Pink dolphins and reformed Colombian rebels turn unheated area into ecotourism zone

“The dolphins are more playful than us,” says Diego Cifuentes, co-founder of Villa Lilia Agroecoturistico, a community dolphin-watching project on Colombia’s Lake Nar. “If you give off good energy, they might even touch you.”

Cifuentes sits on a boat in the middle of a lake surrounded by thick forest, a two-hour boat ride from San José del Guaviare. In the water, a dozen tourists bob in fluorescent life jackets, waiting for the opportunity to meet bootthe local name for the Amazon River pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis). Soon enough, a plume of steam erupts from the water and bent ridges slide through the surface. The tourists giggle and squeal at the momentary contact with the rare cetacean.

Rural communities, former Fál armed forces (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and endangered dolphins are unlikely allies in this corner of Colombia’s Amazon basin, where tourism is providing opportunities for reconciliation as well as job creation and promote conservation.

The guerrillas took care of the dolphins and nature

Diego Cifuentes

Indigenous communities throughout Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela regard the bot as a divine creature. But with the number of dolphins decreasing, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the bottlenose dolphin as an endangered species in 2019. The dolphins are under great threat from being caught as by-catch in fishing and killed for use as commercial fishing bait, ie as well as habitat disruption from dam building, deforestation and pollution from chemicals and heavy metals, such as mercury from illegal gold mining.

Brother Cifuentes had the idea to start the dolphin watch project after moving to the area in 2011 and slowly getting to know the animals. There was a time, Cifuentes says, that fishermen saw river dolphins as a threat.

“They were angry with them because they are very greedy for eating fish,” says Cifuentes. “They would break the nets or tear them apart, they would become entangled and suffocated.”

When they first came to the lake, the brothers, shoemakers by trade, had to ask the Farc guerrillas for permission to move into the area, says Cifuentes. If a fisherman killed a boto, a guerrilla would have a word with him. “It would happen once, but never again,” says Cifuentes. “The guerrillas took care of the dolphins and nature.”

Boots are seen more and more these days as worth more alive than dead. The Omacha Foundation, a conservation organization in Colombia, calculated that each dolphin could bring US$20,000 (£16,200) a year to the local economy through tourism, compared to $25 a fisherman could get for a dead dolphin.

There are nine cows living in Loch Nar. However, the lake is seasonal and opens onto the Guaviare River during the rainy season. Fernando Trujillo, scientific director of the Omacha Foundation and a leading marine biologist from Colombia who has been studying dolphins in the Amazon for 35 years, warns that if the dolphins are disturbed too much, they could leave the area.

He says the new ecotourism industry has a lot of potential to promote marine conservation, as well as create jobs and educate people. It’s part of a broader trend in Latin America, Trujillo says, of tourists flocking to see whales and dolphins. However, he says, if tourism is not managed properly, it can cause more damage to ecosystems, especially with “express tourism”.

“It’s a phenomenon that we see more and more often,” says Trujillo. “People want to easily check everything in one day. They want to see a jaguar, swim with dolphins, dance with the Natives, and take ayahuasca. All in just one day.

“These charismatic species are important – they are fundamental – but ultimately, what we need is to generate sustainable processes in the territories,” he says. “There will be no dolphins, no jaguars, no turtles in polluted degraded ecosystems. We have to work with the people, we have to work with community processes, because if not, there is no point.”

As part of its repositioning from a no-go conflict zone to a thriving ecotourism hub, Guaviare also offers visitors the chance to see rivers of pink algae and rock paintings that are more than 10,000 years old, as well as bird watching in one of the most biodiversity. on the planet.

“Tourism allows us to know what we have to take care of,” says Julian Eduardo Niño, founder of Geotours del Guaviare, an operator that works with Villa Lilia. He started his company in 2015, a year before the Colombian government and the Farc rebels signed the peace agreement.

Since then, he says, the peace process has had a positive economic impact on everyone involved in today’s tourism industry, from tour companies and indigenous communities to farmers selling sancocho stew.

Sustainably managing the emerging eco-tourism industry in areas like Guaviare, which were among the worst affected by the country’s 50-year civil war, is particularly attractive.

Colombia’s newly elected president, Gustavo Petro, a former supermarket himself, has pledged to focus on these rural areas as he accelerates the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and uses the country’s rich biodiversity to fuel economic development. ahead.

“We have a deep environmental spirit because the Farc instilled it in us,” says Ricardo Semillas, a former Farc commander who now heads Marco Aurelio Buendia’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants into civilian life. “Protecting the environment was a very tough thing.”

Semillas, whose name de guerre means seed in Spanish, says that after laying down their arms, the former rebels looked at different options to earn an income and naturally went for ecotourism. A recent initiative is the Manatu community project, which started in July 2022 and aims to give tourists the opportunity to learn about plants with healing properties, visit a replica of a Farc camp in the forest and hear stories from ex-combatants. Since its launch, the scheme has also attracted visitors who have come to see dolphins in King’s Loch.

“There are a lot of benefits, a lot of interesting things that I think will make a big difference, including curing them,” says Semillas. “Contact with nature generates a lot of peace.”

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