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date: 20 April 2019

National Parks in Colombia

Summary and Keywords

The history of Colombian national parks started in 1948 with the establishment of a reserve for scientific research, which stood alone until the 1960s, when various state agencies created a few parks with quite different goals in mind, including preserving imposing landscapes and conserving water. This rather casual development changed after the growing international concern for the environment led to the creation of an environmental agency in 1968 and the enactment of an environmental code in 1974, which served as institutional platform for the planned expansion of a system of national parks based largely on ecological criteria.

Chronically underfunded and understaffed, the Office of National Parks has confronted its weakness by establishing parks which confer legal protection on areas whose natural attributes were deemed valuable. Such a strategy has led to confrontations with local populations living in and around parks, whose rights to resource use have been hampered. The office’s incapacity to properly enforce rules and its attempts to work with rural communities, especially indigenous groups, have to some extent mitigated such tensions. It has further sought to enlist the support of the middle classes and been forced to deal with illegal armed groups on the left and the right, as well as the national army, vying for territorial control. Although parks have not fulfilled their ideal, they have fostered the notion that the nation has a natural patrimony and have contributed decisively to its conservation.

Keywords: national parks, protected areas, conservation, biological diversity, state formation, Colombia, Amazonia, Caribbean, indigenous peoples

Colombia has fifty-nine national parks and similar areas created since 1948, which cover almost 14% of its terrestrial space and a fraction of its maritime area (see figure 1). These parks have contributed to protecting and calling attention to the country’s astonishing biological diversity, signaled by the 1,921 bird species that live within its territory, more than in any other country in the world. With regard to plants, amphibians, butterflies, and reptiles Colombia is also at the top of global counts, confirming its privileged natural richness.1 Conserving biological diversity was not the only or even the main goal of early conservation efforts, however. Striking landscapes, the need for a water supply for the cities, and concern for the fate of individual species awakened desires to protect nature.

National Parks in ColombiaClick to view larger

Figure 1. National Parks of Colombia, 2018. Map by Christian Medina Fandiño based on Registro Unico de Areas Protegidas Parques Naturales Nacionales de Colombia.

In the 1970s, ecological motivations gained salience as the development of environmental institutions provided a basis for creating a unified system of national parks that continued to expand in the following decades. As the world became aware of tropical deforestation in the 1980s, Colombia created enormous protected areas in Amazonia, as it strove to make parks known in order to gain support for them. The history of conservation efforts therefore brings to light changing ways of valuing nature and also reflects the state’s growth and the multiplication of its responsibilities. Furthermore, parks are inextricably entangled with inequality of land tenure and the violence that have characterized rural Colombia. The convoluted and fascinating history of Colombian national parks started unexpectedly in the 1940s.

A Haphazard Start

The creation of La Macarena Mountain Biological Reserve in 1948 did not start a trend but serves to illustrate how the first national protected areas emerged by disconnected routes. Research in sylvan yellow fever drew doctors and zoologists close to this isolated mountain, surrounded by tropical forests, in southeastern Colombia. They learned from geologists that it was probably not related to the adjacent Andes but was part of the Guiana Shield, a very ancient geological formation. This oddity, plus the fact that it was unknown and unpopulated, made this place perfect for unveiling natural mysteries and led Colombian doctors to conceive of an unusual type of protected area in the context of global conservation—one exclusively geared to scientific research.2 The Minister of Hygiene officially proposed to Congress the creation of a reserve that covered the mountain and its surroundings, and without much discussion Congress gave its approval. Given that the country was falling into a spiral of violence following the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Colombia’s leading politician, congressmen had more pressing issues to attend to (see figure 2).

National Parks in ColombiaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Picture of the camp at “caño Entrada,” on the eastern border of the Macarena Mountains, used by the expedition under William Philipson from the Natural History Museum in London. This expedition took place between November 1949 and February 1950 and was organized by the Instituto de Investigaciones Tropicales, which was in charge of the reserve.

Source: William Raymond Philipson, The Immaculate Forest: An Account of an Expedition to Unexplored Territories between the Andes and the Amazon (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952): 177.

Colombian politicians had never heard about La Macarena, which did not appear on the maps, and nature conservation was likely an unintelligible proposition to most of them. Setting apart landscapes considered worth maintaining in their alleged natural state, rather than fostering their transformation through productive uses, was quite a novelty in Colombia at the time. Congressmen probably did not know that Argentina already had an office charged with administering its seven recently created national parks, among them Nahuel Huapi, the crown jewel. Such an office was exceptional for Latin America but was in tune with Argentina’s relatively advanced state development. Colombian decision makers must have heard about the extensive social reforms by Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), but likely were unaware that they included the establishment of forty national parks that were being neglected after he left office. At the time, very few Latin American nations had joined the trend of creating protected areas that had started in North America, Africa, and Australia at the turn of the century and eventually became a global norm.3

In those days, it was unusual for Latin Americans to conceive of nature as in need of protection. Their continent was lightly populated: Colombia, for instance, which is roughly three times the size of Germany, a nation then inhabited by seventy million people, had fewer than eleven million inhabitants. Such small numbers contributed to the existence of huge areas covered by native ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, inhabited by indigenous groups and by settlers who came in search of rubber, but with its canopy largely intact. Furthermore, in the early postwar period, development was the call of the day. Latin America’s natural abundance—in forests, minerals, soils, water, native fauna, and more—was, above all, conceived of as a plethora of resources that should be marshalled to increase growth rates and close the gap that separated these countries from industrialized nations in Europe and North America. Nature-based tourism was only beginning to emerge as a development strategy, and as the fate of many Caribbean beaches attests, nature protection was seldom part of the picture.

