By Monica Amador, with Naomi Millner
Parque Natural Regional Serrania de las Quinchas
Corregimiento of Puerto Pinzón and Caserio La Arenosa – Puerto Boyacá-Boyacá
Type of forest: Humid Tropical Lowland Forest
Inhabitants: 450 children and adults (registered by the municipality)
In 2006, the right-wing paramilitary bloc of Puerto Boyacá was demobilized. This was a ruthless private army that had been under the command of Arnubio Triana, an infamous paramilitary commander who only went under the name of “Botalón”. This was one of the 38 paramilitary outfits that demobilized in 2006 under a legal framework known as the Justice and Peace Law, a law that had been promoted by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and that had included as many as 30 000 paramilitary fighters. The demobilization ceremony in the municipality of Puerto Boyacá took place in the village of El Marfil, just a few kilometers away from the village of Puerto Pinzón. In this village and in its surroundings the research project BioResilience will look at lowland cases in order to understand Andean forest capacity to persist and/or expand in a context marked by the effects of the internal armed conflict and the “post-conflict” situation in Colombia.
Picture1. Image of the Pedrones, broken of the Serrania de las Quinchas in the Vereda la Cristalina, Puerto Boyacá. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, August 2019.
Picture 2. Entrance to the Serrania de las Quinchas Regional Park from the corregimiento of Puerto Pinzon in Puerto Boyacá. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May 2019.
Puerto Pinzón is now literally a ghost town as many of the inhabitants are leaving the village to find work and ways of subsistence in other places. Some of them go to Antioquia, while others seek a better future in the Eastern plains or even head South, ending up in the Cauca Valley. In the caserio [hamlet] there are many abandoned houses with closed shutters and doors locked with padlock. This piecemeal migration is not equivalent to the waves of forced displacement that still can be observed in other parts of the country, however but a result of the abandonment of the Colombian State from the area after paramilitary demobilization and combined with the end of the massive cultivation of coca and production of cocaine that had previously been a mainstay of the local economy. Cultivation of coca and cocaine production had been the main economic activities for the people living in this village and just like any other extractive activity it is subject to cycles of boom and bust. The drug economy is also vulnerable due to the illegal character of these activities and how it relates to conditions of legality-legitimacy. Since it has been through paramilitary control of the territory, particularly during the 1990s until 2006 that coca cultivation and cocaine production in laboratories hidden within the forest, have increased forest degradation and deforestation, pollution of aquifers and harmed the environment in general. The years after paramilitary demobilization the cultivation of coca and production of cocaine have significantly reduced, which has redounded in the proliferation of the native fauna and flora, as the peasants have confirmed. The relict forests of what was once the vast expanses of the jungles of Carare-Opón, is expanding again after the period of peace among inhabitants and with nature, this is a positive effect of the paramilitary demobilization in relation to environmental conservation.
Picture.3. Image of a farmer walking through an abandoned bar that used to be open with high public about 4 years ago, located on the sandy side of Puerto Boyacá. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May of 2019.
Picture.4. image of one of the dozens of abandoned or closed houses in the corregimiento of Puerto Pinzón, Puerto Boyacá. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May 2019.
When we asked the locals why they no longer grow coca, they answered production had stopped because of the paramilitary demobilization and because the army had taken control over the area. Although seen as rural-peripheral, this area is geographically connected to many strategic regions of the country, included regions bordering Venezuela. The inhabitants underline that, even if more and more people are leaving the village due to lack of decent livelihoods, some could still make a living from growing coca or working in cocaine laboratories deep inside the jungle. However, the cultivation of coca is now more common in Cimitarra (Santander) and less so in the neighboring municipalities of Boyacá. Our local informers and the mayor of the village of Pinzón told us that the army has constantly been targeting coca farmers and those behind illegal logging. Some villagers have ended up in prison while others have been killed. This army offensive and the active abandonment enacted through the withdrawal of the welfare state is, according to some of the villagers, the main reason why so many have decided to leave the village.
Picture.5. image of the house, owned by the landowner Clavijo, one of the men with more ownership of land adjacent to the Serrania de las Quinchas in the town of Puerto Pinzon and Arenosa. Currently, the Casona is closed. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May 2019.
Picture.6. Image of the abandoned gas station, located at the entrance of the Puerto Pinzón district, which, during the economic boom of cocaine production, it used to provide gasoline to both traffickers and peasant inhabitants. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, June 2019.
In 2008, two years after the paramilitary demobilization, the Serranía de las Quinchas was declared a Natural Park because of its status as a biodiversity hotspot — it is an area especially known for its diversity in birds. The regional environmental agency, Corpoboyacá, and the System of Regional National Parks became the two entities ascribed to the Ministry of Environment that were assigned to administer the Quinchas.
Picture.7. Image of the entrance of the private reserve El Paujil owned by the PROAVES Foundation. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May 2019
However, already in 2003 the private environmental foundation Proaves had established the Private Reserve known as “El Paujil”, a reserve set up to protect the Blue Billed Curassow (Crax Alberti), a bird that is endangered and that is endemic to the Middle Magdalena Valley of Colombia. Immediately adjacent to Puerto Pinzon, El Paujil is a reserve of 5,000 hectares that was purchased through international financial support. Proaves bought the land from a local landowner, seen both by environmental organizations and local inhabitants as a landgrabber who had taken possession of this large extension of state-owned land [baldíos] illegally and had taken advantage of the difficult economic situation of the poor local farmers living in the area for decades. He had, in other words, profited from the ambiguity created by state abandonment. The long history of armed conflict that has enveloped these jungles also feeds into the separation between the inhabitants of Puerto Pinzón and the Proaves tourism initiative, because it means that foreign tourists pass through the village without really stopping. This practice reinforces the feeling among the inhabitants that they are treated as potentially dangerous paracos [paramilitaries], a stigma they have not been able to get rid of, even if the paramilitary outfits of the region were demobilized more than 13 years ago.
