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The forest situation in Colombia

Lately FAO Forestry Adviser to Colombia

There is a striking similarity in the forest histories Of many Central and South American countries. The situation in these countries can be traced back to common historical, economic, and social roots. This is worth the effort, since a knowledge of this common background will lead to a better understanding of present conditions and will help to point the way to improvement.*

* See also - The Forests of Colombia and some of their Industrial Possibilities, Proceedings of the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources. Volume V, Forest Resources. (U. N. publication no: 1950 II.B.6.)

Four centuries ago the Spaniards and Portuguese colonized Central and South America on a large scale. The type of colonization was definite settlement, and the newcomers succeeded in making this part of the Western Hemisphere almost completely Spanish or Portuguese speaking. But at the time the first emigrants from the Iberian peninsula settled what has since come to be called Latin America, the forestry awakening in Europe had not yet taken place. The importance of forest cover in relation to soil conservation and water supplies was not understood nor was the economic significance of forests appreciated. A sense of responsibility for keeping intact the fertility of the soil grew up first in central Europe, and from there the idea spread to northern Europe where forestry became, in time, an integral part of the national economy. Later on, the northern colonizing powers began to spread this new knowledge about forests and proper forest care in Africa and Asia. Spain and Portugal, however, had no such chance in Latin America, because the colonies became independent before the mother countries had themselves become forest conscious.

After achieving their independence, many of the new Latin American republics went through frequent periods of political unrest and instability. This, too, was clearly not favorable to forestry development, which needs continuity of purpose and of government policy.

Another fundamental similarity in the forest history of Latin American countries relates to land tenure and the distribution of landed property. The early settlers took the best lands by force, while others, at a later stage, acquired special grants from the mother governments. The description and registration of these settlements and grants were always vague; it was Dot until the rise in population forced land values up that the proper mapping and registration of properties seemed necessary. Even then the definition of rights was confined to comparatively limited areas and today rural land tenure is still vague and uncertain particularly in the zones of major interest from the point of view of forestry. Moreover, such rights of property as do exist are not very well protected for lack of rural police, Insecurity of tenure and lack of clear titles do not encourage landowners to take care of their lands; hence the general, almost complete, absence of proper agricultural methods to prevent loss of fertility. Forests have been regarded as any man's land, and it has more often than Dot been considered meritorious to cut and burn them, irrespective of their value, in order to obtain more room for food crops and pastures. Since systematic forest management - as a consequence of its long-range character - is practically impossible without security and continuity of ownership, the chances, for forestry development under such conditions have been very poor indeed.

A third circumstance common to many Latin American countries was that the immigrants had a strong preference for living in the bills and mountains, where they found a mild climate and conditions for cattle-breeding and crop cultivation similar to those at home. In this respect, incidentally, there is a remarkable difference between Far Eastern tropical areas and those of the Western Hemisphere. Whereas, for instance, prosperity in Indonesia and Ceylon is based on production between sea-level and 500 m. altitude, 70 percent of Colombia's population lives and works between 500 and 3,000 m. above sea level. Consequently the pressure on mountain forests with soil protecting and Water regulating functions has been much more dangerous in tropical America than in most Far Eastern tropical countries.

A fourth factor influencing the forest situation was the settlers' cattle-raising system, which required extensive pastures in the most fertile, level valleys between the mountains, The original inhabitants were forced to seek croplands on the hill slopes. This led in many cases to most unsatisfactory land use; the best agricultural lands, were retained for grazing by the big landlords, while crop cultivation was restricted to lands most unsuited for agriculture. Population increase forced the small holders ever higher up into the mountains, and thus a deforestation process set in to the prejudice of the fertility of the soils. The "slope farmers" became poorer and poorer. There was no alternative; they had to cut and burn higher forest or starve with their families.

The combined results of all these influences are clearly evident in the present forest situation in Colombia.

As the map shows, Colombia lifts a good deal of its area under forest, while other vast tracts fire mountain country.

The latter fire much eroded, but were formerly covered with forest, while in the southeast corner of the country is it great area of virgin tropical forest, a potential source of (great wealth if properly developed.

Features of Colombia

Colombia lies in the extreme northwest of South America, between 4° South and 12° North, with its shores washed by both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The topography is characterized by the fact that the high Cordillera de los Andes splits in the south of the country into three separate mountain chains, running almost due south to north and forming the Cordillera highlands, with peaks over 5,000 m. high. Between the Cordilleras the big Magdalena and Cauca rivers flow from south to north to the Caribbean Sea.

