One of the great attractions of Colombia is, without a doubt, the beauty of its nature reserves. These places offer a unique sensory experience in which visitors can contemplate the landscapes, let themselves be carried away by the sounds of nature, participate in ecotourism activities and disconnect from the routine and noise of the city. According to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, IDEAM (2014 and 2015), Colombia has a total of 98 marine and terrestrial ecosystems (74 natural and 24 transformed). The creation of protected areas has had a very beneficial impact in terms of protecting water resources and water supply. However, the country needs it to serve as much, if not more, for the effectiveness of these areas in conserving Colombia’s rich biodiversity.
Protected areas and their systems contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and provide space for recreation and ecotourism development, benefiting local populations, regions and the business sector (Natural National Parks of Colombia, 2014). In addition to the protected areas, there are several figures aimed at the conservation of Colombia’s natural and cultural wealth, such as Ramsar sites, biosphere reserves, Peasant Reserve Areas, among others.
Nature Reserves in Colombia
There are three types of nature reserves in Colombia: UNESCO-declared biosphere reserves, public reserves and private civil society nature reserves. The Biosphere Reserves in Colombia are places that innovate and demonstrate the relationship that human beings can achieve with nature in the effort to combine conservation and sustainable development. Currently, Colombia has five biosphere reserves recognized by UNESCO: The Andean Belt (Cinturón Andino – 1979), El Tuparro (1979), Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (1979), Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta (2000) and Seaflower (2000). We will tell you about them in another entry.
In relation to the other types of reserves, the public reserves are known as Nature Reserves and the private reserves are known as Civil Society Nature Reserves. In Colombia there are only two public Nature Reserves which are the Nukak Nature Reserve in Guaviare, and the Puinawai Nature Reserve in Guainía, both of which are not open to tourism. For this reason, in this post I will focus on the private reserves, since they are mostly the ones that offer the main services and destinations for ecotourism in Colombia.
What is a Civil Society Nature Reserve?
Colombian legislation defines this type of nature reserve as “a part or as the whole of the area of a property that conserves a sample of a natural ecosystem and is managed under the principles of sustainability in the use of natural resources”. In Colombia, any person who owns a rural or natural property can register a natural reserve as long as they demonstrate that they have the interest and commitment to conserve a sample of one or several natural ecosystems and, at the same time, develop sustainable production activities with low environmental impact and friendly to biodiversity. It does not matter the size of the reserve as long as it represents a sample of natural ecosystem.
When a nature reserve is registered with the National Parks of Colombia, it is legally recognized and becomes part of the National System of Protected Areas (SINAP), and incorporated into the National Registry of Protected Areas (RUNAP). One of the main benefits of Colombia’s protected areas is the preservation of natural resources and the promotion of the care of flora and fauna species, especially those at risk of extinction. The owner who registers a natural reserve in Colombia gains: (1) participation rights in the planning processes of development programs, (2) prior consent for the execution of public investments that affect them, and (3) the right to receive government incentives, among others. At the same time, the owner must safeguard the integrity of the territory and report any activity or situation that is endangering the protected area.
Importance of Private Nature Reserves in Colombia
Much of Colombia’s natural ecosystems are being radically transformed. Factors such as deforestation, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and the accelerated growth of extensive cattle ranching have directly affected the country’s natural ecosystems. Many reserves have gone from being a farm divided into paddocks, with severe erosion, to become recovered and well-developed ecosystems that are home to countless species of birds and mammals, attracting international tourism. But its scope has gone beyond, and many reserves have developed sustainability programs related to waste management, organic plantations, permaculture, planting agroforestry crops. They have even specialized in receiving illegally trafficked wildlife and conducting environmental education programs.
Civil Society Nature Reserves are recognized by the Colombian Government as recipients of (1) compensation measures for biodiversity loss, (2) investments in environmental control, (3) payment for environmental services, and (4) tax exemptions through ecotourism. These benefits have encouraged natural and legal persons of all kinds to create or support nature reserves in Colombia, and this is how, to date, there are more than 900 civil society nature reserves in all the Colombian territory that protect around 202,550 ha of land and marine territories (Source RUNAP). All the civil society nature reserves in Colombia belong to IUCN category IV. Many IUCN category IV protected areas exist in densely populated regions, with relatively high human pressure in terms of potential illegal use and visitor pressure. Category IV reserves require management undertaken voluntarily by local communities or private actors. They also require constant and successful management to sustain them over time, because they normally protect only part of an ecosystem.
This is why ecotourism plays a fundamental role in their maintenance. Private nature reserves help to fill the gaps that public reserves cannot fill. They serve as connectors between patches of natural habitat that have become disconnected from each other. In addition, they foster the development of local communities around them by providing common objectives of conservation and sustainable production. Thus, activities such as bird watching, ecotourism, agrotourism, experiential tourism, wellness tourism, sustainable coffee and cocoa production, sport fishing, among others, have become an employment engine for hundreds of rural citizens who depend directly or indirectly on the guarantees provided by the nature reserves. Likewise, the reserves are important actors in the construction of rural scenarios of peace and dignified life for the farmers.
How is the ecotourism experience in most of Colombia’s nature reserves?
As we mentioned in a past entry, what prevails in Colombia is the offer of basic accommodations in private reserves, sanctuaries and national parks. Despite the importance for environmental protection and local development of the regions, not many places have a full infrastructure for the development of ecotourism. In many of them the accommodation is basic, with rustic houses, built in wood and served by the local farmers themselves, who do not have much idea on how to provide a first class service. In any case, the natural charisma of the Colombian can far surpass these shortcomings. You will see and feel that you will be attended as if you were one of their own family.
There are other services that do not depend only on the community, but on the action of local and national governments. So, many times, the service of drinking water and electricity is limited, especially in the reserves that are located in remote places. The same goes for access roads, which are not maintained, or even exist, and you will have to get there on foot or by horse.
Your visit to a nature reserve in Colombia is very important, because it not only benefits the quality of life of local communities that provide services of any kind, or the protection of the environment, but also encourages and facilitates people’s investments to increase the quality of services. This way, every time you visit them again you will have something new to discover, experience and enjoy!
Check out our trips and also find in our blog the best reviews about the nature reserves you can visit in Colombia.
About the author
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.