The Macarena Mountain Biological Reserve and the Unlikely Beginnings of Nature Conservation in Colombia, 1948–58

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 605 (Colorado Convention Center)
Claudia Leal, Universidad de los Andes
The creation of the Macarena Mountain Biological Reserve in 1948 inaugurated a new kind of territorial state formation in Colombia based on nature conservation. By setting aside over a million hectares on the fringes of the Amazon basin to be used exclusively for scientific research, Congress introduced a form of nature protection that deviated from previous endeavors elsewhere in Latin America, centered on border control, tourism promotion, and agrarian development. This paper explains the origins of this unlikely designation, and explores the first ten years of the reserve.

This pioneering effort resulted from an odd mixture of factors that depended on global networks—involving Shell Oil Company and the Rockefeller Foundation—and Colombian state agencies, primarily the Ministry of Hygiene and the National University.  For Macarena to be signaled out for conservation it needed to be seen and judged valuable. That it encompasses a mesa towering 1,600 meters over the jungle was not enough; visibility hinged on proximity and technology. Research on yellow fever took doctors close to the mountain, while the first settlers in nearby areas provided trails and shelter. But it was the onset of airborne travel what brought this mountain into clear view. Its alleged antiquity, its location on the intersection between three natural systems (the Llanos, Amazonia, and the Andes), plus its pristine character, convinced scientists and politicians of setting aside this ‘natural wonder’ for unveiling its secrets. Thus, while the country fought a civil war, biologists organized expeditions to collect specimens of flora and fauna, which brought Macarena to life in global scientific circles, but did little to reach the long-term goal of environmental protection. No permanent institutional presence was set up to prevent, in the 1960s and 70s, thousands of peasants from settling, thereby putting agrarian conflict at the center of the conservation agenda.