Protecting one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and is home to 10 per cent of the planet’s species. But Colombia is also a hotspot for extinction and biodiversity loss because of climate and land-use changes.


In 2015, an agreement was made between the Colombian and UK government to conduct research into understanding and protecting biodiversity. To achieve this, 29 projects were set up between Colombian and UK research institutes and universities. 

Professor David Edwards from the University of Sheffield led the PARAMO project funded by NERC, with facilitation from ColombiaBio, an organisation set up to coordinate research between universities and Colombian ministries, research institutes, and other stakeholders.

The PARAMO project investigated three crucial questions:

  1. Can biodiversity be restored to cleared land? 
  2. Can forests prevent landslides?
  3. How do we work in partnership with community groups to share the research and make change?

To ensure the PARAMO project has lasting impact, the researchers listened to the problems and needs of community leaders and activists, and worked with them to find solutions to the challenges they face.

Can biodiversity be restored to farmland?

The paramo and neighbouring cloudforests are delicate, high-altitude ecosystems located in the Andes. This other-worldy mountainous stretch is foggy from low-hanging clouds. Cloud forest trees are adorned with moss, orchids and bromeliads, and at higher altitudes where trees cannot survive, the land is covered in spiky shrubs, frailejones, that can grow up to 3m tall. 

The paramo and cloudforests act like a giant sponge. You can hear the constant trickle of water as the ground and vegetation soaks up the condensation from the clouds and rainfall. They store the water, and release it gradually into water systems that people, plants and animals all rely upon. Losing the paramo and cloudforests will drive many species to extinction, and disrupt the water supply to millions of people. 

Agricultural expansion has led to large swathes of these habitats being cleared for growing crops, like coffee and potatoes, or grazing cattle which is having a devastating impact on biodiversity in the region. This, coupled with climate change, has plunged many species into at risk categories for extinction. Currently between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of paramo bird species are listed as being at medium or high risk of decline by 2100. 

The Sheffield research team partnered with multiple organisations to investigate if it is possible to restore biodiversity on land that has been cleared for farming. They investigated two options for restoring biodiversity: “land sharing” which involves retaining wildlife friendly habitat within farmland, and “secondary sparing” which involves increasing the farming intensity on a portion of land allowing remaining areas to be spared for reforestation. Both options maintained yield levels so the landowner’s income remained the same as it would without any conservation activity.

The researchers measured dung beetle and bird populations, and orchid communities to indicate the health of the land and its ability to sustain biodiversity. They found that secondary sparing is more effective than land sharing at supporting biodiversity.

When the researchers compared primary forests, that have never been cleared for farming, and secondary forests, that are located on previously cleared land, they discovered a mature secondary forest can support as much biodiversity as primary forests. 

“Whilst it is positive to learn that secondary forests can support the equivalent biodiversity as primary forests, it is important to understand that this takes years. We found that it takes 15 years for dung beetle numbers to be restored and 15-30 years for bird populations to return. We need a long-term strategy for sustainable land management if we’re going to protect and restore the biodiversity of this region” warns Professor David Edwards

Amazingly, in the process of his research, Dr Edicson Parra, who was a postdoc on the PARAMO project, discovered 11 orchid species previously unknown to science. 

“Being the first one to bring these orchids to the attention of the scientific community means that I had the honour of naming them” explains Dr Edicson Parra. “it was important to me to include the names of the territories that the orchids were found in to show respect to the communities in that region.”

Can forests prevent landslides?

Landslides cause hundreds of lost lives and billions of dollars in damage in mountainous regions each year, globally.

The problem is exacerbated by climate change and increased human occupation of vulnerable areas. Forests that once delivered slope stability that prevented landslides, are being removed to grow crops or graze cattle.