For these reasons, and because Colombia fell into a bloody civil war known as La Violencia (The Violence, 1946–1958), the Biological Reserve did not spark the creation of other protected areas. The war not only diverted resources and altered priorities but also hit nature conservation directly: Liberal guerrillas burned the rather rustic field station that was being built to fulfill the reserve’s goal of advancing biological research.4 Once the war was over, Colombia designated its first “national park,” almost by chance. This time the proposal was not preceded by years of medical research in tropical disease that led to ascribing value to an unheard-of part of the country but by a well-connected explorer of sorts treading into recently settled territory. Ernesto Bein, a teacher at the premier private boys’ school in Bogotá, the Gimnasio Moderno, visited a rare cave in the southeastern Andes where guácharos (oilbirds) were hunted for their oil. Concerned about the fate of these animals and the surrounding forests, he took advantage of his privileged position to propose declaring a national park there.5

Colombia’s first two protected areas, the Macarena Biological Reserve and Guácharos National Park, exemplify the way in which many of Latin America’s initial parks came into existence. Still a novelty, park designation rested on fortuitous initiatives by influential players and stood on ill-defined institutional ground. In the late 1940s, in the absence of any legal indication of how to proceed, Colombia’s Minister of Hygiene had borrowed the concept of biological reserve from a French document and taken the proposal to Congress, where it was made into law.6 By 1960, a limited and rather vague regulation on the matter had emerged, shifting the decision-making process from the legislative to the executive branch of government and thus curtailing public discussion on the matter. In 1959 Congress passed Law 2, which converted 42 percent of the national territory into forest reserves and included an article stating that the Ministry of Agriculture could declare Natural National Parks in areas previously approved by the Academy of Sciences. On this basis and with the president’s consent, the Minister of Agriculture issued the decree that created Guácharos National Park.7

Shortly afterward and in this same random and unilateral fashion, a handful of parks sprouted in Colombia’s Caribbean and southwestern regions. In 1961 the ornithologist and hunter Federico Carlos Lehmann lobbied successfully with his cousin, the Secretary of Agriculture of the Department of Cauca, to decree the formation of Puracé National Park. Because provincial authorities did not have the competency to create national parks, the decree stated that this was a temporary measure awaiting approval from the central government. The following year, Valle del Cauca, a neighboring department, created, again temporarily and responding to Lehmann’s urging, another national park, Farallones de Cali. This park built on a history of protecting water for the city of Cali that stretched back at least three decades, while Puracé aimed at protecting threatened mammals and promoting tourism. The decree mentioned woolly tapirs, Andean bears, and two species of deer and called for the building of several roads that would enable visitors to reach attractive sites.8

These two parks gained firm footing—and ceased being the exception to the exertion of centralized power over nature conceived as national—when, in 1968, the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (Instituto Colombiano de la Reforma Agraria, INCORA) upgraded them to official national parks. This institute was created in 1961, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, when the US government promoted agrarian reforms all over Latin America to hinder the advance of communism. Because the institute was in charge of public lands, it was vested with authority to “create reserves for the conservation of natural resources.”9 Instead of clarifying the legal path for conserving nature, this measure made matters more confusing, for another institution was now entitled to create undefined “reserves.” In 1964 INCORA used this provision to designate, with the president’s approval, three national parks in the Caribbean region for the protection of a unique marine environment, beautiful bays, and the imposing Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which rises to 18,700 feet in proximity to the sea.10

These Caribbean parks left a long-lasting legacy: the Unidad Administrativa Especial del Sistema de Parques Nacionales Naturales (Special Administrative Unit of the Natural National Park System), which oversees national parks today, grew from the tiny office established in the mid-1960s to administer those three parks. With about six hundred employees, plus a larger number of contractors, this institution is inadequate for park management needs but large and complex when compared to its ancestor.11

Instituting a National Park System

The small parks office was housed within Colombia’s second regional corporation—the Corporación Autónoma Regional de los Valles del Magdalena y del Sinú—created in 1960, and modelled after the US Tennessee Valley Authority, to comprehensively manage natural resources within two major river basins. It was therefore part of the incipient development of environmental institutions within the Colombian state. A milestone in this development came in 1968, as part of a broad state administrative reform, when this corporation merged with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Division of Natural Resources to form a centralized institution in charge of natural resources, the Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales Renovables, INDERENA. In this manner, the parks office acquired national jurisdiction and firmer institutional capacity, leading it to conceive of a policy that defined and expanded a system of national parks.

The nascent parks office was also instrumental in making INDERENA into an environmental conservation and protection agency, rather than one geared to the development of natural resources. Park officials, trained mostly as foresters, had developed a surprisingly radical conservationist zeal, being wary even of scientific research owing to biologists’ penchant for collecting specimens. They fiercely opposed INDERENA’s promotion of natural resource use when it brought dire environmental consequences, as was the case with the export of wild animal hides. Their success redefined INDERENA as an institution in charge of caring for the environment, rather than fostering the use of nature for economic ends. In this manner, the incipient and haphazard development of national parks formed the seedbed of an institution through which the central state accepted the novel responsibility of guaranteeing sound environmental management, including but not limited to the protection of nature.12

One of INDERENA’s early achievements was the drafting in 1974 of a unified Code of Natural Resources, which officially created a “System of National Parks.” Although the “system” could include areas on the basis of their cultural and historical value, the code is mostly couched in the language of biology, emphasizing species, ecology, and biogeography. Shortly afterwards, in 1977, a new decree further developed the section of the code that referred to national parks, including a long list of prohibitions and sanctions aimed at deterring the use and alteration of these areas.13 The law rests on the idea that parks should protect spaces where the environment is close to what its creators deem to be a natural state; for this reason, they have mostly been established in lightly settled areas. Yet peasants living there became illegal occupants, as did those who came afterward, but not so indigenous peoples, who have the right to live within parks. Besides establishing a solid legal ground, INDERENA also moved to erect new protected areas. By the time the code was approved, it had enacted resolutions (sanctioned by the Minister of Agriculture) to create four additional ones.

