In all Colombia, there are 1,912 bird species. On a rainy Saturday in May, thirteen enthusiasts spread out across the rural areas of two municipalities in Guaviare –San Jose and neighboring El Retiro- and spotted 279 different birds, underscoring the enormous potential Colombia has in a highly specialized and lucrative segment of tourism.
That day was Global Big Day, a worldwide competition in which the country documenting the most species wins. This was the first year Colombia won, with birders from across the country spotting 1,486 birds. In other words, three out of every four species we have.
Leading the group in Guaviare was Cesar Arredondo, a 25-year-old ornithologist with a perennial smile who works a tourist guide and who spends his free time chasing after new bird species with his binoculars. Along with other scientists and entrepreneurs, he is seeing tourism as an economic opportunity in a department ravaged by decades-long violence, where the state government is the largest employer and where the private sector is virtually non-existent.
“You might not believe it, but birds might help us halt extensive cattle farming and deforestation,” he says, as he drives his motorcycle in the countryside around San Jose, gazing at the trees around him almost as much as the road ahead. “We are betting on tourism because it’s becoming a viable economic alternative, but also –when done sustainably- in a way to preserve nature.”
He suddenly breaks in front of a grove. ‘Hoo hoo hoo hoo,’ he whistles and then listens to the sounds coming from the branches. “Can you see them? They’re all ruffled up now and ready to fight,” he says.
Fotos: César Arredondo
His imitation of a small daytime owl which feeds on other birds’ offspring –the ferruginous pygmy owl- is successful. In less than 20 minutes, at least 18 different bird species from this region where the Amazon rainforest and the Orinoquia savannas meet show themselves. First a turquoise tanager, with its yellow belly and its sapphire-hued body. Then a chubby-looking brown jacamar, with its longish beak that can easily lead to mistaking it for a hummingbird. A cinnamon-throated woodcreeper jumps around, hammering his beak against a tree trunk. Over there a crimson-backed tanager, its red silhouette only interrupted by a silver beak. Flying around is a white-bearded hermit, a hummingbird with a beak curved downwards. On an electricity line, a swallow-winged puffbird, its azure body contrasting against its maroon belly.
This is just an appetizer of what’s fascinating hundreds of foreign tourists.
“What you can see here is simply extraordinary. You can find very special birds from the jungle, like the Guianan cock-on-the rock, very close to the city and without having to travel far south in the Amazon,” says Chris Bell, an Englishman working for a travel agency who runs a very popular travel blog about Colombia.
That’s the segment sought by Arredondo, who finished his biology studies and returned to his native San Jose to start Biodiverso.travel, a travel agency specializing in nature tourism.
There is still much work for Guaviare’s nascent industry to consolidate, but gradually the ghosts of conflict have disappeared and tourism is growing rapidly. There are currently eight travel agencies and 30 certified guides, supported by a small but active tourism office run by the departmental government and a tourism police with 10 policemen.
Visitor numbers have multiplied: after only a few hundred adventured there a decade ago, San Jose received 12,000 tourists in 2015 and 16,000 last year. With a Peace Agreement, they continue to grow: 19,000 have visited so far this year, even before the busiest season around New Year’s.
This boom comes with a warning sign, though.
“There appears to be good potential [in Guaviare], but ecotourism alone cannot support the populations of the region and there must be a very careful set of deliberations on the future of the area, with careful projections on the economic, social and environmental impacts of each economic development option. A final decision must be made based on a careful balance between these options,” says Megan Epler Wood, the sustainable tourism guru who teaches at Harvard and wrote the book Sustainable Tourism in a Finite Planet. She came to Guaviare last year.
There is also a more imminent risk. Its name is the Marginal Jungle Road, a highway seeking to connect the 381 kilometers between San Jose del Guaviare and San Vicente del Caguan. Although it is only in its planning phase at the Ministry of Transportation, biologists are very concerned because its outline has already become –according to the Ministry of the Environment- in one of the eight deforestation hotpots in Colombia.
Birders as business
In Arredondo’s case, his hobby feeds his work and viceversa. Six years ago he began monitoring birds and helped create the Guaviare Birdwatching Group, a band of enthusiasts who just published a guidebook of birds in the region and who also write scientific articles with their findings.
So far, they have documented 550 different species in Guaviare (a fourth of the country’s total), most of them in places formerly inaccessible due to FARC presence or communities’ distrust of outsiders with cameras. The same is happening with tourism: until 2013, for example, he could not take clients birdwatching in the forests around El Capricho or to the Nare Ladies Lagoon, where there is a fledgling community-based tourism initiative caring for a herd of toninas, or river dolphins.
“The Peace Agreement is helping expand the scientific frontier. Every time we go further away from the city, we find new species,” says Cesar, whose biologist dream is spotting the rare and tiny emerald hummingbird which is only known to live in remote Chiribiquete National Park and whom scientists call ‘Gary Stiles’’ in honor of the renowned National University professor who discovered it.
As The Economist, which just ran a story on Colombia’s ‘avian paradise’, put it, “tourism can potentially offer a fairly swift peace dividend. And that is where bird-watching offers an important business niche.”
Perhaps it’s a very specialized brand of tourism, but it has the capacity to jumpstart a local economy. Just eBird –the world’s leading birding website- has 256,000 members. In a similar context to Colombia, South Africa estimated goo.gl/De1yVF in 1997 –only three years after the transition ending apartheid- that 21,000 birdwatchers visited the country, leaving US 21 million behind.
Cesar and the other guides are trying to establish the niche, before companies from big cities like Bogota or Medellin seize the opportunity. He acts as the local operating agency and takes his clients to observe animals in locations run by community-based organizations, a win-win situation for both.
“We come from a coca-growing culture, which farmers saw as the only economic option. I don’t blame them: in remote areas, with terrible roads, it was easier to move a few packages with powder than a truckload of bananas or yucca. That now we’re going from clearing forests for coca to saving them for tourism, as a livelihood, is a big step,” he says.
As Jairo Bueno, Guaviare’s tourism director and the industry’s pioneer, “peace can be a tool for tourism to be sustainable and tourism is a tool to make peace sustainable.”