Exploring conservation and tradition: Meeting an environmental leader in the Colombian Andes

An interview with Jose Xerafico in the Mararai Reserve

By David Santiago Rocha Cárdenas, 2023 Peatlands Restoration Steward

Last month, my team and I embarked on a remarkable journey to the Mararai Reserve, located within the Vilches or Angosturas estate, owned by the Cruz Rivera family in El Cerrito, Santander, Colombia.

This sanctuary, nestled in the Almorzadero páramo, a site of immense ecological, social, and productive significance, is the backdrop for our latest endeavor: Turberas para el Futuro, a project aiming to restore five hectares of high-altitude peatland, intertwining the conservation of this delicate ecosystem with the vital provision of water resources. 

During our visit to the reserve, we had the privilege of being accompanied by the esteemed José Xerafico and his wife, Mireya Cruz. José is a recognized leader in the region, renowned for his unwavering dedication to páramo conservation and preserving the area’s agricultural traditions within the local community. 

In this conversation, we asked José about his tireless efforts to safeguard the páramo, particularly his initiatives designed to shield the delicate peatlands from the detrimental effects of grazing sheep. We also discussed progress on the restoration project so far and the challenges that come with it. 

Amidst the captivating landscapes, our dialogue expanded to encompass the productive activities thriving within the páramo. José emphasized the need for thoughtful territorial planning, advocating for designated zones for production and conservation. He revealed the complex interplay that defines the páramo’s role as both a source of livelihoods and a haven for biodiversity

Guided by José’s expertise and wisdom, our time at the Mararai Reserve illuminated the intricate tapestry woven by tradition, conservation and sustainability. This interview provides a glimpse into the complex web of efforts that shape the páramo’s future and underscores the importance of nurturing its delicate balance for generations to come.

Mararai Reserve

Xerafico: We are in the Mararai Reserve. It is entirely isolated and measures two hectares, separated by an 80-centimeter-high fence, which prevents sheep from entering. In the background, we can see that the landscape has been totally revitalized.  

Here, we can also see the peatland recovering its natural vegetation. These are traditional plants that are endemic to this area and develop in this peatland or wetland, which is an aquifer recharge zone. 

What we are doing is recovering it so that, on the one hand, it absorbs and releases carbon dioxide and, on the other hand, it regreens and allows us to retain rainwater. Little by little, it releases to form one of the tributaries of the Servita River, which then flows into the Chimamocha River.  

These are small actions that we, the Cruz Rivera family, are carrying out on the Vilches farm, and which we plan to continue improving. We are putting up fencing so that the sheep cannot access the peatland or wetland, allowing it to regenerate. 

Sheep

What productive activities are you developing in this landscape?

Xerafico: Basically, sheep farming. Our goal now is to reduce the capacity of the area to keep very few animals. From our experience, it is necessary to establish paddocks using one-meter-high fencing to stop the sheep from crossing from one paddock to another. This is called controlled exploitation, whereas we currently have open exploitation, which damages the wetland ecosystem as the sheep trample on it. 

Our goal is to divide the area into zones: a reserve zone, which is where the frailejones [an endemic plant vital to water production] are, where the peatlands and wetlands are. It will not be touched. Second, a buffer zone, which is adjacent to the reserve zone. And then there is the production zone, which must be well-fenced in and isolated so that we can manage the sheep and goats properly.  

Every year, we sow crops for our own consumption, which is three to six loads of potatoes. That’s it, basically. The groundskeeper is also allowed to keep dairy cows – he has four to six cows producing milk, mainly for his own consumption, and he sells the rest to the milkman. 

Mararai Reserve

How long have you been conserving the wetlands and peatlands here in your community? 

Xerafico: We have been working since 1985, and much more intensely since 1990, when multinational corporations came here to conduct geological studies. They found 400,000 tons of high-calorie anthracite coal reserves.  

So, this area became very attractive for multinationals, which began to exploit it, with very high expectations for development in terms of roads, education, electrification and infrastructure. But after two years, only COP 1,500 (USD 0.37) in royalties went into the municipality treasury, leaving a lot of discontent in the community. So, we founded a committee to protect El Almorzadero páramo and defend our natural resources. 

We asked the multinationals to leave, because our water resources were much more important to us – for agriculture, livestock and, of course, for domestic use in our neighboring villages. That’s how we created a movement with organizations from across the region. 

In 2007, we created a regulatory initiative – the first in the country. We declared El Almorzadero páramo an aquifer recharge zone and thus a protected area. The multinationals were then kindly asked to leave. Nowadays, any company that wants to work in this landscape must be approved by what is now called the commission for the defense and protection of El Almorzadero páramo and its permanence in the territory, of which I am a member. 

David Santiago Rocha Cárdenas and the Cruz Rivera family

You’re doing some fascinating work in your community to conserve water resources in such an important part of Colombia. Thank you very much. 

Xerafico: Yes, we want entities working in sustainability and nature conservation to turn their attention to these ecosystems because here, we have been very much abandoned by the government. We have no electricity, basic services, basic sanitation or potable water – we take it from the stream, with a high risk of fasciolosis. 

The government has not been there to provide us with even basic health services, decent housing, and potable water, which is their duty and a basic right for us as citizens.

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