The country can be roughly divided into four parts, namely the mountain chains described above, the Pacific coast area, the northern plains including the Caribbean coast area, and the vast plains east of the Andes.

Due to its topography, Colombia features almost all the climates of the world. Temperatures range from tropically hot in the lowlands to below freezing point on the snow-capped mountain peaks. Humidity and rainfall show endless variations according to differences in temperature and position of the mountain ridges in respect of wind direction.

Colombia's forests show the same rich variation and of the country's 1,139,000 sq. km. approximately 45 percent is still under forest. This seems very impressive, but unfortunately most of these forests are quite inaccessible.

The Highlands

Seventy percent of Colombia's 12 million people live in the mountainous part of the country, an area of about 260,000 sq. km. These highlands, which should be expected to have from 20 to 25 percent of their area under protective forest cover, are almost completely bare. Four centuries of uninterrupted deforestation and faulty agricultural methods have brought the land into a desolate state, with all the scars and bruises of ill-treatment revealed. The highlands are, in fact, dying lands. Dangerous surface and gully erosion increases at an alarming rate. Landslides, inundations, and silt cause tremendous damage. Reservoirs for hydroelectric schemes tend rapidly to become useless, endangering many industries. Water supplies to population centers are becoming more and more inadequate and irregular. The fertility of the soils and their crop-growing capacity are decreasing day by day; in fact some parts of the highlands, once prosperous agricultural areas, have become virtual deserts.

The last remnants of forests in the highlands consist of scattered patches in inaccessible places, extending certainly over not more than 4,000 or 5,000 sq. km. They are all of the highest protective value and should be maintained intact; this would still leave the highlands short of about 6 million ha. of any suitable type of protective vegetation.

This situation means that nearly three-quarters of Colombia's population are living in a: timberless region. The productive forests are far away in the lowlands, and transportation to the population centers is a complicated and expensive business with all the possible commutations of mule-trucks-railway and river transport. Sawn timber is shipped by sea from Tumaco -to Buenaventura, and thence transported by truck to Bogotà over two cordilleras. The transportation costs are 200 pesos per ton,1 and amount to about two-thirds of the selling price. In fact timber and firewood prices in the highlands are exorbitantly high and actually out of the reach of the ordinary man. Substitutes are used wherever possible, but lack of wood hampers any solution of the housing problem and helps augment the cost of living. Obviously reforestation in the highlands with commercial species would be a most profitable business.

1 1 US $ = 2.50 pesos.

East of the Andes

Between the Andes and the frontiers of Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are some 600,000 sq. km. of very sparsely populated lowlands, which form the catchment area of numerous affluents, of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers.

This region can be roughly divided into two parts:

1. The northern part, about 20-0,000 sq. km., consisting of the districts of Arauca, Casanare, Vichada and part of Meta, contains the vast semiarid, savannah-like grass plains (llanos). Forests on these plains occur along the riverbanks and in scattered patches all over the region, totalling perhaps some 40,000 sq. km.

2. South of the Río Guaviara the districts of Vaupés, Caquetá, Putumayo, and Amazon as cover together 400,000 sq. km. About 375,000 sq. km. of this region are said to be one enormous tropical forest jungle, about which little is known. Logging is carried out only in places where truck roads from the mountains penetrate far enough into the jungle; here, however, extraction is limited to the high-class timbers, such as Tecoma, Swietenia, Cedrela., etc. The jungle contains an abundance of wild Hevea trees, which are being tapped in some localities. The rubber is brought by the local collectors to assembling points on the rivers, such as Mitú on the Río Vaupes, and flown by hydroplane to the consumption centers in the uplands.

For the bulk of these forests east of the Andes the only economic form of transportation seems to be by rafting along the big rivers which flow to the east through still vaster untouched forest concentrations in the drainage areas of the Orinoco and Amazon, and thence to the sea. But these forest preserves are complete labor vacuums, and the chances of large-scale timber operations seem for the time being hopeless.

The Northern Plains

The districts Bolivar, Atlantico, Magdalena and Goajira districts are lowlands, with the exception of the isolated mountain massif of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, with its 5,800 m. Pico Cristóbal Colón.

The western part of the lowlands are more densely populated and sparsely forested. The southeast and central part, where the Cauca river flows into the Rio Magdalena, is characterized by lakes and swamps and larger forests. The southern half of the district of Magdalena is mainly farmland with scattered forest remnants, from which the better-quality species have long since been logged. The west and south slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are deforested and badly eroded; the north and east slopes are in better shape. Some of the north slope forests extend down to the coast in several places. The Goajira peninsula has an arid climate, and still possesses considerable Libidibia stands, exploited for divi-divi tanning bark for home use and export.