Still today the area is marked by confusing layers of bureaucracy that actively disempower local people. For example, the legislation that designates the regional park produced new conservation “zones,” but these zones were never properly explained to local people and consistently result in confusion and conflict. The majority of the inhabitants of the Quinchas do not have formal ownership titles to the land, but only possess a type of property certificate called a carta-venta, a document with limited legal status. According to the ediles [council members] and presidents of the Juntas de Acción Comunal [the Board of Community Action] – of the sectors of Brisas del Ermitaño and Puerto Pinzón Centro in Puerto Pinzón, the villagers were never properly informed about the legal implications of the establishment of the park and how this would eventually reduce their chances of titling lands that they had occupied and worked for decades. They recall that an official from Corpoboyacá once organized a meeting in Puerto Pinzón about the planned establishment of the park, and that he had collected signatures of those attending the meeting. The official had, however, not explained the implications the setting up of the park would have for the livelihoods and property rights of the locals. This is what we refer to as a situation of “productive ambiguity” – the confusion of laws and rights works in the interests of those who already have power and capital in the area, and against the peasants [campesinos] who have lived there for generations. This is why young and inspiring leaders of the community, such as the young president of the Community Action Board of Pinzon Centro, are also considering leaving the village: because of the lack of opportunities, stigmatization and state abandonment.
Picture.8. Image of an interview with Mr. Pacheco. the oldest inhabitant of Puerto Pinzon. This inhabitant has seen with his eyes the emergency, bonanza and now decrease of Puerto Pinzon. Photo reproduced with permission from Mr. Pacheco. Picture taken by Elkin Berrio. May 2019.
Picture. 9. Image of plantation-reforestation with native forest advanced by CorpoBoyacá-Mansarovar Oil Corporation as part of the compensation activities. This reforestation has generated response among the inhabitants. Picture taken by Mónica Amador-Jiménez, May 2019
This situation does not only affect campesinos, however. The Corregidor, a local official who acts on behalf of the municipality of Puerto Boyacá, points out that he too feels abandoned by the Colombian State. He pointed out that even after spending 5 years sending letters and requests, neither the mayor nor the governor of the region has ever visited Puerto Pinzón. In Puerto Pinzon there is no health centre or police station; no permanent army presence, and not even a notary office. There is a school that is the center of the social and political life of the community, but the real authorities in the village are the major landowners — and the locals include Proaves and Corpoboyacá in this category. Institutions are only very recently making effort to reconnect with local communities, seeing that this situation does not serve the interests of conservation any more than local people. This a process promoted through the activities developed in the context of the BioResilience Project.
This makes for an interesting situation in terms of reforestation: while the forest is taking over the places once used by humans, human co-existence is not being supported. The jungle is over-growing its parameters, enveloping the town and pushing people out. One of the councillors of Pinzon, an Afro-Colombian woman who came to the Middle Magdalena Valley from Chocó in the 1990s, accompanied Monica to see the reforestation that currently is being carried out by the oil company Mansarovar Energy Colombia (a Sino-Indian corporation) on a plot inside the town. She explains: “they are putting the jungle into our homes and now we see more snakes than before”. While the oil company regularly generates oil spills in the sector of Pozo Dos (one hour from Pinzón), and continues to contaminate the Palagua swamp (two hours from Pinzón), such companies cover up their contamination by allowing the forest of the Serrania de las Quinchas to take over the village. People feel that together, the forest; the abandonment of the state; and the violence of the security forces are displacing them.
The BioResilience project has entered this territory not only to produce an understanding of this complex human-forest interface, but to faciliate dialogue between the various parties involved. Our view is that the disconnect between conservation legislation and the lives, experience and understanding of local people has formed an important barrier to effective conservation governance, and thus it is a key part of any forest conservation project to foreground communication and education. Here, our legitimacy resides in our neutrality; it relies on us working as an independent academic entity, dedicated to doing research with people for the benefit of nature and communities. Thus, at this time we are facilitating the implementation of an Environmental Management Plan for the Regional Park with the support and approval of the communities, CorpoBoyacá; the municipal Mayor; and ProAves. Our aim is ultimately to diffuse the agreed Environmental Management Plan among communities and to assist in the formation of a Park Administrator Committee that will involve delegates from the communities located at the core and buffer areas of the park in order that the environmental rules for governance applying to the Serranía de las Quinchas can be effectively applied. This, we believe, will allow the proliferation of native species, the protection of the biodiversity of the forest, and also the proliferation of development opportunities for these communities, who are the protagonists of their life projects.
Picture.10. Image of the workshop-socialization of the BioResiliencia project in Puerto Pinzon in June 2019. Picture taken by Jose Gregorio Hernández.
 Proaves is an environmental foundation, which has become pivotal in developing ecotourism for birdwatching. Foreign tourists are brought to the area to enjoy this relic of tropical rainforest in the Middle Magdalena of Colombia, staying in facilities installed by Proaves and accompanied by informed guides.
 Ironically, these are the same people that came to the place in 2000 because of displacement. Those who established the sector of Brisas del Ermitaño were a group of internally displaced families who had fled from a hamlet called San Luis in Antioquia, a village that first had been attacked by guerillas and then was seized by paramilitaries. Now again they are victims of displacement, but this time for different reasons.