These four areas anticipated the more systematic planning of national parks that came afterward. Although they each had a peculiar backstory, these parks were being incorporated into a national conservation plan conceived by experts within a specialized institution of government. Tuparro, the first of the four, was one of a kind: a “faunistic reserve” created in the eastern plains, along the border with Venezuela, suggesting an African-style savanna park (except for the zebras and giraffes, for which the less impressive and less numerous capybara were no match). Los Nevados protected three emblematic snow-covered peaks and adjacent areas, following what might be called a regional tradition that dates back to the 1930s when Argentina established Nahuel Huapi National Park and Mexico protected the Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes. Orquídeas was proposed by Mariano Ospina Hernández, the son of a former president who happened to be interested in orchids, while Katíos was established with the backing of the United States to halt the passage of foot-and-mouth disease, which affects livestock, from Colombia to Panama through the Darien Gap.14

From the early 1970s on, with very few resources and based mostly on ecological criteria, a small team within INDERENA identified areas worthy of protection across the country and pushed for their designation as national parks. This group coalesced around Jorge “El Mono” (the blond) Hernández, a legendary self-taught biologist. Besides his field experience, Hernández owed his extensive knowledge to the Institute of Natural Sciences of Colombia’s National University, which he started visiting while still in high school. Founded in 1936, the institute housed the best biological collection in the country and was the intellectual home for leading botanists and zoologists who used and enriched the collection. Therefore, an integral part of the state apparatus that centralized knowledge and discussions of nature contributed decisively to the process of planning national parks (which officially nationalized that nature).

Even if Hernández considered his drafting of an ideal map of conservation units as a purely scientific endeavor, the choosing of sites for national parks was deeply intertwined with the country’s changing social makeup. In the early 1970s the national population was growing rapidly. It had almost doubled since mid-century and had replaced more than 25 percent of the country’s native ecosystems with domesticated plants: Highland forests, but also dry lowland forests and native grasslands, had given way to cropland and pastures for cattle grazing.15 Yet national parks aimed to protect not the most endangered ecosystems but, rather, those deemed most useful in their natural state. Páramos—ecosystems located in the Andes above the tree line and characterized by humid soils, abundant lakes, frequent fog, and heavy rainfall—are the source of most of Colombia’s rivers and became the main focus of conservation efforts.

In the 1970s, securing water for the growing urban population, as well as for irrigation and the production of hydroelectricity, served as the main criterion behind the decisive leap in national park designation. Julio Carrizosa, the incoming director of INDERENA, requested a budget in 1974 to run the institution using the map drafted by Hernández that identified areas for the expansion of the national park system. Though he favored to the proposal, the head of the National Planning Department, the economist Miguel Urrutia, urged Carrizosa to prioritize some areas and suggested water as a criterion for doing so. As a result, páramos became overrepresented in the narrowed-down proposal for which Carrizosa successfully lobbied. He requested the creation of eighteen new parks, eleven of them encompassing páramos, plus the enlargement of two existing ones, and funds for management. President Alfonso López Michelsen agreed to the creation of the eleven high-Andean parks, whereas some changes were made to the other proposed areas.16 With the number of units more than doubling, the system of national parks became an indisputable legal reality that resulted from policy based on a meticulous planning process, rather than erratic proposals carried through by various institutions of government (see figure 3).

National Parks in ColombiaClick to view larger

Figure 3. “National Parks, New Areas.” Source: Departamento Nacional de Planeación, “Programa de Parques Nacionales Naturales,” Bogotá, January 14, 1977. Documento DNP 1.408.

Most national parks were little more than areas drawn on a state-sanctioned map, however, signaling a weakness that persists to this day: the sizeable gap between ideal well-managed parks and their rather unsteady existence. This limitation, as well as parks’ growing importance in terms of area, number, and public awareness, mirrored developments elsewhere in Latin America. At this time, the setting aside of areas for the protection of nature, not only in the region but in the world, ultimately stemmed from the concern about the environmental consequences of growth that prompted the United Nations to organize the Conference of the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. The Colombian Code of Natural Resources, so instrumental to park development, was the country’s response to this conference.17 No wonder, then, that developments in Colombia were a particular manifestation of a global trend.

Between World and National Heritage

The momentum gained in the 1970s continued throughout the 1980s and beyond, undergirded by the notion that parks were part of the natural heritage of the nation and of humanity. Calls to save the world’s biological heritage by halting tropical rainforest destruction led in Colombia to the expansion of the national park system into Amazonia, a region that attracted much world attention. Meanwhile, the notion that Colombian citizens needed to know about the national patrimony represented by parks in order to help protect them led to changes in national park policy. Attempts to increase awareness of the parks’ existence and importance, as well as to reverse the dim fate of the forests, implied identifying a role for certain people in conservation. The 1980s signaled indigenous rainforest groups as environmental stewards and middle classes as potential and much-needed allies.

By 1990 the official map of the Colombian Amazon had changed dramatically with the creation of some of the largest protected areas in the country and the sanctioning of immense indigenous territories. With this move Colombia fulfilled its responsibilities as a signatory of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (1978) and sought to achieve, by different means, the old goal of integrating a resource-rich frontier into the nation: Rather than developing the region through agriculture and natural resource extraction, the idea was to strive for environmental sustainability and social justice. This novel path was spurred by global and regional developments. The growing awareness of and anxiety about the loss of habitat led scientists, most from the United States, to create a new field, conservation biology, which focused on the extremely biologically rich areas of the world that were rapidly being transformed. With a new guiding principle—biodiversity conservation—this new field was instrumental in reassessing the value of tropical rainforests, which more often than not had been deemed sickly environments and obstacles to progress. The novel view of rainforests was strengthened by indigenous peoples’ movements that claimed these areas as the ancestral territories of populations of pre-Columbian origin who lived in harmony with nature.

