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Colombia's Sierra de la Macarena
by Robert Mykle

August/Agosto 1998

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There are so many spectacular places in the world coming under assault by the encroachments of man and we eco-travelers and environmentalists would like to save them all. Realistically, we understand that is impossible. Some of the more well known sites, such as the Galapagos Islands, the Everglades, receive much needed help. However, many equally important sites receive little publicity and are left to waddle in obscurity awaiting destruction. In Colombia, the Sierra de la Macarena, an obscure geological anomaly covered with a living evolutionary laboratory, is just such a site. Unfortunately, it is virtually unknown outside of Colombia.

Why is the Sierra de la Macarena so important? The Macarena is the convergence point of six major ecological and geological forces, each exerting its own unique pressure on the local flora and fauna. The end result is a high rate of mutation. The Sierra de la Macarena has been called a biological hothouse. And this biological hothouse is on fire. The Sierra de la Macarena is in danger of being burnt away. This singular world with a huge warehouse of biodiversity waiting to be unlocked is about to be lost forever.

During the Cretaceous the Sierra formed as a part of a series of massive uplifting of Upper Proterozoic rocks into a highland mountain range. The highlands rested on the western edge of the South American Precambrian shield and stretched from Colombia through Brazil to Venezuela and the Guayanas. It was the time of the dinosaurs and the 'Amazon' river flowed west to the Pacific. Largely made up of soft sandstones the highlands fell victim to rapid erosion that sculptured a series the mesa mountains of Conan Doyle's lost world. Plate tectonics doomed the western half of the highlands. The Pacific Oceanic Plate slammed into the South America Continental Plate up lifting the Andes mountains, sending the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers flowing to the east eroding the last vestiges of the great range. Only the highlands in Venezuela, Surinam up and the Guyanas in the east and the Sierra de la Macarena a thousand kilometers to the west remain. Between the two are the vast grass plains of Venezuela and Colombia known as the 'Llanos'. This is home to the vaqueros, Spanish cowboys, and Guajibo Indians. It is the stuff Western movies are made.

The importance of the Sierra was recognized early this century and in 1948 the Colombia government designated the area a national park. Demarcated by the Guejar and Guayabero rivers, the park included the Sierra mountain range and enough bottom land to support the migration of the highland animals to the lowlands during the dry season. The national forestry service INDERENA was designated its protector and a few cabins were built around the edge of the park for the rangers.

At the northern base of the Sierra where the grass lands give way to the jungle is the cattle town of San Juan de Arama. A well paved road connects it to Villavicencio, the largest city on the eastern flank of the Andes. In 1971 when I first visited the area it was connected by a tortuous dirt road ride of seven hours. The ultimate end of the road town peopled with bored women and men who drink too much, it is the parody of the hundreds of little villages that dot the Llanos. Yet San Juan de Arama was founded in 1539 by Germans making it one of the oldest European settlements in South America. The Germans had come from Venezuela. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, granted a pearling concession at El Coro on the Venezuelan Caribbean coast as collateral for a loan given by the Welser banking house of Ulm, Germany. Anxious to maximize profits the Germans set off on a number of exploratory expeditions with the hope of finding the fabled El Dorado, city of gold. Crossing the Venezuelan Andes to the Llanos grass plains, their leader, Nicolas Federman marched his European and Indian army along the hem of the Andes. Two years and twelve hundred kilometers latter he reached the Sierra de la Macarena which blocked further progress to the south.

His Indian guides informed him El Dorado laid somewhere to the west in the Andes. He built a settlement at San Juan to protect his supply lines back to Venezuela and set off up the Andes to Bacata, present day Bogota, capital of Colombia. Bacata was the capital of the Zipa, chief of the Chibcha Indians. He was El Dorado - The Golden One, who ceremoniously would wash his gold dust covered body in the sacred Lake Guatavita. There Federman discovered the Spanish from Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia had beaten him by six months to El Dorado. He was forced to return to Venezuela and San Juan eventually disappeared. A second San Juan was formed and it prospered until the civil war of the 1950s when taken over by insurgents it was bombed by government airplanes. The present San Juan was rebuilt soon after.

