4 Jun 2018

Protecting birds through war and peace: our newest Partner, Colombia

While armed conflict in Colombia may be over, an influx of illegal miners and loggers means our newest Partner’s collaborative approach to conservation has never been more important.

Colombia is home to 1,877 bird species, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock © Lisa Strachan
Colombia is home to 1,877 bird species, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock © Lisa Strachan
By Alex Dale

In Colombia, connections are everything. Especially when you’re working in some of the world’s most isolated regions. The unique animals that inhabit this richly biodiverse country love remote and inaccessible places as much as rebel groups did. Knowing the locals and working with them has always been a necessity in order to carry out any fieldwork safely. After all, no birder would want to be seen wearing binoculars and camouflage clothing in the middle of a warzone. 

“If we followed the official advice, most areas we wanted to work in would have been considered conflict zones at one point or another,” says Jessica Suárez, Communications Coordinator at Asociación Calidris (BirdLife in Colombia). “But sometimes nothing is actually happening in these areas, it’s more a general security warning. This is why locals have always been our powerful allies. They tell us whether it’s really okay to come in or not. Without their support, we wouldn’t be able to do our work.”

Twenty-five years ago, in the middle of the ongoing turmoil, a group of biologists decided to found a non-governmental organisation in Santiago de Cali, southwest Colombia. In the beginning, their goal was simple enough: to monitor and study shorebirds during their annual migration in the department of Valle del Cauca, in the western side of the country.  Soon, they were expanding their areas of work to the other departments. In late 2017, Calidris officially become BirdLife’s 121st and newest Partner. Calidris was already well-integrated into the BirdLife family before then, linking up with other American Partners to bolster our international campaign, Friends Across the Flyway, to protect migratory shorebirds along the Atlantic Americas Flyway. (Most fitting, as Calidris is the genus of typical sandpipers.)


Wilson's Phalarope depends on Colombia's wetlands © Calidris


Although surprising given the circumstances, their fast progress has been essential to conserve the country’s natural riches. Colombia is arguably the most biodiverse country on Earth, with more bird, amphibian and butterfly species than any other country in the world. It holds an incredible variety of landscapes, from dense tropical forests in the Amazon to flooded savannahs in the Orinoco, humid cloud forests in the Andes and colourful coral reefs in the Caribbean coast.

Colombia is home to the highest number of bird species in the world 

The range of habitats also means Colombia is home to the highest total number of bird species in the world with a whopping 1,877 species recorded, 87 of which are endemic and 126 globally threatened. Percentage-wise, the state of Colombia’s birds is better than average (61st in the world), with the restrictions on development imposed by the conflict greatly slowing the rate of deforestation possible.

As the country finds itself in a period of transition, the environmental threats are shifting and so are the actors. While the peace deal has brought many opportunities for conservation, it has also brought some uncertainties. Before the peace deal, the government was not in charge of managing natural resources in many of the conflict areas. Instead, armed groups took on the regulation of social and economic activities.

But this never stopped Calidris from working with local communities, keeping them empowered and involved in conservation. While rebels are being replaced by illegal loggers and miners today, the premise is the same: people are driven by a need for resources and income, just like they were before, so offering alternatives has become even more valuable today than a decade ago.


Local people such as the Piangua fishers have always been Calidris' strongest allies © Calidris


While the government is working on the reintegration of combatants, land restitution and developing the rural areas that had been left behind, environmental impact assessments have been left aside, which is why the work of organisations like Calidris has become even more crucial.

Our Colombian Partner has always provided technical advice to local communities and biodiversity data to the authorities. This is how they are able to strengthen the case for the continued safeguard of their protected areas. And their work is not only beneficial for nature – local communities are involved in the decisions and gain jobs and access to natural resources from the process.

The unsustainable harvest of timber, which in some cases was controlled by rebels during the years of the war, skyrocketed as soon as the peace agreement was signed. Studies suggest that deforestation in Colombia rose by 40% in 2016. After all, who were the owners and keepers of the land now? Without any governance or law enforcement, rivers, forests and mangroves started getting destroyed as they belonged to no one.

Mining is another huge environmental threat. Illegal gold mining has become widespread, which results in water pollution due to mercury getting released into the environment, especially in conflict zones such as Chocó, Antioquia and even parts of the Amazon Rainforest.

As people who were displaced by the conflict return home, new challenges are expected to arise, too. They need sources of income and they need sustenance – bush meat could then become a problem if alternatives are not provided soon. But this movement of people is an opportunity for Calidris to expand their education work and find alternatives for locals to take on projects that are environmentally sustainable.


Calidris engages local people through citizen science © Calidris


“For 25 years, working with locals has been a very important part of Calidris’ work,” says Suárez. “We don’t only want to safeguard species, but we also want local communities to find a sustainable source of income through bird conservation.”

The Alas de Arroz (“Rice Wings” in English) project is a great example of their collaborative approach – it doesn’t only look at bird conservation, but has also transformed the lives of the people who work in rice fields. Until then, organic rice production in Colombia didn’t exist. By using a set of indicators such as the presence of birds and other key species or the use of pesticides, Calidris has developed a certification system for the producers, which has helped those communities sell their product at a more competitive price, for the benefit of species such as White-faced Whistling-duck Dendrocygna viduata, Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus or Southern Lapwing Vanellus chilensis.

This project isn’t the only one dealing with the impacts of agriculture. Calidris also gives technical advice to ranchers and farmers to develop bird-friendly alternatives to cattle-raising and coffee growing in the Andes.

Beyond agriculture, their work with shorebirds and ecotourism is just as inspiring. Thanks to their extensive monitoring work, national parks have been declared and their pioneering research has helped to develop conservation action plans for various species across the country. Colombia’s mangroves and wetlands are wintering grounds for species such as Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla (Neat Threatened) and Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus. Calidris works alongside locals to provide them with the tools they need to identify birds and help them create ecotourism opportunities, which involves a lot of training given the huge amount of species that can be found in the country.

Today it’s more important than ever to continue to work with allies in the field who can understand the value of keeping the environment healthy and protected for the benefit of people and wildlife. After surviving one of the country’s most tragic periods, there’s an opportunity for the newest member of the BirdLife family to expand their work and ensure this collaborative approach benefits both the locals and the wildlife that depends on them.


BirdLife International is a conservation Partnership working to protect birds and habitats around the world. If you would like to support our work, make a donation today.