By Fred Pearce
Leaving the plane at the Bogotá airport, the first signs you see beside the moving walkway to the baggage hall are advertising Aguila beer. It is the top brand from Colombia’s monopoly brewery, owned by the people who supply America with Miller Lite. But with the local market sewn up, the company’s big concern today is not beer but water.
Brewers have always been touchy about water. It takes a lot of H2O to brew beer, and that looks bad if it comes at the expense of secure supplies of nonalcoholic tap water. The makers of Aguila would rather be seen as helping conserve water supplies than emptying them.
To that end, the international beer conglomerate has set its sights high. In the Andes, above the treeline and below the glaciers, lies a region of alpine tundra known as the páramos. This is Colombia’s sopping-wet hydrological powerhouse. It is here that the beer maker is working with other private- and public-sector organizations to save the country’s threatened natural water reserves. And they are doing it in a manner that could become a blueprint for the big new thing in conservation worldwide—payments to communities for “ecosystem services.”
The theory is that communities will forego development to protect valuable services provided by ecosystems (such as carbon storage, water filtration, and biodiversity) if they are fairly compensated. And Colombia, it turns out, is a perfect laboratory for the idea. For over half a century, the nation has been in a state of civil war, with the FARC guerrilla group and drug barons taking over much of the country—including the páramos. The violence kept development away. But now that a jittery peace has broken out, there’s an opportunity to rethink the standard development narrative in rural communities. What if, for example, conservation could compete in local economies not just as a noble cause, but also as a viable and ongoing source of cash?
Climbing a steep, ancient track from the tiny, whitewashed, colonial town of Cácota high in the Colombian Andes, we feel the air becoming thinner. Soon we are in fog—slipping on the stone as we reach the tree line and exit the cloud forest. A few farmers cultivate potatoes on improbably steep hillsides. But mostly, we have left humanity behind when we finally reach the Alpine tundra known as the páramos.
With swirling winds and constantly moving fogs, this treeless, sunless world is an improbable ecological El Dorado stretching from 2,800 meters in elevation to the snowline at over 4,000 meters. If it weren’t for the lake, just visible through the fog in front of us, this landscape might seem like a desert. Its huge numbers of weirdly shaped, cactus-like plants—most of them found nowhere else—are xerophytic, meaning they are adapted to desert conditions. Yet water is the one thing this landscape does not currently lack. Bathed in near-constant fog and spattered with rain, the plants are sopping wet and their roots sit in saturated soils.
“The whole place is a natural reservoir,” says our guide Sergio Ivan Niño, an officer for the local conservation authority, COPRONOR, as a gentle drizzle begins to fall. Even with no dam, the water is under immaculate control, captured in the saturated soils and seeping slowly into lakes, peat bogs, springs, aquifers, and rivers that guarantee water supplies across the country. Thus, the páramos provide 90 percent of the country’s water supplies from two percent of its land area. Rivers draining the páramos provide Colombia with 60 percent of its electricity at hydro dams. “They are the key to the hydrology of the country,” says Niño.
The páramos cover an estimated 7 million hectares in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Costa Rica. They have no parallel anywhere else in the world, says Wouter Buytaert of Imperial College London, who has studied them more than most. There are other tropical alpine grasslands, but “except for a couple of patches on Kilimanjaro in East Africa and on the mountains of New Guinea, the páramos are the only wet tropical alpine regions on Earth.”
They are the major reason why—as every visitor is told on the in-flight video—Colombia ranks seventh in the world for total water resources and fifth for biodiversity. The soils are like sponges, containing more moisture than almost any other soils, anywhere—typically up to half a metric ton of water in a cubic meter of soil, says Buytaert.
But the páramos are feeling the squeeze. According to the government, 75 percent of the páramos could disappear later this century due to a combination of climate change and land invasion. Already, rainfall is becoming more seasonal, and fewer clouds are causing evaporation rates to rise. Meanwhile, every year farmers move farther up the mountainsides. On the road to Cácota, we passed trucks laden with potatoes, and milk churns left beside the road for dairies to collect. On my walk up the ancient track into the páramos, I saw plowing on 30 percent slopes. This is agriculturally unsustainable and ecologically insane. If it continues, millions of tons of sediment will flow into the rivers that supply drinking water to the cities below.
And that’s where beer enters the picture. The farmers need some incentive to change their practices, and SABMiller’s local Bavaria brewing company, owner of the Aguila brand, needs an affordable and reliable source of clean water to make beer.
In 2009, Bavaria partnered with The Nature Conservancy to help establish the Bogotá Water Fund. Bavaria kicked in $150,000 to seed the fund, and by 2011 it had attracted $1.5 million from Bogotá’s water utility and The Nature Conservancy. The goal is to raise $60 million from prominent water users over ten years to be invested in conservation activities. The fund compensates landowners for protecting the forests, soils, and páramos upstream that help keep sediment out of the rivers and sustain water quality for more than 8 million people downstream. For example, if farmers enter into long-term conservation agreements, they receive grants to purchase high-quality cattle that need less land.
These sorts of water funds are proliferating across Latin America. The first, known as FONAG, got its start in 2000 in Quito, Ecuador, with a mere $21,000 combined investment from TNC and the main water utility for Quito. A local electric company and a brewery also began investing, and the fund grew to $11.2 million by 2013. This year FONAG will spend $1.7 million on conservation projects within a 500,000-hectare region. Across Mexico and South America, there are now 13 water funds in operation and 16 in the design phase, with 14 more regions being explored for potential funds.
This is a new way of doing business: using corporate money to help fund conservation of a commonly owned resource that falls from the sky and flows freely through the landscape. The aim is to put a price on water, to turn this free and often-neglected resource into something as valuable
In Colombia, that’s more than an expression. There is a lot of gold and silver beneath the páramos, and the biggest magnet for destruction there is arguably not agriculture at all, but mining.
The government is in a quandary. It has declared support for maximum exploitation of the country’s mineral resources as well as protection of the páramos. Different ministries are fighting for primacy over the upland regions. It may come down to a fight over how the páramos are defined.
In putting certain areas off limits to mining companies, the government is working with a rudimentary map showing 1.9 million hectares of páramos in 34 patches. But in 2013, a new survey by the Humboldt Institute, a research offshoot of the Colombian environment department, uncovered almost another million hectares.
Some of these newly identified páramos are in areas targeted by mining companies, says Carlos Sarmiento, the researcher in charge of the mapping project. They include the La Colosa Project, reportedly the seventh-largest undeveloped gold reserve in the world, promoted by London-listed AngloGold Ashanti. The concession covers 600 square kilometers. Such a scheme could wreck large areas of páramos, destroying their water-holding capacity.
Maybe the páramos are doomed after all. But maybe not. Optimists say that the new system of payments has recruited the peasants to the cause of keeping the miners out. What’s more, the payments could be a powerful force for foreign mining companies to contend with.
That certainly seemed to be the case in Cácota. At a meeting to welcome us, the villagers distributed peaches from their orchards and said they wanted to keep mining companies out so they could invest the brewers’ money in developing ecotourism. “We can only have prosperity if we protect the environment,” said the mayor’s spokeswoman. “Our natural riches are our village’s strength.” My walk up the ancient track could soon become a popular excursion for tourists, with the mysterious fog-shrouded lake as the prime destination. I’ll drink to that.