Photo: Adrian Chapleau

By Solen Lees*

“Tropico’s help in bringing the community together and making us aware of what we have here has been invaluable.”

Clara and I are interviewing Maria Esnea Garcia on a balcony to the backdrop of a lush and verdant valley in Riobravo, Calima – another area where Fundación Trópico has been leading a process with community leaders and other stakeholders to create a protected area.

Photo: Adrian Chapleau

Ríobravo is part of one of the world’s most biologically rich and threatened areas. It is home to 1,446 Species in 34,110 hectares, including 552 species of birds, 105 mammal species and 56 amphibian species. It is part of one of the world’s 36 ‘biodiversity hotspots​’ (the Tropical Andes) and an area facing a variety of threats including mining, timber extraction, oil exploration, and narcotics plantations.

To get here, we – Nicole, volunteers Adrian, Clara and Davida, Hillel Natanson and I – have again taken an early bus from Cali bus station. It has left us at a hydro-electric dam between the towns of Darien and Restrepo. After a 20-minute wait, a red Willy’s jeep pulls up, driven by Rubén Torres. Out of the back climb Maria Esnea Garcia and Monica Uriba Buitrago.

Adrian and the jeep. Photo: Solen Lees

Let me introduce them…

Don Ruben is chair of a local association – Asoriobravo – which is involved in the protected area declaration process. Maria Esnea works for the town hall of Restrepo as head of the Unit for Technical Assistance in Agriculture and Fisheries. And Monica is head of town planning in Restrepo.

Together we pile into the back of the jeep and set off on a slow and bumpy journey towards the settlement of Riobravo, through incredible scenery taking in crystalline waterfalls cascading down luxuriant green mountainsides. We stop on the way to admire the scenery and Monica and Maria point out an orchid that only grows in this part of the world. We are to learn that this is one of many species that are unique to this area.

Another noteworthy sight on the way is landslides. They make the windy route extra bumpy, slippery and hazardous – especially as we drive round corners with sharp precipices on one side.

The widower geese. Photo: Adrian Chapleau

We stop on the way at a house that seems to be guarded by a couple of geese. Here we pick up Luzmila Castro, and there is much hilarity as she tells us how the geese are widowers who lost their life partners in separate but equally unfortunate accidents and who now fiercely guard the new chicks of one of the household hens as if they were the parents!

A little further on our path crosses that of the chief of the Navera Drua indigenous reserve on the way to sell panela in one of the nearby towns. The indigenous group who live on the reserve is called the Embera Chami. They are one of the stakeholder groups that Trópico is working with as it fights to protect this area.

The community in the jeep. Photo: Hillel Natanson

One of the initiatives led and facilitated by Trópico is the training of community members in ornithology so that they can become guides in their own eco-tourism enterprises, to cater to the growing market in this area. Many foreign tourists are now visiting Colombia and this area in particular. Therefore, another skill these new entrepreneurs will have to acquire is foreign language skills, so Trópico is planning for some of the current batch volunteers to work here. This is very similar to what is happening in Pance (see episode 1). However, one concern is the sustainability of this venture. SDIA’s next objective is to obtain funding so that we can ensure continuity in volunteer presence in Riobravo. In fact, Ana Elvia does not want to begin sending volunteers here until we know we can continue the process.

Making panela. Photo: Adrian Chapleau

We arrive at the house of Celmira Zuñiga, where we meet other community members who are involved in the declaration process. Celmira is one of the community leaders who is willing to host the SDIA/Tropico volunteers in her home. Together we travel further by jeep and on foot to a ‘panela’ factory in a nearby valley. (Panela is a solid form of unrefined whole can sugar very popular in Colombia). Celmira explains the process to me – how the cane is crushed and the juice is extracted and filtered into a vat where it is boiled, and a slime generated from the macerated bark of a tree is used to further purify the liquid.  The fire underneath the vat is fed with wood and sugarcane husks and needs constant attention to ensure the temperature is kept constant all day. Once the cane juice is purified, it is poured into moulds, where it hardens into blocks through evaporation.

Photo: Adrian Chapleau

There are 16 panela producers in the area who have organised into an association, as well as all being members of Asoriobravo. Celmira tells me the association’s plans to buy new machines to help them meet certification standards and be more efficient – with Trópico’s help, they have already applied for funding for this – and their plans for a zipwire to transport the panela more easily to the local towns to sell it. The zipwire would also be used by birders and other tourists coming to walk the ecological trail that has already been identified by the community.

María Esnea García with the finished product. Photo: Hillel Natanson

Our trip concludes with a delicious lunch made by Celmira and the other community members present. Clara and I then interview Maria Esnea Garcia who explains what is happening here, and the role of Tropico and the municipality in the declaration process. Illumination! More things become clear thanks to Maria’s patience and gift for plain speech.

Back in the jeep again and a long and bumpy ride back to the main road. We leave Riobravo tired but happy to have learnt so much and once again to have met a group of wonderful people who are clearly 100% committed to the process initiated and carried forward by Ana Elvia and her foundation, grateful for what it has brought them and enthusiastic about the arrival of our volunteers!

*Solen is a member of the SDIA staff who is currently visiting Colombia to catch up with our member projects there, and particularly to Fundación Trópico with its volunteer and other programmes. This is episode one of a short series of field diaries – so watch this space!