These incredible plants are a water factory for millions of people in Colombia, but they could soon disappear

General view of a protected area of ​​the Páramo de Sumapaz, in the south of Bogotá, Colombia. (Credit: Nathaly Triana / CNN) (CNN Spanish) — Sumapaz, a rural town about two hours south of urban Bogotá, hides in its interior a treasure more precious than gold: a natural water factory that supplies million people near the Colombian capital. There, in the heart of the country, the Sumapaz paramo, the largest in the world, extends serene and cold for more than 333,420 hectares, of which only 142,112 are protected in the Sumapaz National Natural Park. “He who doesn’t know the páramo doesn’t know what life is,” Sandra Peñalosa, a community leader from the town of Sumapaz who works to protect and conserve the páramo, told CNN. “It’s all you have to live for and a lot of people don’t know about it,” she says. General view of a protected area of ​​the Páramo de Sumapaz, in the south of Bogotá, Colombia. (Credit: Nathaly Triana / CNN) The Sumapaz páramo is “the most important water factory” in Colombia as she calls it, so it is imperative to take care of this ecosystem, which is at risk for various reasons. “They don’t realize where the water is made, where the air comes from. Now that is combined with pollution and climate change,” adds Peñalosa. With cold, gray and cloudy landscapes, the temperatures in the Sumapaz páramo can range from 0 ºC and reach 23 ºC, and historically it is a humid landscape, but on days like these in which we spoke with Peñalosa, the sun appears and the rains fail. “Look at climate change, at this time of Holy Week it was so that it was raining and I am in a T-shirt,” she says, speaking about only one of the several threats facing this ecosystem. “The change is dramatic and drastic and people don’t understand it. By people I mean everyone, both those of us who live here, as well as those who live in the city,” he adds, saying that tourists go there to breathe air. pure and damage the moor, and those who live there “we don’t know how to take care of what we have”. And it is not for less: the páramo, an ecosystem home to exceptional vegetation and fauna, is only present in four other countries such as Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and Peru, but the largest is in Colombia and it is this, the páramo de Sumapaz. In addition, this is the home of the frailejones, a plant as beautiful as it is vulnerable, which can be understood as a water factory. The frailejones, the “kings of the moors”, are in danger The frailejones, a plant that recently went viral on social media thanks to a picturesque animated character on public television named Frailejón Ernesto Pérez, are considered the “kings of the moors”. They capture water from the clouds or from the abundant mist of the moors and drop by drop they take it to the ground, in lands made up of superabsorbent mosses that help retain water and then share it with an entire ecosystem. “The plants that confirm this ecosystem are designed to retain water from the mist. It’s something called horizontal rain: they conserve it and carry it through their bark to the ground,” Luz Dary Rodríguez, park ranger at the park, told CNN. Sumapaz National Natural Park. They are charismatic plants, easy to recognize, that are unique in this type of ecosystem and that only exist in three countries in the world: Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, the latter having the largest number of frailejones species, according to the book Frailejones en Danger, published by the Humboldt Institute, a Bogotá-based organization that researches biodiversity issues. Frailejones in the Páramo de Sumapaz. (Credit: Nathaly Triana) These plants are characterized by their pale greenish colors, their leaves with golden, silver or yellow hairs, they are soft as velvet and they have showy yellow flowers. However, some species of frailejones are in “imminent” danger and with them the survival of some key ecosystems, according to research by the Humboldt Institute. 60% of the species of frailejones in Colombia (55 of 90 recognized species in the country) are threatened and the species is in “imminent risk” of disappearing if the necessary measures are not taken, says the investigation. “There are species (of frailejones) that are critically endangered, which are generally those that are in a single site and with very few individuals they want to keep the site up and threaten it,” Carolina Castellanos, author of the book and researcher at environmental issues. And that danger for the frailejones is based on the threats to the moors, according to Castellanos. First, there is the transformation of the habitat, which “implies that the moorland cover is lost and that it is replaced by grasslands for cattle ranching or by any other cover,” she says. These dangers include the use of land for livestock, extensive agriculture, forest burning, and even the unusual tourism