, will play an important leadership role in this process. La Pedregoza is at present the only fully organic tree plantation in the Rio Bita basin, and one of the model partners for sustainable forestry in the region. This is an important partnership, which includes the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Global Forest & Trade Network, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the United Nations Development Program (PNUD), Colombia´s national parks system (PNN), the association of natural reserves (RESNATUR) and the Natura Foundation. The La Pedregoza Environmental Corporation is developing natural silviculture practices that will have global applicability, and has established additional partnerships with the International Analog Forestry Network (IAFN) and the International Biochar Initiative (IBI).

Oscar Forero and Governor of Vichada
The first step the protected river group will take is to do an extensive scientific literature review and to then plug in all the gaps with Rio Bita area studies, so that we have a solid scientific understanding of all aspects of this amazing river system, especially the biodiversity that depends on it and on the surrounding forests and savannahs. The La Pedregoza Environmental Corporation already has a multi-year history of supporting scientific studies in the region, and anticipates that the Reserva Natural La Pedregoza will provide a baseline for many of the scientific investigations being planned for the Rio Bita system. All of the partner organizations are equally experienced, so excellent results can be anticipated.

TNC scientists and Pedregoza members
The Rio Bita has no cities, towns or villages along its course, nor are there at present any factories, mines or petroleum installations. This makes the Rio Bita one of the last pure rivers on the planet, one that is home to amazing biodiversity, including aquatic mammals like pink dolphins, manatees and giant river otters. The river and its tributaries are home to an astonishing variety of fish, including many decorative fish normally only seen in aquariums. Monkeys, tapirs, capybaras, deer and many other mammals grace the inundation and gallery forests along the river, while macaws, parrots, falcons and hawks, to name only a few types of birds, control the skies above the river. A plethora of reptiles, like anacondas and turtles, various amphibians and multitudes of interesting insects from praying mantises to stick insects make the region a biologist’s dream.  In the Reserva Natural La Pedregoza we have some 370 species of trees and plants and we are still counting. The savannahs bordering the gallery forests are equally biodiverse in plants, animals, birds and insects.

Ichthyologists at Reserva Natural La Pedregoza
Protecting the Rio Bita for future generations and conserving its biodiversity is a task in which everyone can participate. It is an important part of the planet we all share. The La Pedregoza Environmental Corporation needs your support as it undertakes this huge task together with our partner organizations. Any help you can provide is much appreciated. Become part of the team to lay the foundations for a new and exciting model of conservation – a protected river system from its spring to its confluence with the mighty Orinoco!