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The Colombian National Park on Cattle Lands

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Colombia national park
In December 2023, Colombia declared the Serrania of Manacacias, located in San Martin de los Llanos, Meta department, its 61st national park. Credit: Ricardo Baez/CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

In December 2023, Colombia declared a traditional livestock territory as a new national park. Rich in biodiversity, the Manacacias National Natural Park is located in a flat territory previously owned by ranchers, going through a process of adaptation for the inhabitants of the region and a crucial area for the preservation of the species in the region.

Covering over 517,000 square kilometers across Colombia and Venezuela, the llanos region, characterized by warm winds, grass-covered hills, and moriche palm forests, has been shared for centuries by ranchers and wildlife. The park, strategically positioned as a vital link between the tropical savanna and the Amazon, aims at environmental preservation.

Conservation challenges and cultural shifts

The establishment of Manacacias faced numerous challenges, including negotiating with ranchers who had called these lands home for generations. Hato Palmeras, a family-owned estate near the Manacacias River, represented one such challenge. The Rey family, owners of Hato Palmeras, decided to part with their more than 10,000 hectares of natural grasslands, palm forests, and wetlands.

Colombia contributed approximately $20 million to the park, utilizing funds from a fossil fuel tax and environmental impact compensation payments from industries. A consortium of non-profit organizations, including Nature Conservancy, Re:wild, The Wyss Foundation, and others, collaborated to raise over $5 million for land acquisition. Much of the initial funding came from the sale of artwork donated by American sculptor Carol Bove, facilitated by the non-profit organization Art into Acres.

The park is inhabited by iconic species including jaguars, pumas and ocelots roaming the grasslands. Credit: Nickbar/pixabay/Public domain

While environmental organizations played a crucial role, the National Fund for Nature, another supporter, engaged lawyers and surveyors to manage land sales like Hato Palmeras. The delicate process involved ensuring that the majority of livestock had left the estate before the final payment was made, a procedure documented by lawyer Lorena Torres.

William Zorro, the park’s director, emphasized that their presence was not to monitor but to accompany ranchers during this transition. With over 20 years of experience managing national parks in Colombia, Zorro’s diplomatic skills were crucial in navigating negotiations, particularly in a region with diverse opinions on conservation.

The park’s strategic location and conservation efforts aim to create a balance between environmental preservation and cultural traditions. Despite initial resistance, Zorro envisions a future where Manacacias welcomes tourists, highlighting the delicate interplay between environmental conservation and community acceptance.

Preserving heritage in a changing landscape

San Martin, the 16th-century town housing the park’s offices, boasts a unique cattle culture and deep-rooted traditionalism. The annual celebration on November 11, dedicated to the town’s patron saint, San Martin, transforms into a spectacular display of riders dressed as Spanish warriors, Moors, Africans, and indigenous people engaging in simulated battles.

Ernesto Rey, a local rancher, has participated in these festivities since 1970. His nephew, Oscar Rey, has followed suit. Oscar, who grew up on Hato Palmeras, witnessed the scientific studies conducted by the National University of Colombia a decade ago, providing the evidence base for the Manacacias park.

Llaneros en los llanos
Llaneros (cowboys) leading cattle to graze. Credit: piqsels/Public domain

For the younger generation, the transition represents more than a shift in land ownership. As cultural norms change, many no longer see their future in large, isolated cattle ranches. With fair offers for their properties, coupled with few heirs interested in continuing ranching traditions, most families were willing to sell.

Oscar Rey believes that the park will accelerate cultural changes already underway. Conservation awareness is growing among those who once visited these lands for hunting and fishing. Educational workshops in local schools and the presence of female park rangers are part of efforts to engage the community.

As the Manacacias park strives to strike a balance between conservation and community acceptance, the delicate negotiation between heritage, cultural transformation, and environmental preservation unfolds in this picturesque corner of the Colombian llanos.


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