The horizon of San Juan is dominated by the Andes to the west and the Sierra de la Macarena to the south. These two very different mountain ranges, in age, geology, form and direction, exert different influences where they meet. Animals and plants from each of the different ecological systems intermingle creating a more competitive environment and a higher rate of natural selection. The Sierra is at the spot where the Llanos grass-lands change over into the largest tropical jungle in the world. Again each has its own distinctive flora and fauna competing with each other. The Sierra is on the cusp of the dry plains to the north and the rain forest to south. Finally, the Macarena is on the edge of the Orinoco drainage basin where it meets the headwaters of the Amazonian river basin drawing together the immense biological pools of two of the greatest water sheds in the world. All of the distinct eco-systems; the jungle, the grass lands, the river basins, the Andes, the dry plains and rain forests each brings it own biological and physical influences to play at one precise convergence point making the Sierra de la Macarena one of the world's most uniquely biological diverse areas.

For all its urbanity San Juan is a good jump off point for an initial exploration into the Sierra. In places the jungle still creeps up to the town limits. Just after dawn on the outskirts of San Juan Howler monkey's echoing roar can be heard in the distance. Squawking jungle parrots and multicolored Macaws can be observed flying overhead. Within a day's walk is the bend of the Guejar river where it cuts out of the tablazo at the edge of the Sierra into the lowland plains. Mount Renjifo, the highest peak in the Sierra is visible from San Juan and was our immediate destination. December and January, the beginning of the dry season, is the best time to enter the Sierra de la Macarena. The rains have stopped. The trails are dry enough to hike with ease yet the vegetation is still green and healthy and the rivers run clear. Accompanying me were my godson, Eduardo Betancourt, and Freddy Ortiz both born in San Juan. We had backpacks and enough food to carry us over for two weeks. Hammocks, freeze-dried food, mosquito nets, first aid kit and cooking equipment were all tightly packed. A jeep was contracted to take us to the banks of the Guejar river. During the dry season jeeps can cross the river. However, rainy season run off was still pouring out of the mountains making jeep crossings impossible.

At the river bank I slung on my old Kelty expedition back-pack that had taken me during the last 25 years from the 18,000 foot Sierra de Cocuy to the depths of the Putumayo jungle. It felt heavy. Soft living and a bad back are not kind to a back packer. I was determined to pace myself and contract mules to carry the pack when available. I had learned something in the last 25 years.

Keeping an eye out for electric eels we waded up to our waists across the Guejar river. Officially we were now in the national park. I had crossed the same spot in 1971. Then I had been greeted by a massive green wall of jungle and a flock of parrots protesting our trespass. Large tracks of pasture and plowed fields had replaced the forest. White and red Cebu cattle grazed along the banks of the Guejar. The muddy path was now a gravel road.

"What a shame," I said.

"Progress," my companions answered with shrugs.

With no horses available we walked the three hours to the settlement of Mesopotamia. I could hardly believe it. Twenty five years back this was virgin jungle. It had taken me nine hours of hard hiking to reach this point. The town was a haphazard affair with an air of impermanence but that would change. The wooden buildings rotting rapidly in the tropical heat would be replaced by stucco and cement edifices. We stopped at the edge of town where I had slung my hammock around a pair of trees by a stream that now served as an open swear. It was littered with plastic bags and cans. As I looked at its fetid waters I could not believe this was the same pristine stream where I had bathed and drank. I knew there would be changes but never imagined this much damage could have been done in so short time. Purchasing last minute batteries and food we headed out of town not waiting on a pair of promised mules. The lowland fields seemed to stretch up to the base of the Sierra. The lowlands are needed to support the wildlife in the Sierra. During the dry season the animals migrate out of the Sierra as the streams dry up and their food supply vanish. Without protective cover they would be easy prey to armed farmers, cattle men and hunters.

As we walked toward the Sierra two mule trains dragging large cut logs of exotic hard woods lumbered past us. After growing coca and marijuana, logging is the most active business in the jungle.

Patches of jungle inter-spaced between farms begin to shade our path. The jungle patches became more frequent until late afternoon we arrived at the last farm house. In the middle of a roughly cleared plot, a raised palm leaf and split bamboo hut gave welcomed relief from the hot afternoon sun. The air smelt of smoke.