that has been generated in the area. A potato crop in the Páramo de Sumapaz. “Clearly, if this transformation of the habitat continues, it can cause us to lose the ecosystem and have very serious implications for the supply of water,” Castellanos assured. And another threat is climate change, which in these historically cold areas is already generating its consequences. A silent enemy: the thorny broom As if these threats were not enough, the frailejones face another threat: the thorny broom, a species that lives at their expense, grows like weeds around them and drowns them until they are finished. “It is an invasive plant… that contrary to everything the ecosystem does, of sharing water with us, it appropriates it and keeps it for themselves,” Gonzalo Sánchez, an environmental activist and leader of the nature reserve, told CNN. the Happy House, in Sumapaz. The thorny broom is a plant with yellow flowers that is very easy to spread and that threatens the frailejones and the paramo ecosystem in general. (Credit: Nathaly Triana / CNNEE) “This plant threatens the frailejones due to its ability to grow and its easy propagation,” says Sánchez. This invasive plant, says Sánchez, grows about 10 times faster than the frailejones, which increase in size by one centimeter each year depending on the species, and it suffocates the plant, deprives it of water until it disappears. And since it has been used by peasants as a natural fence, it is widely spread throughout much of the páramo. “It is an absolutely serious problem because it destroys this entire ecosystem. The plant also disperses very quickly,” he says. Sánchez, who arrived in the region about 8 years ago, works on a productive project in which he processes the thorny shoot and converts it into biomass with which he makes paper, boards, and even pots to plant even new frailejones that grow in the who was once his enemy. Crafts made from thorny broom in a process led by Gonzalo Sánchez and others. This is intended to control the spread of this invasive species. (Credit: Nathaly Triana / CNNEE) Sumapaz, from war to peace… and to tourism Due to its proximity to Bogotá, Sumapaz was historically a rural territory where the FARC was present, achieving “territorial and civil” control of a large part of the town” since the 1990s, according to a report by the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH). Towards the beginning of the 2000s, with the arrival of the Army to fight the guerrillas, a “recruitment of the armed conflict” was observed in this region, and therefore an increase in “acts of victimization of the peasant population,” says the CNMH. And because of that conflict, Sumapaz, rich in natural resources, was out of reach for the general population until a few years ago, and tourism was restricted for years. It is practically a virgin area. “Already when the peace agreements are signed (signed between the Government and the FARC in November 2016) the whole world begins to talk and learn about Sumapaz and everyone wants to come and see it,” said Rodríguez, from National Parks. And for Peñalosa, who arrived in this area 25 years ago fleeing the armed conflict of the FARC in a neighboring area, there is a duality between war and peace and care for nature. “On the one hand, nature, the ecosystem, everything was protected,” says Peñalosa. “The fact that there was war everywhere kept civilization or city people away.” But he assures that it is sad that the silence of the rifles generated an environmental deterioration as great as the one he witnesses. “It’s sad because although life was fixed for us who lived through that war, it gave us peace, it gave us peace of mind, we were able to work, we were able to leave without that fear that the fighting will catch me halfway through, that they are going to steal my children, but then comes the damage to the ecosystem,” laments Peñalosa. How to protect this ecosystem? Currently, several farmers in the region are carrying out conservation work in order to control the deterioration of the paramo, because although there is a large area in this area as a national reserve, the surrounding areas face challenges such as the agricultural frontier that is expanding to make way for to potato crops. One of these initiatives is that of Oswaldo Barriga, a farmer who lives in the area and has gardens and some cows for his survival, but decided to delimit an area of ​​four hectares of his property for the conservation of flora and fauna. Oswaldo Barriga is a farmer from the Sumapaz area, which has a nature reserve to protect the paramo. (Credit: Nathaly Triana/ CNNEE) Another one is advanced by Peñalosa herself, who has two apiaries so that the bees naturally renew the devastated areas of the moor, turning these spaces into reserves. “All this happens because we are already disrupting the wasteland. We should work on what we have and take care of what we already have. It’s so simple, but people don’t understand it,” he points out.