Spurred by the urgency of saving the forests and their ultimate owners and custodians, the head of INDERENA, Carlos Castaño Uribe, worked in tandem with the head of the Indigenous Affairs Office, Martín von Hildebrand, and in close communication with the president of the nation, Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986–1990).18 Their efforts, as well as those of others in the National Parks headquarters, led to the creation in the 1980s of six parks in Amazonia. These were much larger than most parks: almost 750,000 hectares each on average, more than five times the average size of all the parks created previously. Combined, they more than doubled the total area of the national park system. Among the new Amazonian parks was Chiribiquete, the largest one in the system, with 1,280,000 hectares. The great size of these parks derived in part from the sheer extent of rainforests. This also explains why, when measured in 1965, the Macarena Mountain Biological Reserve also contained more than one million hectares.19 One of the guiding principles of conservation biology, which maintained that very large areas were necessary for the preservation of complex natural processes and webs, also contributed to their substantial size.

Simultaneously, the central state recognized the territorial rights of indigenous peoples by creating resguardos. Resguardos are indigenous territories officially recognized as such by a communal land title; a few of them survived from colonial times to the late 20th century, when they were expanded and brought into Amazonia and other regions for the first time. Resguardos, inspired by a conservationist ethos, tacitly placed on indigenous shoulders the immense responsibility of caring for part of the world’s biological patrimony. President Barco explained that he had approved, in 1988, the creation of Colombia’s largest resguardo, the so-called predio Putumayo of six million hectares, because in indigenous “hands the air has remained pure, the water clean, and the world’s climate stable.”20 Moreover, in the 1980s, three quarters of the officially sanctioned indigenous territories (in terms of area) that exist in the Colombian Amazon were established. On paper, at least, the policy for Amazonia was forceful: almost twenty million hectares put under protection, about three-quarters of them in indigenous hands. The drive to reserve spaces for nature conservation did not stop there, as exemplified by the enlargement of Chiribiquete National Park in 2013 to almost three million hectares and in 2018 to more than four million.

The move toward rainforest conservation coincided with a shift in the kind of professionals who headed the national park system. Foresters had played the leading role in bringing national parks to life, but anthropologists, who took over in the 1980s, introduced new priorities in park management without radically altering the broader policy guidelines. Experts on human affairs as they were, the new bosses saw the urgent need to gain support for national parks and, with the limited means at their disposal, set about making parks known and loved by people like themselves. Underlying their actions was the belief that the national heritage could not be a secret well kept by a small group of experts: it needed wider societal endorsement.

The man chosen in the 1960s to build the first Caribbean parks, Simón Franky, was a recent forestry graduate. Franky invited some of his schoolmates to join him and in this manner put together a small team. Forestry was still a young profession in Colombia, the first group of foresters having graduated from Universidad Distrital in Bogotá, just as Franky did, but ten years earlier (in 1955). As a forester, Franky was the product of the expansion of the state in the field of higher education. His professional trajectory underscores how science and state power can co-constitute themselves in unanticipated ways: the state expanded to train experts in an ever-increasing number of fields and then hired them to sustain its own growth in a variety of new areas.

Foresters were likely chosen to manage national parks because they were educated in the natural sciences and had field experience, which meant that they could carry out the job of caring for nature in remote areas. Plus, unlike the training of biologists, foresters’ training was essentially practical rather than purely academic. But foresters knew virtually nothing about national parks. So they sought the aid of experts working for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations such as Kenton Miller (later head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and Gary Wetterberg, who visited Colombia and gave general guidelines for park management. In addition, some of the young bureaucrats went to the United States to see American parks at first hand or take short courses. Heliodoro Sánchez, one of the men invited by Franky to join his team, refers to one such experience, a tour of various parks, as his forty-day PhD.21 Shortly afterward, in 1969, Sánchez was sent to build Puracé National Park. With a decree in his hand and a few helpers he had to turn an area partly inhabited by the Coconuco indigenous people into something that could be identified as a national park. Such responsibility entailed defining boundaries, constructing basic infrastructure, and enforcing regulations. He and Franky knew all too well what it was like to be on the ground striving to make a park of a part of the national territory. One after the other they headed the National Park Office from 1968 until 1985.

After 1985, the heads of the Office of National Parks ceased to have that kind of experience. The anthropologist Alvaro Soto and his former student Carlos Castaño Uribe directed park affairs for thirteen years until 1998. Unlike their predecessors, they were outsiders who had just joined the institution; their background was in the social sciences, and they had studied in private universities and abroad. But like the foresters, they had field experience and worked with deep-felt conviction. The Office of National Parks was a very minor player within the state apparatus, shielded from cronyism by its apparent insignificance and the committed bosses of the two institutions where it belonged, first INDERENA and after 1993 the Ministry of the Environment. Soto and Castaño relied less than their predecessors had on the renowned Mono Hernández but agreed with him and with the law that parks ought to be uninhabited. They all suffered from realizing their own impotence to relocate park residents.22

Knowing that the institution was too weak to fulfill its mandate and uncomfortable with the paradox of having a system of national parks whose existence very few were aware of, the anthropologists devised a plan for protecting parks through citizen support. They worked on two main strategies oriented toward the professional middle classes. First, they created tourist facilities in a handful of parks with basic comforts to entice people to visit them. Tayrona’s ecohabs were the most emblematic: They follow the architectural style of the indigenous peoples of the neighboring Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and blend nicely with the forested hills that border the ocean (see figure 4). These facilities were part of a larger plan aimed at educating visitors by advancing an adequate way of enjoying nature, different from the common habit of getting drunk on the beach. The ultimate expectation was that, after staying in one of these parks, citizens would form a growing public opinion ready to defend the nation’s natural patrimony. The same was true about the voluntary ranger program for university students, which soon became a success. Not only would these professionals-in-the-making contribute temporarily with their enthusiasm and education to park management, but later on, when they occupied posts with decision-making power, they would have national parks in their hearts and minds.23

National Parks in ColombiaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Ecohabs, Tayrona National Park. These are most likely the original drawings by architect Fernando Samper Salazar, who designed these cabins.

Source: “Ecohabs,” Espacio Común: Revista de Parques Nacionales de Colombia 4, no. 4 (1986): 11.