As far as existing waterways and truck roads have allowed, all the forests of the departments of Bolivar and Magdalena have been logged repeatedly to supply the bigger Barranquilla sawmills and the smaller local ones. What is left is non-marketable wood of the softer hardwood types, such as Ceiba (Hura crepitans) and Caracoli (Anacardium excelsum). These scattered forest patches could be profitably logged again only if these species proved suitable for papermaking.

In Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, forestry is more than usually bound up with soil conservation, and this photograph shows the sort of problem involved.

The scene is at Yomasa, 2,640 meters up, near the forest Nursery of La Picota, 5 km. south of Bogota. Deforestation followed by over-grazing and faulty agricultural methods has led to erosion as bad as this over vast areas of the country... and how bad it is may be gathered from the size of the man, of average height, standing in this desolate scene.

The Forest in the Central Magdalena River Valley

Lack of communications has enabled of Rio Magdalena Valley between La Dorada and Gamarra to escape from intensive farming and deforestation and there are in this region about 10,000 sq. km. of large mixed forests. The composition seems to be quite satisfactory preliminary timber cruising in the Rio Tecorama showed several places with more than 300 m3 of marketable timber per hectare. Most abundant are softer hardwoods including Caracoli (Anacardium excelsum), Jobo (Spondeas mombin), Ceiba (Hura crepitans), which can be used in fiberboard manufacture and are now being tested for their suitability for pulping. Concentration of timber per ha. and the configuration of the terrain are good enough to justify mechanized logging operations, and in fact the forests are attracting the interest of local and foreign capital. From the economic point of view, these Magdalena forests are the most promising in Colombia. But many areas in this region can be converted into crop lands or pastures. If this happens, the forest would have to be cleared entirely.

The Pacific Coast Area

The 800-km.-long lowland strip between the Western Cordillera and the Pacific Coast is Colombia's most important productive forest reserve. It is only 30 km. wide near Buenaventura, but it widens considerably both north and south of that point, so that its average width is about 80 km. The climate is hot and humid. The annual rainfall, more than 3 m. near the coast, increases rapidly higher up in the foothills, where the forests are always damp. Still higher up the slopes the precipitation exceeds 10 m. per year in several places. This exceptionally high torrential rainfall naturally increases the erosion danger. The dangers of deforestation can be seen wherever the population from the central highlands has passed over the Cordillera to occupy the western slopes; an example can be found west of the mountain pass Mares, west of Cali, where extraordinarily rapid erosion quickly brought an end to coffee planting and fruit orchards.

The existing data about the forests in Choco, lower Valle, lower Cauca, and lower Narino indicate forests of quite satisfactory composition, with an estimated total forested area of 55,000 sq. km.

South of Buenaventura the many small rivers and two larger rivers, Río Patía and Río Mira, all flow straight to the ocean. Between Buenaventura and the Panama frontier there are low hill ridges along the coast, forcing the rivers Rio San Juan and Río Atrato to flow respectively north to south and south to north. Both rivers provide ample opportunity for cheap timber transportation, and the conditions for mechanized logging are favorable in many areas.

Along the coastline from the Ecuador frontier to the north there is a valuable strip of tidal mangrove forest (Rhizophora mangle), 300 km. long and 5 km. wide. The mangrove bark is the raw material for the national tannin industry at Buenaventura, and there is also some export of dry bark to the United States.

The Pacific Coast region needs a thorough forest to ascertain the possibilities for forest industries. Although many of the soils in this area are suitable for perennial commercial crops, such as oil palms and cacao, forest industries might very well as pioneers to attract new concentrations of population. Since the area is thinly populated only large-scale industries could afford to invest in the housing, medical care, and other facilities which would be needed to attract new labor.

As a matter of fact, domestic and foreign capital are becoming increasingly interested in the Pacific Coast forests. A large project is underway in the Tumaco region, where a Colombian industrialist, working with U. S. capital, will start logging and sawmill operations, combined with cacao plantations. For this industry the building of a road to connect Diviso and Tumaco will be of the utmost importance.

In the Río Juradó, too, near the Panamanian frontier, a timber cruise will probably be carried out in 1952 by a private concern.

Present Timber Production

There is no export of wood products from Colombia. On the contrary, several products must be imported since the country has no pulp, plywood or fibreboard industries of its own. Annual imports of paper and paperboard reach a value of 8 to 10 million pesos.