The Burning Season

The owner, Don Issac, and a neighbor who was helping him were typical colonos, literally colonists. They are the pioneers of the rain forest. They are landless, very poor single men who with little more than a hatchet, a hammock and a shotgun set off into the jungle to find a spot to clear. It is dangerous work. With medical help days away disease and injury are constant fears. Loneliness is their only companion.

First they cut down a few large trees some soaring forty meters high. Then they burn away the brush and branches. The first year they plant a crop among the charred trunks of fallen trees. Four months later they bring in a poor harvest of corn or sorghum which they carry to the nearest town usually days away. After a few years the trees rot into the soil and the fields are cleared making farming easier. However, the soil nutrients of the initial burnings have been depleted and the harvest is not as bountiful. The poor soil can support grass and many of the fields are converted into pasture.

The colonos never really escape poverty. Yet they do have one asset. Their land. If they are lucky they will find a wife to share their hardships. Though most after a few years sell their farms and then set off deeper into the jungle to repeat the process. They are a special breed of pioneers. These are the same people that settled the eastern seaboard of the Untied States then the American west. They possess the same determination wrought out of poverty and the improbable hope of a better life.

We accepted Don Issac's invitation to camp for the night.. He welcomed the company and we wanted more information on what lied ahead. He served us the Colombian national drink, tinto, black coffee sweetened with an unrefined auburn sugar called panella. As he handed us the demitasse cups of coffee he said apologetically, "You'll have to excuse me. As you see I have no woman."

Towards evening we accompanied the two men to a cleared area half a kilometer away. There they had gartered up a huge pile of brush against one side of the clearing. The rest of the field had been freshly burnt. We climbed over ash covered trunks, some still smoldering from the morning fires. They set the last pile on fire. We watched lavish flames leap-frogged up the forest face reaching thirty and forty meters into the heavens. It was a spectacular sight. In hypnotic fascination we gazed in silent almost paralyzed awe. The intense heat of the fire singed my face and cold goose bumps shot up my spine. The power of the flame. Prometheus unbounded upon the jungle. In the fire's light a hellish glow danced on the satisfied ash covered faces of the farmers. They were winning. They were winning the battle for survival. And in their lives there are not many victories.

After a river bath we shared the meat we purchased in town slung our hammocks on the huts polls and slept. At dawn we set off for Mount Renjifo. Before leaving we thanked our hosts and inquired as to what laid ahead.

"There are no more farms. But stay to the right side of the stream," Don Issac said. " and don't go down stream to the east. They're growing coca and might not like strangers walking around. Very dangerous." He smiled. We went west.

Leaving the charred spaces the forest gently closed in around us. The hot suffocating air of the cleared fields gave way to a cool air-conditioned air stilled by exuberant growth. The verdant canopy closed in over head and the sun retreated behind a blanket of deep greens and blacks. Sounds were muffled by the forest and the rug like damp floor was soft under foot. The tree trunks rose in straight majestic columns giving us the feeling we were in a medieval cathedral. It was a holy place. It was a place to worship. The floor was immersed in a twilight netherworld nearly void of vegetation. Some colorful exotic funguses glowed on the floor and an occasional spectacular orchid blown loose from high above would find rest on the ground. We marched in silence absorbing the wonder around us.

The path rose shapely and then disappeared. The jungle floor gave way to hard rocky soil and the undergrowth changed into scrub sabana forest. An occasional outcrop afforded a clear view of the plains below. We groped our way up the steep embankment until finally near noon the top of Mount Renjife surprised us. On a rocky ledge just below the peak we rested with unobstructed views of the Llanos to the east and the Amazon jungle behind us. From our vantage point in all directions as far as the eye could see scores of pillars of smoke rose to the sky in a Dantesque dance. It looked like a army of Huns had descended upon the plains pillaging and plundering, determined to leave nothing alive. The smoke was forming a cloud blanket of its own that tinted the sky brown.. A city like haze settled on the horizon. From this distance the destruction takes on monumental proportions.

It was the burning time; the beginning of the dry season. It was the clearing of the forest. The destruction of Bob Dylan's 'haunted frightening trees', the epitome of man's congenital fear of the forest. The landless attacking the jungle with a vengeance in a timeless action now reaching its infernal crescendo. Like Lot I turn my gaze away for fear of turning to salt. We had seen enough and made a hasty retreat into the soothing shelter of the jungle.