The heightened status of the environmental sector within the state, prompted by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, further contributed to giving visibility to national parks. In 1995, more than a year after the enactment of the National Environmental System, the National Park Office was transferred to the new Ministry of the Environment and acquired its current convoluted name. At the time, Colombia had forty-three parks and similar areas; only twelve functioned relatively smoothly, while another twelve were completely neglected.24 The institutional change meant a new structure that included seven regional offices and a somewhat larger budget that allowed for the appointment for the first time of directors in several parks. One of these is Sumapaz, which encompasses a major part of the largest páramo in the world and is located just south of Bogotá. The newly appointed officials and rangers had the difficult task of letting local people know that those places had been parks for years or decades and that their rights to use natural resources were constrained by the law.

Peasants and Guns

Although conservationists chose relatively remote and well-conserved environments, they did so without previous field or legal studies, so it is not surprising that most such areas had residents—usually few and without land titles—living within the not-always-clear park boundaries. Since 1977 the law has said that such a state of affairs is not considered incompatible with conservation if those residents are indigenous. Such provisions have allowed some indigenous groups to seek additional protection through park designation, as in the case of Alto Fragua Indiwasi and Yaigojé Apaporis National Parks, both in Amazonia.25 Nonetheless, coexistence has created tensions concerning territorial management in the more than twenty parks that are indigenous territories (officially recognized or not).26 However, indigenous peoples have had much more leverage vis-à-vis the conservation establishment than have peasant groups.

Although park officials considered that, in order to turn a given space into a proper park, it was necessary to purchase existing properties, as well as the crops and other mejoras (improvements) belonging to those who have no legal title, the occasions when this happened were exceptions. The resources provided by the US Department of Agriculture (as part of the agreement to prevent the passage of foot-and-mouth disease through the Darien Gap) allowed for the unusual restoration in the early 1980s of the public domain in Katíos National Park.27 In most designated parks, however, people just continued with their lives, while others joined them, often unaware, at least for extended periods of time, of the areas’ status as parks. In the early 1990s, the national park director estimated that almost five thousand families lived within the three quarters of national parks for which he had information.28 Conservationists were well aware of the risk of human habitation and its consequences for all involved when proposing new areas, but given their limited means to conduct thorough studies and find the resources and political support to relocate prior inhabitants, they chose to at least secure legal protection through designation.

Under these conditions, park management has inevitably generated friction with local populations. Park rangers established boundaries and informed those living in the area that the hunting and tree felling that they had been conducting were contrary to the law, as were the farming and other activities with which they made a living. Not surprisingly, residents did not consider conservation an opportune development but an unwelcome intrusion on local ways. Planting, setting fires, and hunting were among the activities that park authorities most frequently targeted for control. Potential disputes were limited by the weakness, and in some cases the lack, of park management, and the daily effect of parks on people’s lives could be quite mild. Conflict did surface in many places, however, and nowhere as pronounced as in the Macarena Biological Reserve (a national park since 1989), which is located in an area that came to be occupied, starting in the 1960s, by thousands of previously landless peasants. At the end of that decade their presence prompted the establishment of a few cabins for control and the hiring of rangers, who conducted a census which found 3,188 people living inside the reserve. The ranger’s ineffectiveness is clear from the fact that by 1988 that number increased to 24,878.29 But peasants were not triumphant: Living within a protected area made them ineligible for state loans and other benefits, so aided by local authorities, they fought bitterly against the conservation establishment.

The social problems generated worldwide by protected areas led to widespread criticisms and discussions of alternative ways of conceiving conservation. In Colombia it led, among other things, to a change in policy in 1998 associated with the appointment as head of the National Parks Office of Juan Carlos Riascos, an agronomist who worked with an environmental NGO (Herencia Verde) that was critical of park policy. Riascos coordinated the three-year discussions held to define the new “Parks with People” policy, which sought to protect parks by overcoming the tensions that plagued their relations with resident and neighboring communities, and by enlisting these people’s support. The implementation of this new approach faced various obstacles such as doubts among some park rangers who resented having to work constantly with people outside the parks, and more important, the law, which did not change and which bureaucrats could not violate. Although the new policy did not officially end, it did weaken after Riascos left office in 2003.30

The failure of President Andrés Pastrana’s peace process (1998–2002) also hurt the “Parks with People” policy, which sought to contribute to the peace-building efforts. Before and after those peace talks, the armed conflict in Colombia strongly impacted national parks. Both leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, as well as criminal bands with no overarching political project, have established long-term control of areas within parks or have used them as corridors. Many parks also have had coca plantings, which generate deforestation, attract settlers, and increase the competition among armed groups for territorial control.31 Park directors and rangers have had to learn to deal with illegal armies that put limits on their already precarious authority. These armies have had contradictory impacts: They have contributed to enforcing environmental regulations—sometimes their own, especially in the case of the guerrillas—but have also fostered destruction, and they have often forced rangers to abandon parks. In the worst instances, park rangers have paid with their lives for the intrusion of war, as happened with Héctor Vargas and Martha Hernández, two of Tayrona’s directors, killed by paramilitary forces or assassins in connivance with them in 1994 and 2004, respectively (see figure 5).

National Parks in ColombiaClick to view larger

Figure 5. Poster made by the Office of National Parks to honor rangers who have been assassinated (not all as part of the armed conflict).

Credit: Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia.

The war played a major part in the move of the national park bureaucracy away from the parks themselves and toward urban offices, especially the Bogotá headquarters, but also in the regions. It most likely also had a bearing on the increase in temporary hires vis-à-vis public servants, which has ultimately lessened the zeal that has characterized the work of many rangers. The Office of National Parks has grown in complexity, while the parks’ ecological diversity is mirrored by the diverse tensions that characterize management and the relations of different social groups with the parks. Throughout the years parks have gained legitimacy among different constituencies, to the point where peasants from Macarena have developed public identities as park defenders. But the weakness of the office has undermined many of these achievements by impinging on people’s rights, limiting the number of potential visitors to these areas, and failing to defend nonhuman organisms. Yet parks highlight and have given a necessary measure of protection to Colombia’s biological diversity.