'The coastal sawmills and the resawmills in the consumption centers together may produce 200,000 m3 of sawn timber a year. The bigger sawmills in Tumaco and Barranquilla - with bandsaw breakdowns have an output of 1,000 m3 per month (15,000 board feet per day); the smaller, portable mills do not produce more than an average of 100 m3 per month. The amount of handsawn timber produced is unknown; it must be considerable since transportation difficulties hamper the moving of logs and favor handsawing in the forest itself. Wood preservation is unknown as yet.

Forest Problems

The authorities in Colombia are well aware of the fact that the rehabilitation of protective forest cover in the highlands, the creation of new forests near the centers of population, and the development of logging and woodworking industries in the accessible lowland forests are urgent matters. They are faced, however, with problems of bewildering proportions.

A well-organized, well-staffed governmental forest service is needed with ample operation funds; but this would take many years to organize. Land classification has to be carried out, and the areas to be dedicated permanently to forests and put under management have to be set aside; this, too, cannot be done quickly. Six million ha. in the uplands should be brought under some sort of protective vegetation, which means the shifting of populations elsewhere, the opening up of new areas, and altogether considerable organization. Forest protection requires a strong forest act and vigorous law enforcement.

Moreover, forestry is only one of several other interrelated activities. For both agriculture and forestry, reasonably reliable topographical maps are required for land classification. Without proper meteorological information, reforestation would be risky. An expanded forest service, operating without benefit of government agencies working in related fields which were equally advanced, would be almost useless.

The Government started some years ago a thorough study of the complex situation. Advisory assistance was obtained from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and a start was promptly made on the development program which the Bank proposed. From FAO, Colombia obtained a forestry adviser to make an over-all survey of the forest situation and put forward specific recommendations.

Some of the suggestions of this adviser were put into effect last year. A new forestry faculty for the training of forest officers was established as an annex to the existing agricultural faculty at Medellin, and it is hoped that this Medellin college will develop into a valuable training center which will also stimulate forest research. The existing rudimentary forest service has been given more staff and better accommodation. A large-scale reforestation project has been started in the watersheds of the Río Neusa, where a dam has been built for hydro-electric power and for water supply to the city of Bogotá. Finally, an intensive propaganda campaign has been started against the burning of forests.

The development of the lowland forests in Colombia has been described as promising, but this will not provide any immediate revenue to help the financing of highland rehabilitation. The reason is that within the very near future the uplands will be overpopulated, and an outlet will have to be found in the less agreeable zones of the country. The lowlands will have to be gradually opened up, made healthy, and developed agriculturally. Part of the forests will have to be cleared for this purpose, and the timber removed could feed new forest industries while permanent areas of productive forests were being defined and taken under management. But special privileges would have to be accorded to capital, whether national or foreign, for opening up these areas, and it seems unlikely that any substantial revenues would accrue for at least ten years.

Much more promising from the point of view of revenue would be reforestation in the uplands, if, during the first ten years, nothing but commercial tree crops were grown. Although the present high levels of prices for timber, poles and firewood would certainly drop somewhat as yields increased, they would probably remain high for at least 25 years. Any large-scale commercial reforestation would, of course, have to be carefully planned and organized; even so, it would be a compromise with theoretical conservation requirements. From this standpoint places most in need of reforestation should be planted only with those species and crops which have the highest protective value.

Such an ideal, however, would cost the country too dear, and the first new plantations should strive to combine the protective and productive functions. They should be in areas near enough to consumption centers to permit profitable exploitation of thinnings and a guaranteed final yield for sawn timber, or pulp wood. The species planted would have to be rapid-growing, such as Eucalyptus and Pinus species, even though these are not ideal for conserving or restoring soil cover. However, as commercial reforestation spread over the highland region, gradually the revenues would come in and at a later stage counter-balance the expenditures; ultimately it could provide the best source of income for conservation work elsewhere, especially in remote places where profitable selective cutting could hardly be expected and where clear cutting could not be allowed.

This does not mean that the higher slopes should be neglected; action in the remoter areas must, however, initially be confined to closure and protection. If the slopes are left alone, a natural cover of grasses and shrubs will gradually establish itself as a preliminary protection. This would improve soil conditions and facilitate reforestation proper at a later stage.

Lack of reliable basic data makes it very hard to plan a specific sequence of actions. But there are certain emergency steps, already known in Colombia, that must be taken to shield the country from what otherwise may be sure disaster. There is thus quite a struggle ahead for a generation of foresters, but proper forest care and development are of such vital importance that they deserve the whole-hearted support of every responsible citizen, until gradually forestry becomes a reality in the minds of the people at large.

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