Colombia now has the largest protected area in the Amazon, with the expansion of Chiribiquete National Park.

Chiribiquete, declared a National Park in 1989, officially increased in size from 1,298 ,954 to 2,782 ,000 hectares on August 21. This additional 1.4 million hectares is intended to help shield one of the planet’s areas of mega-diversity from the impact mining and deforestation. It is part of a strategy that was first envisioned more than two decades ago when the COAMA (Consolidating the Amazon) programme was initiated.

Under Colombian law, the declaration of “national park” protects the soil and subsoil from mining and petroleum exploitation; nevertheless, there are applications for the exploitation of minerals, such as gold, silver, platinum, copper and lead, in zones that border the park. Gaia’s report, Opening Pandora’s Box, uncovers the rapid expansion in mining and extractive indutries and the devastating impact for our planet.

Chiribiquete, with rock formations and dense forest, is rich in biodiversity, with more than 11 endemic plant species, a huge number of reptiles and amphibians, 360 types of bird including the unique emerald hummingbird, 160 species of butterfly, and endangered mammals such as the jaguar. The tepuys (high rock formations with vertical cliffs), are home to thousand year old examples of rock art, most likely traces of the Karijona, one of the most important pre-Colombian populations.

According to Environment Minister Juan Gabriel Uribe, the extension of Chiribiquete is also an opportunity to protect sacred sites and ecosystems important for indigenous communities and resguardos (indigenous territories).

The announcement was welcomed, with caution, by our Colombian colleagues, some of whom have worked for years for Chiribiquete to achieve national park status and receive greater recognition for its role in the conservation of Amazon indigenous cultures, biodiversity and ecosystems.

Patricio von Hildebrand, of Puerto Rastrojo Foundation, said “In 1992 we set up a scientific research station, Puerto Aveja, in Chiribiquete, from which emerged the first studies of fauna, flora and archeology of the Park. In 2002 the guerrilla presence forced us to stop investigations and we returned just four years ago, motivated by the idea of expanding the reserve to carrying out biological studies for National Parks to justify the decision. Chiribiquete includes the entire southern basin of the Apaporis river, probably the second longest river in Colombia, an important source of water regulation for climate change”. (interview, El Espectador, August 20 2013)

Martín von Hildebrand, founding Director of Gaia Amazonas and Coordinator of the COAMA Programme, commented:

“The expansion of Chiribiquete is part of a strategy that began during the administration of President Virgilio Barco, 1988-89, and was recently revived by National Parks, Gaia Amazonas and the Presidency of the Republic. The wider strategy is to protect the Colombian Amazon through interventions in three areas: firstly, in the Andean foothills, to stabilize colonization, increase forest reserve areas, recognize land titles, and support sustainable production alternatives. Secondly, the expansion and management of protected areas, in particular to increase Chiribiquete by 3 million hectares, to cap the advance of colonization. The third component is to strengthen indigenous governance in the resguardos (indigenous territories) that cover more than 26 million hectares in the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés and and Guainia. This strategy builds on the valuable work of many, but especially Puerto Rastrojo, National Parks, Gaia Amazonas and the indigenous organizations of the region.” 

He also added words of caution: “Today we celebrate the expansion of 1. 5 million hectare of Chiribiquete PNN. The other 1.5 million hectares is still under discussion because of the possible oil extraction. The issue of legal and illegal mining also remains a challenge.”

The expansion of Chiribiquete draws immediate comparison with the recent decision of the President of Ecuador Rafael Correa, who on August 15 blamed a lack of international funding for his decision to allow oil extraction to go ahead in Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In our guest blog “Yasuni-ITT to be scrapped“, Amy Woodrow-Arai discusses the history and importance of the Yasuni-ITT initiative, and the devastating consequences oil extraction is likely to have on one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.