Translating Páramo: Historical and Scientific Practices Making Páramos in the Eastern Andes of Colombia.

Mónica Amador-Jiménez & Daniel Tarazona

Páramos are high-altitude ecosystems typical of the Neotropics. In the Andes, they are located above the Andean forest strip (Rangel-Ch, 2000) at altitudes between 3400 m.a.s.l. and up to 5000 m.a.s.l. In the northern part of the Andes, the inferior limits of these ecosystems are considered to be between 2800 and 3000 m.a.s.l. The páramos found in the eastern Andes of Colombia present high precipitation and low temperatures, with temperatures reaching below 0°C during night-time and with an average of approx. 15 °C during the day (Sarmiento et al., 2013). Páramos host several native and endemic species (Hofstede et al., 2003) and in Colombia, they occupy 2.5% of the Colombian territory (Sarmiento et al., 2013). According to ecological studies, they are essential for the provision and regulation of water (Rangel-Ch., 2000) and function as soil-based carbon reservoirs, hence their importance as strategic ecosystems for climate change mitigation (Armenteras et al., 2003).

For a non-Spanish speaking language reader, páramo is a new or strange word, difficult to spell and usually translated into English as moorlands. However, moorlands are described as “a type of habitat found in upland areas in temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands and montane grasslands and shrublands biomes, characterised by low-growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland, nowadays, generally means uncultivated hill land (such as Dartmoor in South West England), but also includes low-lying wetlands (such as Sedgemoor, also South West England)” (Wikipedia, 2021). This translation Páramo = Moorlands seems to be an attempt of translation based on what is already defined or known by the Anglo-Saxon biologist and ecologists, letting outside other relations and biophysical processes central to understand páramos.

In this blog, we will refer to the different historical enunciations and definitions emanating from the different worldmaking practices of the páramo. The interest in exploring forms of translating páramo is inspired by research carried out during 2019 and 2020 with scientists and peasants and based on historical documents on the eastern mountain range of the Andes in Colombia and the páramo of the Monquentiva Regional Natural Park. Our quest for translating páramo attempts to expand and perhaps overcome direct English translations that invisibilize not only the particularities of ecosystems but also the human practices that have shaped them materially and semiotically. We invite the reader to be moved by the plurality of nature-ecosystems that exist, which could not be understood by simplifying translations or applying foreign categories.

For Walter Benjamin, “translation is first and foremost a form. And to understand it in this way, it is necessary to return to the original since it contains its law, as well as the possibility of its translation” (1971:152). For the author, the most sensitive translation is the one that not only tries to understand and communicate the contemporary conceptualization of a thing (in this case, páramos), but a translation that sinks into the profound material and semiotic of processes that in the past have made what the thing has become in the present.

In May 2019, I was walking with Don Jose near the Martos bog in the Páramo de Monquentiva. The bog had once been a sacred Muisca lake, and Monquentiva is a Muisca word that refers to the environmental character of the place: “Lord of the Forest Bath”. The word evokes the abundance of humidity, rain and streams, and the mist and muddiness of the place, where forests submerge in the diverse forms of water.

Don Jose works for the pine timber company extracting pine planted in the páramo 30 years ago. While walking, Don Jose remembered his youth when he was a hunter and an explorer. Back then, he often slept in the páramo, surrounded by the mist, and he knew the secrets of the woolly plants with which he could make a fire quickly. “The páramo is a maze (…) from one moment to another, a wall of dense white clouds rises, and on more than one occasion, visitors have been lost. The páramo is an immense labyrinth.” While saying this, he points with his index finger at the frailejones, plants that were given this name as they look like friars walking through the mountain mist.

Don Jose grew up in the páramo together with twelve siblings. As they lived far away from other peasants, they were considered to be isolated paramunos, a word used in Colombia when referring to peasants living high up in the mountains. Paramunos were considered to be shy and disconnected people, enduring harsh weather conditions in remote places. Peasants from other and lower-lying parts of the region still call the people of Monquentiva paramunos, thereby attaching shy and “uncivilised” attributes to the inhabitants.

Dona Blanca came to the páramo forty years ago when she married Don Elias Romero. She came from Guandita, a village below the páramo. Dona Blanca recalled: “The first days I could not bear the cold, the isolation, the lack of roads and shops to buy products. Additionally, I had to assume the stigma of being a paramuna, of living with mountain people, people who do not even know how to speak, who are not civilized.

The members of the extended Romero family, one of the most numerous families in Monquentiva, describe the páramo where they live as a mosaic of hills, valleys, streams, and swamps where trees grow slowly, and water is always abundant. They obtain their livelihood from logging encenillo trees and collecting herbs, fruits, and plants to make handicrafts and domestic use. But they also burn parts of the bush to convert it into grazelands for their cattle. Thus, for the peasants, the páramo is a biophysical and social place that holds memories of isolation, stigma, and encounters with arid nature, coldness, and humidity. In recent years several scientific expeditions have visited the place as they consider the páramos to be strategic ecosystems for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The páramos have in recent years become known in media as places that should be conserved and have a rare and fragile ecology that must be protected.

Picture of the Páramo of Monquentiva or Regional Natural Park Vista Hermosa de Monquentiva. Picture by Monica Amador, 2019.

Environmental conservation reached this páramo in 2012 with the establishment of the Vista Hermosa Regional Natural Park. However, already the late 1990s, the CAR (the Regional Environmental Authority) began to buy land to make it possible to establish a park with an extension of as much as 14.141,7 hectares. However, the páramo is spatially larger than the park as it connects with the broader mountainous corridor of Chingaza, a corridor that consists of 64.500 hectares (International Conservation, 2016). The páramo, though, also has a temporal greater extension than of the conceptions of páramo in historical records. The páramo has meant different things over time.

