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The sound of mountain restoration: a five-day adventure in Colombia

In November 2023, the six Latin American members of the Restoration Stewards program met in Colombia to learn from its mountains and people. In return, they brought their own experiences, ideas and a whole lot of questions.

For five days, the young restoration professionals and members of the Youth Team from the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) wound their way through the Colombian countryside visiting restoration and conservation initiatives led by rural communities.

The international group quickly acclimatized to the local culture through the curvy roads that took them from Bogotá, the breakfasts of arepas (corn flatbread) and coffee, and the knowledge-filled conversations with the communities they met along the way.

No one would have guessed that this was the first time the Restoration Stewards had met, with Analí, David, Gabriela, Marlon, Sergio and Ysabel seeming like old friends from the get-go, perhaps thanks to their shared affinity with nature.

Although these six young restoration practitioners are no strangers to wildlife (more than half of the world’s biodiversity is found in Latin America and the Caribbean), this was a unique learning opportunity as Colombia has the greatest variety of birds on the planet.

And these winged, early-rising and enchanting animals played constant companions to our tour of three farms and two municipalities in the department of Tolima, where ecological restoration coexists with the environmental and social challenges behind the infamous decline of biodiversity in Latin America.

Now, jump on the restoration road with us to experience this amazing journey:

“The best way to learn ecosystem restoration is through fieldwork, getting your hands dirty, planting trees, walking the forests, germinating seeds, and sharing with the local community.”

Left to right: Sergio Lozano, 2022 Mountain Restoration Steward, and Analí Bustos, 2021 Forest Restoration Steward. Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

The first day of this unforgettable experience began early in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a country that many of us were visiting for the first time. The Latin American Restoration Stewards and the Global Landscapes Forum team set off to venture into the mountains of the department of Tolima, in the central-western part of the country. Quickly getting to know each other in person, we headed towards the municipality of Villahermosa.

We were heading to a warm and mountainous department that is home to almost a third of the country’s páramos as well as wetlands and dry and humid forests. Tolima is characterized by its biodiversity in birds, variety of climates and coffee production.

Video: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Sergio Lozano, Colombian ecologist, was our host. In 2022, Sergio was the Mountain Restoration Steward with the project “Sustainable landscapes for the Tolima dove and the yellow-headed brushfinch,” which he was developing with the SELVA association. The objective was to improve the habitat of these two endemic and endangered birds, strengthen the socio-environmental corridor initiative of producers in the region and improve the coffee landscape through regenerative practices, especially in the municipalities of Líbano, Villahermosa and Murillo. 

Today, the project is the GLFx Tolima chapter, part of the GLF’s network of community-led initiatives. As part of the trip, the Latin American Restoration Stewards would later see the progress of this community initiative, as well as the wonders of the habitat of the Tolima dove and the yellow-headed brushfinch.

Left-hand photo by Eirini Sakellari. Right-hand photo by Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum. Left to right: Anna Bucci, Community and Action Program Manager, GLF; Analí Bustos; Sergio Lozano; Gabriela Gavarrete, 2022 Forest Restoration Steward; Marlon Webb, 2021 Mountain Restoration Steward; Pê Magalhães, Youth Team Officer, GLF; Kelly Quintero, Media Collaborations Specialist, GLF; Ysabel Calderón, 2023 Mountain Restoration Steward; Eirini Sakellari, Youth Program Coordinator, GLF.

The impressive view of the Magdalena River valley on the way compelled us to stop. This river, which crosses western Colombia from south to north through the Andes Mountains, is of great historical and economic importance to the country.

Once in Villahermosa, we headed to the Charco del Indio (“Pond of the Aboriginal”) Nature Reserve. Part of Sergio’s project is carried out there to safeguard a biological corridor that is home to the Tolima dove, the yellow-headed brushfinch and many other species of flora and fauna, both resident and migratory.

We were soon joined by community members working in the conservation and restoration of the local ecosystem, who shared knowledge with the Latin American Restoration Stewards.

Teachers, entrepreneurs, public officials, environmental activists and residents talked about how the project in Villahermosa goes beyond the physical limits of the reserve. They highlighted how this initiative impacts a biological corridor that spans several municipalities, strengthening community ties, improving environmental education and benefiting the local economy.  

We also met Audberto, a person who ‘plants water’, a water seeder!

Video: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Lina Quintana, owner of the reserve along with her husband Carlos Salazar and their daughters, told us about the Panche Indigenous People. These native inhabitants of the area were known for being warriors, hunters and artisans. 

During the visit, which culminated at the river –the “Pond of the Aboriginal” – we saw some of the results of the restoration process. We also understood how ecotourism has been fundamental for the sustainability of the reserve and the involvement of the community in the maintenance and recovery of the biological corridor.