Discussion of the Literature

The academic literature about Colombian national parks is scant and focuses on recent times. The works that have circulated more widely and have contributed the most to shaping people’s understanding of parks are several coffee-table books that have been published since the 1980s either by or in close collaboration with the National Parks Office. These books unfailingly include countless stunning photographs and provide mostly biological information about each park. More for looking than reading, despite collecting useful data, they have served the purpose of letting a relatively affluent public know about the parks’ existence.32

Academic research has provided a much-needed assessment of national parks as social creations marked by a variety of conflicts rather than just paradises brought about by nature alone. To be fair, the attempt to foster national park planning with broad social participation starting in 1998 produced a few works that acknowledge the controversial nature of conservation via national parks.33 Articles and theses, rather than books, based largely on ethnographic methods provide the best available analyses and have invariably focused on the tensions between the state and the various groups that inhabit or live close to the parks. The anthropologist Daniel Ruiz explained how peasants from La Macarena considered that the park hindered their aspirations and explored the role of the FARC guerrillas in mediating local conservation and development.34 The geographer Diana Ojeda also analyzed conservation’s exclusionary politics. Using literature about land grabbing and the relationship between capitalism and conservation, she researched for her doctoral dissertation the negative effects of ecotourism in Tayrona National Park.35 Finishing this list of Colombian authors is the biologist Julia Premauer, who carried out her dissertation study on how the Wayúu people and the state bureaucracy have negotiated joint management of Macuira National Park. She found that, as one moves from the central park office in Bogotá all the way to indigenous authorities in La Guajira, passing through the local park administration, the understanding of joint management expands, producing tensions that derive from alternate readings of rights and policy.36

The history of Colombian national parks is a part of the wider effort to understand the trajectories of Latin America’s parks, which have been growing slowly since the 1990s. Three monographs published in that decade mark the firm start of research on this topic. Lane Simonian provided a sweeping overview of the Mexican experience, while Sterling Evans explored with rich and fascinating detail its more recent Costa Rican counterpart. Completing the trio was José Augusto Drummond’s monograph on the parks of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.37 These books largely interpreted park creation as a response to environmental threats without acknowledging parks’ social costs, a topic that at the time was gaining salience in conservation practice, the broader literature on conservation, and historical studies focused on other parts of the world.38

Drummond has continued working with colleagues at the University of Brasilia, producing a broad picture of Brazilian national park development. Among many contributions is the reconstruction of the fundamental role played by a major NGO, the Fundação Brasilera para a Conservação da Natureza, in park management from the 1960s through the 1980s.39 Pablo Camus Gayán and Angel Lazo Alvarez have explored another promising angle of national park history, the role of park rangers, for the case of Chile.40 By delving into the conservation efforts carried out in Mexico in the 1930s as a way of fulfilling the goals of the 1910 social revolution, Emily Wakild has convincingly argued that conservation worldwide cannot be understood as a copy of the American example.41 Frederico Freitas has also aimed at showing broader patterns by narrowing the focus: His work on Iguaçu National Park shows how the Brazilian government sought to nationalize a frontier area and promote development through tourism, and for those purposes evicted local inhabitants.42

The growing literature has allowed Emily Wakild to attempt the first general overview.43 Nonetheless, there is a dearth of solid monographs about Colombian and Latin American national parks. The possibilities for expanding our knowledge of the topic are endless; not only are there no scholarly works about many countries, but researchers can chose from a wide variety of analytical approaches, including conservation models and rationale, the role of science, state building, international networks, and even the significance of nature itself. The impact of park policy on local people, as well as people’s responses to it, is another possible avenue of inquiry.

Primary Sources

The richest and most important repository of documents for researching the history of national parks in Colombia is the archive of the National Parks Office (Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia) in Bogotá. Though it is not open for public consultation, a special permit can be obtained through the office called the Grupo de Procesos Corporativos, which is in charge of the archive. Documents are well organized in boxes, all of which are labeled with a number and a subject; each contains a set of files, also labeled according to its contents. Many of the files are organized by park. The archive does not seem to be complete, however. In addition, some parks and regional offices (in Santa Marta, Villavicencio, and other Colombian cities) also have archives or at least documents, some better organized than others. Chingaza National Park, for example, has a very well-ordered archive, while Tayrona National Park has nothing. The Documentation Center of the National Parks Office in Bogotá also has useful documents, such as studies carried out in the parks.

The archives of two early conservationists are well taken care of and available to the public. The papers of Enrique Pérez Arbeláez are housed at the Archivo General de la Nación in Bogotá, and those of Federico Carlos Lehmann at the Instituto para la Investigación y la Preservación del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural del Valle del Cauca in the city of Cali.

Laws and other official regulations are extremely useful, and some are found online. The National Parks Office has scanned and uploaded to its webpage all legislation concerning each park.

There are various published primary sources available in several libraries in the country and abroad, and sometimes even online, such as the Revista de los Parques Nacionales, published in the late 1980s. Articles that appeared in the national and regional press as well as in scientific journals are also relevant to the history of Colombian national parks.

Many key players are alive and are happy to share their knowledge, including innumerable people who have worked for the National Parks Office at all levels and all over the country. Some of them might also have documents useful for the reconstruction of this history. The people living inside or near national parks are another fundamental source of information. This kind of history is done best when visiting the parks themselves; field observation constitutes an irreplaceable primary source for understanding the materiality of the areas involved.

