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ENVIRONMENT-COLOMBIA: The Unusual Wealth of the Choco

Constanza Vieira and Diana Cariboni* - Tierramérica

QUIBDÓ, Colombia, Oct 13 2007 (IPS) - "Let&#39s go to the sea, let&#39s go to the sea," one hears a nervous voice say every so often in the fishing village of Bahía Solano, on the Colombian Pacific coast. A package has been seen floating and boats are going after a not-so-traditional catch: cocaine thrown out by fleeing drug traffickers.

A load of lumber travels down the Atrato River. Credit: IPS/Jesús Abad Colorado

A load of lumber travels down the Atrato River. Credit: IPS/Jesús Abad Colorado

The paradox: this practice "has permitted that there is still a very high fish stock," explained forestry engineer William Klinger, director of the Pacific Environmental Research Institute, IIAP, based in Quibdó, capital of the Colombian department (province) of Chocó.

The artisanal fisherfolk call a truce with the fish during this "momentary advantage". If they are lucky, they find and sell the drug, and earn the equivalent of decades of fishing.

Because fish is the basis of the region&#39s diet, for a few days there are many who are left without food. And the tourists end up eating beef or chicken instead of seafood.

That is what an IIAP study found in Cabo Marzo, in the municipality of Juradó, neighbouring Bahía Solano, for tracking the marine-coastal biodiversity of the bio-geographic Chocó, a region of 145,000 square kilometres that encompasses southern Panama, northwest Colombia and its Pacific coast, and northern Ecuador.

The heart of this tri-national region is the Colombian department of Chocó, 46,530 square km of vast natural wealth – and the country&#39s poorest population.

Another "catch" beyond the usual fishing occurs when the communities "trap" boats, almost always tuna vessels, that violate the minimum mileage from shore, and fish using drag nets.

The community holds on to them for a time, and then they let them go. "They are boats from here. The owners are the senators, that&#39s why nothing happens," said Klinger.

This year the IIAP completes fieldwork in Bahía Solano-Juradó for presenting an integrated management plan for the area in mid-2008. By then it will have launched a similar study in the southern port of Tumaco, in Nariño department, in alliance with Conservation International.

Unlike other scientific research centres, IIAP, founded in 1993, has a mission that includes promoting development and autonomy in the black and indigenous communities – inhabitants of the bio-geographic Chocó region.

Each study aims for rapid implementation. The director is elected by a delegate assembly of 24 people, including eight representatives of the black communities and eight from the indigenous communities, with collectively held lands.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) mentions 7,000 to 8,000 plants and 100 bird species found only in the Chocó, but "there are no conclusive inventories," says Klinger. "There is much more we don&#39t know."

There are unexplored areas "where neither the drug trade nor the irregular armed forces (of the Colombian civil war) have been able to penetrate, he adds.

This is one of the rainiest areas of the world, with up to 12 metres of precipitation a year, which rules out burning of the forest to expand the agricultural frontier, as is common in other zones.

According to WWF, the bio-geographic Chocó maintains intact "nearly 58 percent of the total area" of forest.

Its precious metals – gold, silver and platinum – attracted the Spanish, who introduced African slaves centuries ago to work the mines.

In Klinger&#39s opinion, the relative natural conservation is due largely "to the cultural dynamic of the blacks and Indians, who don&#39t have a culture of accumulation of capital," and take from the forest and from the sea "only what they need to survive."

The processes of collective land titles held by the Afro-Colombian communities, beginning with the 1991 constitution, officially established their ties to the territory.

Forty years ago, this was "a pristine zone, with few settlements and very little intervention," entrepreneur Paolo Lugari told Tierramérica. He was the first director of what was then known as the National Corporation for the Development of Chocó (Codechoco), founded in 1968.

One of Lugari&#39s tasks was to identify economic options for the department, but "none of the existing development models is appropriate for Chocó," he said.

He believes that to make best use of the forest it should be harvested, but that does not mean cutting it down. "What is needed is sustainable management, which is much more than supportable management."

In that search, the Gaviotas research centre, founded by Lugari, conducted a joint study with U.S. ethnobiologist Richard Evans Schultes of the "milpesos" (Jessenia polycarpa) palm, whose fruit produces an oil "of the same quality as olive oil," with applications for industry or as a biofuel.

Evans Schultes, of Harvard University, "directed a doctoral thesis about the Jessenia polycarpa palm and ended up setting up an oil extractor in Gaviotas," which provided the technology.

The botanist concluded that the experience was applicable to Chocó, because its outcome was "the ideal of any industrial project: social, economic and environmental feasibility at the same time," said Lugari.

In the early 1970s, Chocó had "the largest wild milpesos palm population in the country," according to Lugari. Now, noted Klinger, it is hardly seen at all.

The pioneering project did not succeed. Meanwhile, starting in 1996, the massive planting of the exotic African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) has expanded from the north.

"The change in land use should not happen through the monoculture of the African palm," says Klinger. The biodiversity of the area&#39s jungles produces a "recycling of nutrients," which ensures that other species appear. That is why any monoculture "that removes the forest&#39s wealth of nutrients is going to suffer deterioration in the medium term."

Klinger is promoting a study on the "integral valoration of forests in collective territories of the bio-geographical Chocó", which aims to measure this wealth from different perspectives.

The first is wood products from the Chocó, famous for its fine trees like the choibá, mahogany and guayacán.

In line with Lugari, and the second aspect to study, the IIAP sees greater value in non-timber products: tannins, resins, rubber and medicinal plants.

There will also be an inventory of the little-studied fauna, and another of the environmental services provided by the jungle, such as capturing carbon from the atmosphere, protecting water supplies, tourism and science.

The indigenous and black communities "are in complete agreement that they have to know the economic value of what they have," says the IIAP director.

Obtaining compensation for "avoided deforestation" would allow the Chocó communities an income in the framework of the global fight against climate change.

But furthermore, "many macroprojects (of forest or mining exploitation, and transport or energy infrastructure) could pass through collective territories… If that were to happen today, we wouldn&#39t have any idea" what the compensation should be, says Klinger.

Los Riscales Community Council, owner of Nuquí, in the Gulf of Tribugá, and the San Luis de los Robles community, in Tumaco, are already allied with IIAP to begin research in their territories.

"Medical patents" is another IIAP project – "our greatest news," says Klinger. The validation of traditional knowledge about the Chocó forests held by "chinangos", the Afro-Colombian community doctors.

And of course there is "prior contract with the traditional doctors about how the patent would be distributed. They give their blessing, but they are not releasing information here and there. The relationship with the traditional doctors is very difficult," and two western doctors have figured out how to do so, Klinger told Tierramérica.

This article is part of a series about the Millennium Development Goals in Chocó. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The AVINA Foundation is not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.
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