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The inhabited páramo The struggle of a village for its right to be and to stay

Páramo and life

When talking about the páramo, the Andean páramo, many different visions emerge depending on who is speaking. If we look at the dictionary, we will find a "wasteland, flat and naked" or a "cold and helpless place"; If we listen to many of those who live near it, the páramo is often described as a "water reservoir" or a "source of life". No definition seems to regard the páramo as anything more than a mere service that these mountain ecosystems provide, especially water for those who live below.

For me, walking through the páramo is a unique experience, difficult to describe. It is to dive standing among the clouds, to wet your bones and to breathe the water. These ecosystems, freshwater sanctuaries, not only provide a source of regular water to city dwellers at lower altitudes, they are also the place where live beings inhabit. Here, endemic plants like the emblematic frailejón or the curative guasgüín, coexist with other species introduced throughout the last centuries, like the leafy Digitalis purpurea, which decorates the boundaries of the woods and the paths of the páramo. The set of diverse flora and fauna that inhabit the páramo form a unique landscape that, in many areas of the South American geography, are threatened by diverse reasons.

In addition, the páramo is the home of many human beings, who currently depend on agriculture, livestock and family mining. In Colombia, the páramo has been home to Sutagaos and Muiscas among others, leaving the latter a rich lexical legacy that reflects the relationship of this people with the páramo and its nature, and that lasts in Colombian Spanish through the muisquismos. Much of this knowledge has been transmitted through stories, myths and legends with which the people of the páramo have impregnated their mists of a serene, unique mystique.

Specifically, in the buffer zone of the páramo of Sumapaz—the largest in the world— there is a small town called Mochuelo Alto. This town is one of many others that exist in Sumapaz, today the home of indigenous families and displaced peasants from Tolima, Boyacá or Orinoquía. Many farmers who fled from an immemorial conflict have found refuge in its green hills dotted with limestone, making this land their home.

However, the inhabitants of the páramo face a problem: the Colombian laws aim at a management of the territory in which the páramos have to be just an object of conservation. This would mean stopping all the activities developed by the settlers of the páramo, affecting around 350,000 families.

As if this were not enough, the inhabitants of Mochuelo Alto face one more problem: their town is the closest to the garbage dump in Bogotá, Doña Juana.

To live with the trash

The city of Bogotá generates 6,300 tons of garbage daily, of which only 15 percent is recycled. Most of this garbage goes to Doña Juana, where waste accumulates in an open air dump and in a landfill that are just a few meters away from the homes and fields of the farmers of Mochuelo Alto.

Although the district of Bogotá is the owner of the Doña Juana garbage dump, with an environmental license until 2022, the garbage dump is operated by the multinational CGR. Given the problem of living with a colossal dump, the current mayor, far from reconsidering waste management techniques, proposes to expand Doña Juana's space and its lifespan, which would make the villages of Mochuelo Alto and Pasquilla disappear.

Considering its magnitude and growth, the mass of garbage seems to be a living entity, which grows up and constantly changes the borders of Bogotá and the páramo. Many people have lived with it for 30 years, with their vast image, with the continuous sound of their trucks, with the intense smells. The landfill expansion plans propose to expropriate the land to the families: to strip a town away of its territory and send them to the suburban belt of Bogotá.

The few inhabitants of Mochuelo Alto claim that their farms not only allow them to live in peace, but that it is a very fertile land that they contribute to preserve. Some, like Don Cayo, have had to change houses as the landfill expands, and it is still in territory that could be expropriated in benefit of the landfill.

IN THOSE lands WE PRODUCED POTATO, ONION, CORN, MAIZE ... EVERYTHING. MY EIGHT CHILDREN, MY wife AND I WORKED THERE. NOW ALMOST all of them are IN BOGOTÁ, NOT VERY WELL, BUT THEY carry on. THE rest of us LIVE IN MOCHUELO alto AND WE WANT TO STAY, BUT WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN. WE FIGHT FOR STAYING.

Samuel Aya has his house and his crops just under the hillside where the landfill rises, which causes cracks in the land and releases huge columns of gas. Samuel's farm has watersprings, which feed the aqueduct from which his family takes his drinking water. He assures that their children and other children in the village suffer more from flu than other children, because of the proximity to the garbage dump.

NOT ONLY DO WE SUFFER FROM THE GASES THAT THE GARBAGE ejects, ALSO FOR THE RATS THAT CAN eat HALF OF A CULTIVATION OR THE DOGS THAT LIVE FROM THE GARBAGE. THey ALREADY ate THREE CALVES.

This expansion would not only affect the town of Mochuelo Alto, but also the forest reserve of the upper Bogotá river basin, specifically the Tunjuelo basin. Altering such ecosystems and water sources implies a dramatic cultural and economic loss for families, who for the most part resist such proposals.

The local population —in collaboration with Asamblea Sur and the Human Rights Foundation PASOS— organizes lectures and reforestation days, among other activities. They demand a space for debate where the points of view exposed by the neighbors of the affected villages can be heard. Moreover, they advocate for a different way of coexisting, where the environmental and the productive converge: a conservation model that includes the families that inhabit the páramos as protagonist actors of these ecosystems. When confronted to these claims, the municipal leaders send the police instead of engaging in negotiations that could be beneficial for both sides of the conflict.

Meanwhile, the struggle develops on a day-to-day basis, dodging diseases. In Mochuelo Alto there are 500 families affected by the problems of living a dozen meters from a garbage dump: smells, visual and psychological. 300 of them are located in the territories where the expansion of the landfill is planned, so their stay in the area is directly threatened and the expropriation procedures are already beginning. Although above all they report a bad management of the landfill, the worst thing is, they say, the threat of relocation, the anxiety of not knowing where will they live tomorrow.

If Colombian laws are committed to conservation, why is the expansion of an unsustainable landfill allowed to a páramo area? Why is the population that inhabits the páramo and contributes to its conservation excluded from the debate? In other words: is an agricultural transition to sustainable livelihoods possible without excluding the inhabitants of the páramo?

My personal and work experiences in the Andean region tell me that each páramo region is different in terms of history, population and use and enjoyment of it. But in general, I think that it is still difficult for most of us to see beyond what is useful in our immediate life; to value natural spaces beyond ecosystem services; to respect the cultural heritage, to the point of getting people out of their houses in order to fill everything with shit. To the point of ending the mystique of the páramo.

Text and photos: Javier Rodríguez Ros

Colombia

© Javier Rodríguez Ros 2018

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