“This project focuses on the tropical Andes, the most populated and deadly landslide prone part of Colombia. Between 2013 and 2017, 2540 landslides occurred here,” explains Professor David Edwards, 

“We’ve found that landslides are almost six times more likely to occur on land with no forest than on land with forest. And when we started to look at the economic cost of landslides in this region we found that it is at least 16 times more cost effective to conserve the forests than to cover the costs of the damage caused by landslides. Not to mention, preventing landslides also lessens the risk to life.” 

Once the research team proved that there is a direct correlation between the number of landslides and deforested land, the big question became: If we need to reforest the land used for agriculture to prevent landslides, how can we do so whilst protecting the livelihoods of the communities who farm those areas?

“We wanted to explore if it would be more cost effective for the Government to pay farmers to conserve and reforest their land. So we started by looking at how much it costs on average to repair infrastructure following a landslide. Roads for example, are more expensive to repair than wire and pipe networks.” continues Professor David Edwards.

The research team then studied land use in the region and the economic value of the crops and livestock being farmed on the land. They cross referenced this information with the costs of infrastructure repair following a landslide. 

They found that the lost earnings for a coffee farmer – the most profitable land use – would be greater than the cost of a landslide if only pipe and wire networks are damaged. But if roads are damaged the cost of repair is higher than the lost earnings of not producing coffee. 

The research team produced maps to show land usage and nearby infrastructure in areas at risk of landslide. This made it easier for policymakers to identify where it would be more cost effective to pay farmers to conserve and reforest the land than to foot the repair bill following a landslide. 

The information produced by the research team is now being used by UPME, the Mining and Energy Planning Unit in Colombia, to develop future land-use policies that not only protects against landslides but also safeguards biodiversity and preserves livelihoods. 
Sharing the research

To protect the paramo and cloudforests from further destruction, and begin to restore what has already been lost, it’s crucial that the research is shared widely. It’s important that this generation and the next is aware of the devastating consequences of losing these habitats, and what can be done to stop it. 

As part of the ColombiaBio research programme, scientists organised a festival that toured the territories to showcase the research as widely as possible. The Paramo Nautas festival (a play on the words “paramo” and “astronauts”) toured six locations in six different territories. The team worked with community leaders to promote the events, which were attended by over 1200 people. 

The festival team, led by The University of Sheffield researchers, translated the research into easy to understand materials. They created videos, infographics, mural walls, photograph competitions, and games to encourage participation from NGOs, social organisations, community groups, schools, and the general public. 

Professor David Edwards and Dr Edicson Parra also instigated the formation of five science clubs for school pupils to inspire younger generations to learn more about biodiversity in Colombia. Each science club member received a kit to conduct conservation exercises so they could work towards a diploma.

For biodiversity to be restored it must be done in a way that protects the livelihoods and incomes of landowners in the region. Dr Edicson Parra is working with communities in the paramo regions to capitalise on the rise in ecotourism, by equipping them with resources to conduct biodiversity tours. This both encourages conservation activity and provides an additional source of income for those who may otherwise use the land for agriculture. 

“I have been training community leaders and activists in the field to provide knowledge on the taxonomy and life history of their region. This increases their chances of attracting tourism because they will be able to give tourists a specific history of their land” explains Dr Parra.

What’s next?

The research from the University of Sheffield team has demonstrated the crucial role that the paramo and cloudforests plays in protecting biodiversity, preventing landslides, and securing the water supply for large percentages of the population. The next challenge is how to implement the findings in a way that is beneficial to all the stakeholders involved. 

“One of the major findings of the PARAMO project and the ColombiaBio programme is that the work is not finished. The researchers have opened a pandora’s box of opportunities. But as a Colombian, I think the future is bright.

“We now know what questions we are addressing, and the context we are addressing them in. The science is telling us what can be done to protect and preserve biodiversity for the future. The challenge we face now is how to integrate this knowledge and move forward with a solution. We need to embrace the findings from the project and empower community leaders and policy makers to address the biggest challenges in the world today - climate change and the loss of habitat”, says Dr Edicson Para.

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