Pink dolphins and reformed Colombian rebels turn exclusion zone into ecotourism hit

“The dolphins are more playful than we are,” says Diego Cifuentes, co-founder of Villa Lilia Agroecoturistico, a community-based dolphin-watching project on Colombia’s Lake Nare. “If you give off good energy, they might even touch you.”

Cifuentes is sitting in a boat in the middle of a lake surrounded by thick forest, a two-hour boat ride from San José del Guaviare. In the water, a dozen tourists bob in fluorescent life jackets, waiting for a chance to meet a bootthe local name for the pink Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis). Soon enough, a column of steam rises from the water and the humpbacked backs of three botos slide across the surface. Tourists laugh and squeal at the momentary encounter with the rare cetacean.

Rural communities, former FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and endangered dolphins are unlikely allies in this nearly forgotten corner of Colombia’s Amazon basin, where tourism provides opportunities for reconciliation as well as create jobs and promote conservation.

The guerrillas took care of the dolphins and nature

Diego Cifuentes

The indigenous peoples of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela consider the boto a divine creature. But with dolphin numbers dwindling, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the boto as an endangered species in 2019. The threat to dolphins comes largely from be caught as fishing bycatch and killed for use as commercial fishing bait. as well as habitat alteration from dam construction, deforestation, and contamination by chemicals and heavy metals, such as mercury from illegal gold mining.

Cifuentes’ brother had the idea to start the dolphin watching project after moving to the area in 2011 and little by little he got to know the animals. It was at one point, Cifuentes says, that fishermen saw river dolphins as a threat.

“They were angry with them because they are very voracious to eat fish,” says Cifuentes. “They would break the nets or tear them, get entangled and suffocate.”

When they first arrived at the lake, the brothers, shoemakers by profession, had to ask the Farc guerrillas for permission to enter the area, says Cifuentes. If a fisherman killed a boto, a guerrilla fighter would talk to him. “It happened once, but it wouldn’t happen again,” says Cifuentes. “The guerrillas cared about the dolphins and nature.”

These days, botos are increasingly considered more valuable alive than dead. The Omacha Foundation, a Colombian conservation organization, calculated that each dolphin could generate US$20,000 (£16,200) a year for the local economy through tourism, compared to the US$25 a fisherman could get for a dead dolphin.

There are nine botos living in Lake Nare. However, the lake is seasonal and opens to the Guaviare River during the rainy season. Fernando Trujillo, scientific director of the Omacha Foundation and a leading Colombian marine biologist who has studied dolphins in the Amazon for 35 years, warns that if the dolphins are disturbed too much, they could leave the area.

He says the nascent ecotourism industry has a lot of potential to promote marine conservation, as well as create jobs and educate people. It’s part of a broader trend in Latin America, Trujillo says, of tourists flocking to see whales and dolphins. However, he says that if tourism is not managed properly it can cause further damage to ecosystems, especially with “express tourism”.

“It is a phenomenon that we see more and more frequently,” says Trujillo. “People want to easily score everything in one day. They want to see a jaguar, swim with dolphins, dance with the indigenous people and drink ayahuasca. All in one day.

“These charismatic species are important, they are fundamental, but ultimately what we need is to generate sustainable processes in the territories,” he adds. “Neither dolphins, nor jaguars, nor turtles will exist in degraded, contaminated ecosystems. We have to work with the people, we have to work with community processes, because if not, it doesn’t make sense”.

As part of its repositioning from a no-conflict zone to a thriving ecotourism hub, Guaviare also offers visitors the chance to view rivers of pink algae and rock paintings dating back more than 10,000 years, as well as birdwatching in one of the places with the greatest biodiversity. in the planet.

“Tourism allows us to really know what we have to take care of,” says Julián Eduardo Niño, founder of Geotours del Guaviare, an operator that works with Villa Lilia. He started his company in 2015, a year before the Colombian government and FARC rebels signed the peace agreement.

Since then, he says, the peace process has had a positive economic impact on everyone involved in today’s tourism industry, from tourism companies and indigenous communities to farmers who sell sancocho stew.

Sustainable management of the nascent environmental tourism industry is especially attractive in areas like Guaviare, which were among the hardest hit by the country’s 50-year civil war.

Colombia’s newly elected president, Gustavo Petro, himself a former guerrilla fighter, has vowed to focus on these rural areas while accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and using the country’s rich biodiversity to promote economic development.

“We have a deep environmental spirit because the FARC instilled it in us,” says Ricardo Semillas, a former FARC commander who now leads the Marco Aurelio Buendía program to reincorporate ex-guerrillas into civilian life. “Environmental protection was a very strict thing.”

Semillas, whose nom de guerre means seed in Spanish, says that after laying down their arms, the ex-guerrillas looked for different options for income and naturally turned to ecotourism. A recent initiative is the Manatu community project, which began in July 2022 and aims to give tourists the opportunity to learn about plants with healing properties, visit a replica of the Farc camp in the jungle, and hear stories from ex-combatants. Since its launch, the program has also attracted visitors who have gone dolphin watching at Lake Nare.

“There are many advantages, many interesting things that I think will contribute a lot, even to cure,” says Semillas. “Being in contact with nature generates a lot of peace.”

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