Descending the mountain we camped at the first stream, ate and were in our hammocks by eight. The scenes of the burnings were very disconcerting and I wondered what could be done. Frustrated by impotence I knew there was stant little I could do and like so many I shrugged. Here was a great natural resource being destroyed and few people outside of Colombia even knew of its importance.

Still, as I laid in my hammock back under the protection of the forest an immense feeling of well being swept through me. The camp fire burnt out and the nocturnal cries took over. The hunters and the hunted searching for food and mates in the dark. The night sounds were always hauntingly reassuring to me. Like primordial sirens humming a lullaby they sang me to sleep.

The Natural World

Naturally, the jungle is full of animal life though most of it is difficult to see. Insects are well represented as the welts on my arm and legs attested. There are seven types of large cats in the Sierra: the mountain lion or cougar whose range covers all of the Americas, the black panther, two spotted tigers, one called the butterfly tiger as its spots resemble butterflies and two species of ocelots. There are the endangered speckled bears, tapirs probing the underbrush with their proboscis, along with herds of Peccaries and wild boar. The former travel in herds of up to 200 strong and are considered the most dangerous mammals in the jungle for their large number and the ferocity with which they defend their herd if attacked.

Groups of monkeys dominate the trees. A pair of squirrel monkeys so unfamiliar with humans they approach us curiously. Capuchin and spider monkeys criss cross the upper reaches of the canopy searching for nuts and fruits while keeping a watchful eye out for Harpies, the world's largest eagle. Large turkey like black Parjuels cry out and take off through the woods with crashing sounds. Many small birds dart in and out of eye sight, too many types for even an avid bird watcher as myself to identify. Colombia has the greatest number of bird species in the world and after Indonesia the second most number of plants. The Macarena's biodiversity attracted the attention of the most famous Amazonian biologist Dr. Richard E. Schultes who in 1954 collected specimens on the tablazo and climbed Mount Renjifo. One specimen he collected was 'one of the most significant phytographical discoveries of the last two decades.' It was the missing link that proved "there has been a major migration of Andean plants eastward towards the Guiana Highlands."

The forest is divided into three distinct levels; the high forest canopy, the middle forest dominated by monkeys and the floor where the larger mammals roam. Most of the activity takes place above prying eyes at the canopy tops. Sometimes along open areas, around rivers and some fields we were able to catch glimpses of some of the flora and fauna that inhabit the canopy Most however are never seen except as blow downs. Vegetation while sparse in the deep jungle is nearly impassable along streams and places where fallen trees have given the sun light a chance to reach the floor. The muffled forest is broken by an occasional crashing sound of branches falling; a constant renewal process.

I have a pet obsession. I entertain myself with an on going search for salamanders. Literally no log goes unturned. I have a strange fascination for these amphibians however, to date I have found none in South America. The next morning we headed south where a day's walk brought us once again to newly burnt fields. Finally we reached the navigable part of the Guejar river above the town of Vista Hermosa where we camped. Our next objective was to visit the coy color spectacle of a unique moss covered stream known as Caño Cristales.

At dawn we contracted one of the ten meter dugout canoes called a piragua for the 77 kilometer ride down stream. Powered by a seventy horse power outboard motor these boats have not changed much since man first populated the Amazon jungle. Parts of the river snaked through thick jungle areas where monkeys came down to the river to drink. We spotted one lone caiman sunning itself on a river bank. This where the Federman expedition had said river travel was exceptionally dangerous due to the large number of alligators along the banks and in the rivers waiting to dine on the passengers of capsized boats.

The boat dropped us off at the headwaters of a fast moving stream ten minutes from the colono town of La Macarena. The vegetation had completely changed. The high jungle is here replaced by the Llanos grasses and stunted scrub sabana trees. A brisk two hour walk across the grass sabana brought us to Cano Cristales. Known as the stream of seven colors, Cano Cristales is a natural wonder in its own right. The bed and rocks of this river are covered with mosses and algae which for much of the year appear as dull green and brown water plants. The water level regulates the among of sunlight reaching the plants. At certain times of the year depending on the water level the mosses 'bloom'. During the rainy season the mosses are too deep for all the colors to bloom and during the dry too shallow. There is a window between the dry and rainy seasons where the water level is just right and the mosses display their rainbow of colors. The spectacular blooms create an array of colors. Though remote, the spectacle has attracted a few adventurous travel agencies who have begun a type of ecotourism that flys tourists to the town La Macarena.