Further Reading

Amend, Stephan, and Thora Amend. National Parks without People? The South American Experience. Gland, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1995.Find this resource:

Barker, Mary L. “National Parks, Conservation, and Agrarian Reform in Peru.” Geographical Review 70 (1980): 1–18.Find this resource:

Camus Gayán, Pablo, and Angel Lazo Alvarez. Guardaparques: Su historia y vivencias en la contribución a la conservación del sistema nacional de áreas silvestres protegidas del Estado, 1914–2014. Santiago de Chile: CONAF, 2014.Find this resource:

Correa, Hernán Darío. “La política de parques con la gente, el conflicto armado interno y el gobierno de la ‘seguridad democrática.’” In Guerra, sociedad y medio ambiente, Edited by Martha Cárdenas and Manuel Rodríguez, 254–296. Bogotá: Foro Nacional Ambiental, 2004.Find this resource:

Cushman, Gregory T. “‘The Most Valuable Birds in the World’: International Conservation Science and the Revival of Peru’s Guano Industry.” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (2005): 477–509.Find this resource:

Drummond, José Augusto. National Parks without People: Os Parques Nacionais do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. Niteroi, Brazil: Editora de Universidade Federal Fluminense, 1997.Find this resource:

Drummond, José Augusto, and José Luiz Andrade Franco. Proteção à natureza e identidade nacional no Brasil, anos 1920–1940. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, Fiocruz, 2009.Find this resource:

Drummond, José Augusto, and José Luiz Andrade Franco. “Nature Protection: The FBCN and Conservation Initiatives in Brazil, 1958–1992.” Halac 2, no. 2 (2013): 338–367.Find this resource:

Evans, Sterling. The Green Republic: A Conservation History of Costa Rica. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Freitas, Frederico. “Ordering the Borderland: Settlement and Removal in the Iguaçu National Park, Brazil, 1940s–1970s.” In The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation, Edited by Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, Mathew Kelly, Claudia Leal, and Emily Wakild, 158–175. New York: Routledge, 2017.Find this resource:

Garfield, Seth. “A Nationalist Environment: Indians, Nature, and the Construction of the Xingu National Park in Brazil.” Luso-Brazilian Review 41, no. 1 (2004): 139–167.Find this resource:

Leal, Claudia. “Conservation Memories: Vicissitudes of a Biodiversity Conservation Project in the Rainforests of Colombia, 1992–1998.” Environmental History 20, no. 3 (2015): 368–395.Find this resource:

Leal, Claudia. “Behind the Scenes and Out in the Open: Making Colombian National Parks in the 1960s and 70s.” In The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation, Edited by Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, Mathew Kelly, Claudia Leal, and Emily Wakild, 158–175. New York: Routledge, 2017.Find this resource:

Ojeda, Diana. “Green Pretexts: Ecotourism, Neoliberal Conservation and Land Grabbing in Tayrona National Park, Colombia.” Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 2 (2012): 357–375.Find this resource:

Premauer, Julia, and Fikret Berkes. “A Pluralistic Approach to Protected Area Governance: Indigenous Peoples and Makuira National Park, Colombia.” Ethnobiology and Conservation 4, no. 4 (2015): 1–16.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, Manuel. “El Código de los Recursos Naturales Renovables y del Medio Ambiente: El conservacionismo utilitarista y el ambientalismo.” In Evaluación y perspectivas del Código Nacional de Recursos Naturales de Colombia en sus 30 años de vigencia, 155–177. Bogotá: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2004.Find this resource:

Ruiz, Daniel. “Campesinos entre la selva, invasores de reservas.” Tabula Rasa no. 1 (2003): 183–210.Find this resource:

Scarzanella, Eugenia. “Las bellezas naturales y la nación: Los parques nacionales en la Argentina en la primera mitad del siglo XX.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies no. 73 (2002): 5–21.Find this resource:

Simonian, Lane. Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Wakild, Emily. Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Wakild, Emily. “A Panorama of Parks: Deep Nature, Depopulation, and the Cadence of Conserving Nature.” In A Living Past: Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America, Edited by John Soluri, Claudia Leal, and José Augusto Pádua, 246–265. New York: Berghahn Books, 2018.Find this resource:


(2.) Patrick Kupper, Creating Wilderness. A Transnational History of the Swiss National Park (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2014).

(3.) Eugenia Scarzanella, “Las bellezas naturales y la Nación: Los Parques Nacionales en la Argentina en la primera mitad del siglo XX,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 73 (2002): 5–21; Emily Wakild, Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011); and Bernhard Gissibl, Sabine Höhler, and Patrick Kupper, eds., Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012).

(4.) Jesús María Idrobo, “Un breve informe sobre las expediciones que han entrado a la Reserva Nacional de La Macarena,” Revista Universidad Nacional 23 (1958): 17–28.

(5.) Interviews with Rosendo Paramero, Cueva de los Guácharos National Park, January 2, 2015, and with Julio Carrizosa, Bogotá, April 13, 2014.

(6.) Jorge Bejarano, “La cordillera de ‘La Macarena’ y la estación biológica José Jerónimo Triana,” Revista de la Facultad de Medicina 20, no. 7 (1952): 413–420.

(7.) Decree 2631 of 1961, Ministry of Agriculture.

(8.) Decree 199 of 1961, Gobernación del Cauca, and Decree 0162 of 1962, Gobernación del Valle del Cauca, can be consulted at; Camilo Quintero, Birds of Empire, Birds of Nation: A History of Science, Economy, and Conservation in United StatesColombia Relations (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2012); and Lucía Salazar Cardona, ed., Parque Nacional Natural Farallones de Cali: Un tesoro hídrico de Colombia (Bogotá: Gá Editores, 2016).

(9.) Article 39, Law 135 of 1961.

(10.) Resolución Ejecutiva 255, 1964, by President Guillermo León Valencia.

(11.) Planta, Unidad Administrativa Especial del Sistema de Parques Nacionales Naturales, January 2017.

(13.) Decree 2811 of December 18th, 1974 and Decree 622 of March 16th, 1977.

(14.) Interview with Julio Carrizosa.