In addition to colorful flowers, fruits and countless shades of green, various animals, fungi and birds accompanied our trek before leaving for Líbano.

We left Villahermosa at mid-afternoon and took the road to the neighboring municipality, where Sergio’s project was also implemented during his year in the Restoration Stewards program, in 2022, and now as a member of the GLFx Tolima chapter. We would stay at the El Aguador farm and visit SkyFarm.

“Líbano seduces with its beauty, its mountains, its biodiversity, its history and its charming people. Over the last few centuries, the mountains of Líbano – inhabited at first by the Indigenous Mineimas people – have undergone a major transformation. Today, even with patches of forests and bushes, these mountains are covered mainly with coffee plants and other crops, of which the number of hectares is rising. Though on a smaller scale, gold mining is also present in the territory.”

Arriving at the farm El Aguador, owned by Mery Rodríguez and her family. Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum. 

Fernando Cardoso welcomed us to his land, SkyFarm and along with Sergio and Luis Alberto Alarcón, a farmer who helped plant and maintain thousands of trees as part of the project, showed us one of the plots under restoration.

Before and after the restoration project started. Photo: Eirini Sakellari (left) and Anna Bucci (right).

“[In reforestation, the newly planted trees] need to be maintained and fertilized every three or four months. The problem with many environmentalists is that they plant the trees and that's it, but the important thing is maintenance because a tree is like a child, it doesn't just stand up on its own."

They told us about the progress in the ecological recovery of the property, which includes initiatives such as beekeeping, sheep breeding and wool production, ecotourism and ‘A tree for life’ – click on the video and listen to Fernando to discover what the latter is about. They also talked about some of the past and present challenges of land management in Líbano, such as mining and armed conflict.

Watch Fernando explain what ‘A tree for life’ is all about. 

Video: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

When visiting the apiary, Ysabel and Marlon, who both have experience in beekeeping, had the opportunity to help Fernando prepare the smoker and handle the honeycombs.

“The mountain ecosystem has a diverse variety of pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and bats. Their ecosystem service is vital since pollination allows fruits and seeds to grow and ultimately provide food for us to eat. Bees are the most important pollinators on the planet.”

At Skyfarm, we were on cloud nine! 

Back in El Aguador, we explored the interaction between coffee plantations, forests, sugar cane, birds and ecotourism. Mery and her son Sebastián showed us how, by being part of the biological corridor supported by Sergio’s and his team’s project, returning to shaded coffee plantations benefits both the coffee bean and the ecosystem. They commented, however, that one of the challenges faced by coffee growers in the area is the lack of labor to harvest the coffee beans.

“At the end of the 1990s, one of the biggest transformations in the national coffee landscapes was the loss of tree shade. This occurred in Líbano and in many other areas of the Colombian Andes. To have fully exposed coffee plantations, trees that protected the soil, provided nutrients to crops and offered important ecosystem services were cleared.”

Video: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Ledis told us a little about the history of coffee in Líbano, Tolima.

We couldn’t leave Líbano without seeing its birds, more of the colorful and sonorous birdlife of Tolima! We found them when we woke up, during a birdwatching organized by Sergio, Ledis and the team of El Aguador. 

Before ending our visit, the Restoration Stewards shared experiences and knowledge with members of the socio-environmental corridor, which includes representatives of the SELVA association.

Thanks to Mery and her family in El Aguador, to Fernando and his collaborators in SkyFarm, to Lina, Carlos and their daughters in the Natural Reserve Charco del Indio, to the members of the socio-environmental corridor and to all the people who shared their experiences and knowledge with us. Thanks to Sergio and Ledis for leading this project and being part of the Restoration Stewards program and the GLFx network, and to the Lavazza Foundation and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) for their support to the community and youth-led initiatives of these programs.

In just a few days, we felt as if we’d built a big family in the land of birds, of hundreds of shades of green, of a unique ethnic and cultural diversity where we all felt at home. 

Do you want to see more images from this journey? Check our album on Flickr.

Pale-edged Flycatcher (Myiarchus cephalotes). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Black-billed Thrush (Turdus ignobilis). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Slate-throated whitestart (Myioborus miniatus). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Tolima Blossomcrown (Anthocephala berlepschi), endemic bird of the Colombian Andes mountains. Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum. 

Beryl-spangled Tanager (Tangara nigroviridis). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum. 

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata). Photo: Ledis Arango.

Thick-billed Seed Finch (Sporophila funerea). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Flycatcher (Contopus sp.). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Sound of an Olive-sided flycatcher.

Rusty-margined Flycatcher (Myiozetetes cayanensis). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Blue-grey Tanager (Thraupis episcopus), Cecilia’s favourite of all those we saw! Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.

White-vented Plumeleteer (Chalybura buffonii). Photo: Cecilia Mena/Global Landscapes Forum.