About the Author: Ana Duque-Higgins serves as Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Bogota in Colombia.
On May 19-20, Embassy Bogota Deputy Chief of Mission Brian Nichols visited the world-renowned Tayrona National Park in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in Northern Colombia. During his visit, he met with leaders from the indigenous population inhabiting the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and with National Park officials.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where wild jungle and tropical rainforest meet the Caribbean ocean, is one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world. Approximately 35 kilometers from the city of Santa Marta, this incredible mountain range is home to 120 species of mammals, 46 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 628 bird species. It is also home to several indigenous communities who believe that their beloved home is the center of the universe and that the well-being of the mountain reflects the well-being of the earth.
In the last few decades, the indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada have been greatly affected by armed conflict, illicit economy, and illegal encroachment of campesino communities on their traditional lands. These factors have contributed to the destruction of 72 percent of the area's original forests. Streams and rivers are also being disrupted by erosion caused by deforestation. Deputy Chief of Mission Nichols met with the Organizacion Gonawindua Tayrona (OGT), a federation representing the four indigenous communities inhabiting the Sierra -- Wiwas, Koguis, Arhuacos and Kankuamos -- to discuss these issues. OGT is a beneficiary of USAID's Protected Areas Program, a program aimed at improving governance, biodiversity and the preservation of national resources in protected areas, and strengthening environmentally sustainable livelihoods for communities inhabiting these areas.
Following his meeting with the indigenous leaders, Deputy Chief of Mission Nichols, accompanied by USAID officials, headed to Tayrona National Park where he was greeted by Park Administrator Gustavo Sanchez. An important component of USAID's Protected Areas Program is support for the National Parks. The U.S. funds go toward programs that prevent the destruction of national habitats and ecosystems and reduce the overexploitation of natural resources and environmental pollution. U.S. funded programs also work to strengthen the institutional capacity and governability of protected areas so that the natural and cultural diversity may be preserved in the long term, as the living conditions of the communities in these areas improve. Although the Tayrona National Park does not contain indigenous reservations, it is part of the ancestral territory of the indigenous groups who live in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. In 1982, UNESCO declared the combined area of Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and the Tayrona National Park as a Biosphere Reserve, demonstrating the importance of the region in relation to conservation and regional development.
Park Administrator Sanchez led the group on a hike through one of Tayrona's newest paths carved out along the mountain with spectacular views of the Caribbean ocean below. Along the way, the group crossed multiple ecological zones, from wetlands and mangroves along the ocean to lush tropical rain forests. Colombian environmental scientists are studying the effects of climate change on the vulnerable coral reefs off the coast of Tayrona as well as its forests and wetlands. During the hike, they discussed issues being faced by the park and the communities of people living and working there since a largely improved security situation in Colombia has increased tourism to Tayrona and surrounding parks. Deputy Chief of Mission Nichols stressed that the U.S. Government is committed to a continued presence in the Sierra Nevada to support sustainable licit and environmental activities, the protection of cultural heritage, and community participation in decision making processes that affect all of these factors.