High mountain ecosystems play a leading role by allowing aquifers to recharge, which produce water that eventually reaches an aqueduct for purification and subsequent distribution. It is crucial to maintain the “good health” of our high mountain ecosystems and ensure that, even in a warmer climate, they continue to provide these valuable services.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to climb above 2,900 meters above sea-level and visit two mountainous areas, one in Colombia and then another in Ecuador, both rich in páramo forests.
Breathing pure mountain air with the smell of the forest, at a comfortable temperature, and hearing the water run from the nearest stream, brings a lot of inner peace and a deep respect for nature and all the services that it provides us, which also includes, emotional therapy.
Unfortunately, the rapid advance of development that does not take into account nature and its resources and a slow but unequivocal increase in global temperature are undoubtedly two factors that together put not only put mountain ecosystems and the environment in jeopardy but also the lives of those residing in these regions.
High mountain ecosystems are facing threats
The indiscriminate felling of trees and the removal of vegetation cover, the use of large-scale monoculture practices, little conservation of soil, among other unsustainable actions, will gradually destroy the health of these pristine ecosystems that play a determining role in the collection, retention and regulation of rainwater, among others.
On the other hand, climate change will affect precipitation patterns, creating greater variability in the annual hydrological cycle, which will generate much uncertainty when planning how to water resources.
What could be the adaptation actions to help these ecosystems and communities adapt to climate change in a sustainable way? Even more important, what would be the most recommended economic activities for the high mountains, which harmonize and complement the conservation efforts of these high-altitude ecoystems (paramo)?
A project protects ecosystems in Colombia’s high mountains
In Colombia, we are carrying out a project in the high mountains that helps to answer precisely these questions, successfully generating many lessons learned that can be used in other mountainous and piedmont areas in Latin America.
The project is called “Adaptation to the impacts of climate change in the regulation and supply of water for the Chingaza-Sumapaz-Guerrero area.” The adaptation actions to climate change carried out consist of: (i) ecological restoration activities and (ii) agroforestry activities that promote local development and contribute to the sustainability of high mountain ecosystems, also including the training of owners of the plots in the monitoring, recording and analysis of climatic conditions.
Four lessons learned from the implementation of the project
Among the most important lessons learned that can be extracted from the implementation of this project are:
- The active involvement of community members and community organizations with a gender perspective in the design and implementation of adaptation measures is key to their sustainability. For example, with the guidance of the project’s technical team, the participating families were able to carry out a climate-resilience self-assessment of their farms, which became the first step in identifying adaptation measures to the impacts of climate change, which also included economic diversification activities. In the same way, local business associations of women were strengthened, and they were trained in productive activities “friendly to the páramo.”
- The constant and clear communication to the project participants of objectives, the progress of its implementation and the expected results is essential if their continuous participation is to be maintained. The project created a communications strategy to reach the different stakeholders in the basin and various tools were designed to disseminate knowledge of the project and educate communities about their determining role in the face of climate change impacts. One of the most effective “means” to connect with local communities was art, through which their culture, experiences, knowledge of the territory could be faithfully represented, achieving the construction of a transformative adaptive process.
- Adaptation to climate change can be defined as “good development” and must offer tangible economic and social benefits also in the short term. The project managed to bring applied science and new knowledge on climate change to the smallest territorial level, which are farms, to apply it in improving the quality of life of the communities living in these territories.
- A transformational adaptation process for the high mountains is based on the joint work and trust of local communities. The literature has been studying for several years the concept of “transformational adaptation”, which is key to achieving a change in behavior that will ultimately guarantee that the response mechanisms to the impacts of climate change are sustainable over time. From the experience of this project, it can be said that building trust in working with local communities is the vehicle to build this transformational adaptive capacity.
In particular, four elements were key in the trust-building process: (i) establish a sincere dialogue, (ii) demonstrate respect for the ancestral technical knowledge of the communities, (iii) build a common language that is understandable by the community to get the messages across effectively and (iv) fulfill the agreed commitments.
The only way to protect high mountain ecosystems from the effects of climate change is by conserving them to ensure their good health. This is particularly important in transition zones where the urban and agricultural footprint is advancing rapidly and where the implementation of agroforestry activities in harmony with these ecosystems can make a difference.
Thanks to this project, many studies were also developed that will allow us to better understand how climate change is impacting the hydrology and biodiversity of the páramo. It is about implementing activities that help as far as possible so that these ecosystems can follow a natural process of adaptation and, above all, provide a secure livelihood for families.
To learn more about the project, I invite you to watch these videos and to look out for a related publication coming in early 2021.
Follow us on Twitter: @BIDCambioClima
Photo credit: Ministry of Environment of Colombia