For the Muisca people originally living in the Andean mountains, the place was called Zoque; the same word used to describe strong wind and rain (Pérez, 2019). The Zoque was intimately connected to their sacred lakes (Xiua) and forests, to the point that these were parts of the same sacred network, earthly heaven that was of both land and aquatic terrain. For the Spanish expeditions that first arrived in the high Andean mountains, the experience with the “wind and rain” of the Zoque was very different. The tundra-like vegetation, constant rain and low temperatures reminded them of the moorlands in Spain.

Etymologically speaking, the concept derives from the Latin word paramus, which could be translated to something equivalent to wasteland or badlands (Wordsense.Eu). The Spaniards used this idea of unusable or bad soil due to the harsh conditions they experienced. In complete disregard or knowledge of the sacredness the place had for its Muisca inhabitants. The transformation from Zoque to páramo consisted of the forced imposition of the extractive practices of the Spanish colonizers on the Muisca people. However, despite three centuries of colonial rule, the páramos have continued to preserve part of the mysticism surrounding them in the peasant culture.

Even though the páramos were exploited for important resources such as water, firewood, and salt, as it is still done today, the Spanish colonial regime had over the years installed a general impression of the páramos as being wastelands. However, during the independentist campaigns of Simon Bolivar, the páramos regained some of its relevance due to the independence campaign crossing the Páramo of Pisba to stage a surprise attack on the royalist army (O’Leary, 1883), so crossing the inhospitable páramo was seen as an epic accomplishment.

Notwithstanding the heroic place these ecosystems gained as landmarks in the war between “native” criollos and their foreign Spaniard oppressors, the páramos remained mostly abandoned. Only indigenous and campesino-mestizo people risked living there to escape from the stratified regimes and find lands to call their own. During the mid-twentieth century, the Romero family reached the top of this abandoned páramo, cultivated it, improved it and bought it. Nowadays, it has become a place with great tourist and conservation potential. It is no longer the sacred place of the Muiscas, nor the moorland of the Spanish, nor the baldios, lands that the poor peasants could take over. And despite ecologists tending to separate forest and páramo as two different ecological entities, for the peasants of Monquentiva – the descendants of the Muiscas – the páramos are a mosaic of elements that include biophysical processes, practices, and sentiments, in which forests, wetlands, humidity, mountains and fog are interwoven with animals and people.

In conversations with colleagues from the ecological and palaeoecological components of the BioResilience project, we have learned that the high Andean forest of Colombia has different ecological entities: Forest, Páramos and Wetlands. Their studies have separated the types of vegetation located in the altitudinal delimitation, Sub-Andean Forest, High Andean Forest, Sub Páramos and Páramos. However, ecologists are aware that the limits between these entities are blurred and mobile in time. Studying páramos as the forest-páramos transition is a key area and a condition for understanding the páramos’ functioning, structure, and behaviour.

As researchers of the social component of the Bioresilience research project, we explored archives, practices, and discourses; we found divergent conceptions of páramos, which generated in us what Hellen Verran calls an ‘epistemic disconcertment’ (2013). “What is epistemic disconcertment? ‘Epistemic’ refers to knowledge and how we account for what it is; our story or theory of knowledge. ‘Disconcertment’ conveys the sense of being put out in some way, and when qualified by the term epistemic, it implies that our taken-for-granted account of what knowledge is has somehow been upset or impinged upon so that we begin to doubt and become” (Verran, 2013: 144). The disconcertment was created by noticing the divergent knowledge practices that unfolded in and enacted with the páramo, and when doing so, they exceeded the translation of páramo as moorland. Simultaneously, new lines of analysis about páramo as epistemological and ontological entity unfolded.

In any case, as we verified in our fieldwork and interdisciplinary work, these conceptions of páramo coexist and are partially related, for example, there were situations when peasants participated either in the fieldwork of biologist or ecologist to collect plants, mud or animal samples, in the (sporadic) socializations organized by scientist to share results with peasants and in the communications of conservationists to protect the páramos. The peasants participated in these activities as long as scientific findings did not risk their permanence in the páramos. On the other hand, the scientist very much benefitted from the knowledge provided by the peasants (though the scientist rarely mentions peasants or informants explicitly in their publications). Scientist and peasants do – for historical, phenomenological, affective, and biophysical reasons – have different conceptions of páramo through different dwelling experiences (Ingold, 2000). However, at specific moments, they are partially articulating páramo. The differences and the partial connections thus are also important to mention when doing translations.

According to Benjamin, the true translation does not try to obscure the original (1971), or supplant it, or betray it, since the translation must be aware that it is a type of mediation. And the mediation is, during the flow of ideas, materialities and stories, transforming the thing that is moving from one side to the other. The politics of translation are expressed by the awareness of being a mediation, by the curiosity of exploring the pasts and the diversity of practices that constitute what is intended to be translated. It is also expressed by the commitment to avoid shadowing or invisibilising aspects of the thing when juxtaposed with the final translation. Inspired by de la Cadena, we noticed the different forms of enunciating páramo unfolded by stories from divergent world-making practices: the pasts stories, international conservationists, ecologists and local dwelling experiences. They all participate in making páramos over time and do co-exist in the present. We propose a cross-cultural translation by difference (de la Cadena, 2015), in which the different conceptions-practices of páramos could be expressed and listened to understand what páramos means. This would be contrasted with simplistic translations like “moorlands” or “high-altitude ecosystems strategic for mitigating climate change”.  We expect that translating by difference could create better conditions for protecting the páramos, conditions that do not obscure other epistemological and ontological forms of páramos – but that rather will contribute to providing tools, solutions, and relationships for expanding and deepening our understanding of páramos in the face of the environmental crisis of the planet.