(15.) Andrés Etter, Clive McAlpine, and Hugh Possingham, “Historical Patterns and Drivers of Landscape Change in Colombia Since 1500: A Regionalized Spatial Approach,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98, no. 1 (2008), 2–23; and Frank Safford and Marco Palacios, Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(16.) Documento DNP [Departamento Nacional de Planeación] 1.408, January 14, 1977.

(17.) Emily Wakild, “A Panorama of Parks: Deep Nature, Depopulation, and the Cadence of Conserving Nature,” in A Living Past: Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America, ed. John Soluri, Claudia Leal, and José Augusto Pádua (New York: Berghahn Books, 2018): 246–265; and Dan Brockington, Rosaleen Duffy, and Jim Igoe, eds., Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism, and the Future of Protected Areas (London: Routledge, 2008).

(18.) Interview with Carlos Castaño Uribe, Bogotá, June 12, 2015.

(19.) These calculations are based on information taken from the Colombian National Parks website: La Macarena was subsequently turned into a national park and reduced to 629.000 hectares due to deforestation and peasant pressure.

(20.) Martín von Hildebrand and Vincent Brackelaire, Guardianes de la selva: Gobernabilidad y autonomía en la Amazonia colombiana (Bogotá: Fundación Gaia, 2012): 62.

(21.) Interview with Heliodoro Sánchez, Bogotá, May 1, 2013.

(22.) Carlos Castaño Uribe, “Ocupación humana en Parques Nacionales,” in Stephan Amend and Thora Amend, ¿Espacios sin habitantes? Parques nacionales en América del Sur (Caracas: UICN, Editorial Nueva Sociedad, 1992). (Also available in English as National Parks without People? The South American Experience [Gland, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1995]).

(23.) Interview with Alvaro Soto, Bogotá, May 30, 2015; interview with Carlos Castaño Uribe.

(24.) Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, Unidad Administrativa Especial del Sistema de Parques Nacionales, “Informe de Gestión 1995, Resumen Ejecutivo,” Bogotá, March 1996.

(25.) Eduardo Uribe, “The Policy for the Social Participation in Conservation: Case Study,” Documento CEDE 2005-5, Facultad de Economía, Universidad de los Andes; Sebastián Rubiano, “El oro en la selva: Minería y ordenamiento territorial en la Amazonia colombiana, Taraira y el bajo río Apaporis, 1984–2014” (MA thesis, Universidad de los Andes, 2014).

(26.) Julia M. Premauer, “Rights, Conservation, and Governance: Indigenous Peoples–National Parks Collaboration in Makuira, Colombia” (PhD diss., University of Manitoba, 2013).

(28.) Castaño Uribe, “Ocupación humana en Parques Nacionales.”

(29.) Attachment to the letter by Luis Guillermo Parra Dussán (Minister of Agriculture) to Marcela Romero Silva (Legal Secretary, Presidency of the Republic), May 13, 1988, File 9, Box 2844, Archivo de la Unidad Administrativa Especial del Sistema de Parques Nacionales Naturales; Oscar H. Arcila N., “Coca, guerrilla, colonización y narcotráfico en La Macarena,” in La Macarena: Reserva biológica de la humanidad; Territorio de conflictos (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1989): 147–277.

(30.) Hernán Darío Correa, “La política de Parques con la gente, el conflicto armado interno y el gobierno de la ‘Seguridad Democrática,’” in Guerra, Sociedad y Medio Ambiente, ed. Martha Cárdenas and Manuel Rodríguez (Bogotá: Foro Nacional Ambiental, 2004): 254–296.

(31.) Colombia: Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2016 (Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito, 2017).

(32.) Colombia: Parques Nacionales (Bogotá: Inderena and Fondo para la Protección del Medio Ambiente José Celestino Mutis, 1984); Heliodoro Sánchez, Nuevos Parques Nacionales de Colombia (Bogotá: Inderena, 1990); Diego Miguel Garcés Guerrero and Susana de la Cerda Lerner, Gran Libro de los Parques Nacionales de Colombia (Bogotá: Intermedio Editores, 1994); and Colombia: Natural Parks (Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2006), also published in Spanish.

(33.) Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, “La política de Parques con la gente”; Parques con la gente, vols. 1–3 (Bogotá: Ministerio del Medio Ambiente, 2001).

(35.) Diana Ojeda, “Producing Paradise: The Violent Geographies of Tourism in Colombia” (PhD diss., Clark University, 2012); Diana Ojeda, “Green Pretexts: Ecotourism, Neoliberal Conservation and Land Grabbing in Tayrona National Park, Colombia,” Journal of Peasant Studies 39, no. 2 (2012): 357–375.

(37.) Lane Simonian, Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995); Sterling Evans, The Green Republic: A Conservation History of Costa Rica (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999); José Augusto Drummond, Devastação e preservação ambiental: Os Parques Nacionais do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Niteroi, Brazil: Editora de Universidade Federal Fluminense, 1997).

(38.) For Brazil see Antonio Carlos Sant’Anna Diegues, O mito moderno da natureza intocada, 3rd ed. (São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 2001), whose first edition was published in 1994; for the United States see Louis Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), and Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), whose first edition was published in 2001. For conservation practices in the 1990s see Claudia Leal, “Conservation Memories: Vicissitudes of a Biodiversity Conservation Project in the Rainforests of Colombia, 1992–1998,” Environmental History 20, no. 3 (2015): 368–395.

(40.) Pablo Camus Gayán and Angel Lazo Alvarez, Guardaparques: Su historia y vivenvias en la contribución a la conservación del sistema nacional de áreas silvestres protegidas del Estado, 1914–2014 (Santiago de Chile: Corporación Nacional Forestal, 2014).

(41.) Wakild, Revolutionary Parks.

(42.) Frederico Freitas, “A Park for the Borderlands: The Creation of Iguacu National Park in Southern Brazil, 1880–1940,” Revista de Historia Iberoamericana 7, no. 2 (2014): 65–88.

(43.) Wakild, “A Panorama of Parks.”