We contracted another canoe to take us up river where above the First Rapids is a cliff soaring a hundred meters high covered with Indian paintings and drawings. It is the largest such mural of its kind in the Americas. Archeologists speculate the authors of this work were Guahibo Indians or a tribe preceding them as the present day Indians know little about the symbols or their significance. I had to ask myself why did they draw these figures as high as they did, some are nearly invisible from below and how did they get up there?

We returned to the town of La Macarena. The next day we were a plane that flew us to Villavicencio and on to Santafe de Bogota.

Behind the exotic and fascinating facade of the Sierra de La Macarena lies a double ominous presence. The Sierra and the lowlands are controlled by guerrillas and drug growers. The area is home to the FARC the oldest guerilla group in Latin America. This is basically the same group that had briefly controlled San Juan in the 1950s. Large swaths of forest are being burnt by coca and marijuana growers. These are the only two cash crops the poor soils of the cleared jungle can economically support. The guerrillas charge a 'tax' on the drugs grown and refined in their areas. Neither the armed groups nor the subsistence coca growers much care for the viability of a natural preserve. They are more interested in profit and survival. Geopolitical forces add to frustrate any real conservation attempts. A natural park a scant five hours drive from a major metropolitan area of seven million people is subjected to extreme human pressure. With a national government more interested in containing guerrillas movements conservation becomes a low priority. Squatters burning jungle inside a national park are much less of a political liability than landless peasants who are potential insurgents.

The partially completed Trans-Andean highway will run from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru to Bolivia along the edge of the eastern Andes. It will cross the gap between the Andes and the Sierra dividing the two ranges by a paved highway. The road is already paved to San Juan facilitating the influx of land hungry colonos.

At the same time governmental agencies often work at odds with each other. INDERENA the forest service tries to keep settlers out of the park while INCORA, a land reform agency, distributes titles to colonos in the park. INDERENA has inadvertently contributed to the destruction of the national park. In the 1960s a permanent camp was constructed in the middle of the lowland forest to study the Macarena. A trail was cut from the Guejar River through the jungle and a house was built. Groups of scientists now had a convenient place with which to study the area. However, the agency could not constantly patrol the park and the trail became a path for new colonist to settle deeper in the jungle and clear the forest. The national government has little real influence in the national park and less in the Sierra itself. Governmental fiat will not save the Macarena. The local people resent government intrusions into their lives especially when it keeps them from land. No legislation will stop these people until a viable economical alternative is available to them.

Saving the Forest

Can the Sierra de la Macarena de saved? I believe that a practical nongovernmental initiative can rescue the Sierra. The same method can used in other areas in the Amazon and the world. From the air the patterns of colonization are easily spotted. The colonized jungle is a chess board of cleared areas and forest. These cleared patches can be purchased from the colonos then united into medium size areas which can be looked after by one local family who are needed to keep a 'claim' on the land and prevent recolonization. The family would work the farm on a small scale and leave the rest of the area to revert into jungle. This should take one generation. Ideally through education and a changed political climate the situation should improve enabling a more sustained protection program. The farmers would be able to retire from the area allowing it to completely revert back into jungle. This is a real alternative using economics. Legislation does not work.

Meanwhile the burning continues. At the alarming rate the Sierra de La Macarena is being destroyed time is short. The jungle does have miraculous recuperative powers. With a little nudging and nurturing it can be saved and the Sierra de la Macarena is worth saving.

Robert Mykle has lived in South America for twenty years. See his article, "The Emberas: Colombia's Tenacious Indians Under Siege" from Planeta: http://www.planeta.com/planeta/98/1198colombia.html. He has published articles on the rain forests of South America and is working on several book projects. For more information, visit http://www.RobertMykle.com. Contact the author at POBox 6296, Lake Worth, Florida 33466; Email.

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