- Daniel Pardo
- BBC Mundo correspondent in Colombia
There are those who say that God wanted to give Colombia a little bit of every aspect of nature.
Well then: it gave him three mountain ranges, four deserts, a tropical savannah, 42 rivers, four types of jungle and access to the two largest oceans in the world. There are 311 ecosystems here. And no other country has more moors or species of birds and orchids.
Only Brazil has more types of plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish. And although the South American giant has more living organisms in absolute terms, according to UN data, Colombia is the most biodiverse country in the world per square meter.
But just as geography provides ecological wealth, it has also played a central role in the tragedies in this country, the experts consulted by BBC Mundo agree.
A 60-year civil war, the world’s largest cocaine production and one of the largest internal displacements of people humanity has seen in recent history are dramas closely related to geographic fragmentation, they point out.
This condition of a “privileged and condemned” country due to its geography is especially clear when visiting the roads of the country, precarious and uneven while leafy and dazzling: one travels just 100 kilometers in three or four hours, collapses are frequent, at each toll you see poverty, military and sale of fresh and exotic fruits, and, suddenly, it is before a virgin valley of wetlands that are lost in the horizon.
It is a sensation similar to the one that Gabriel García Márquez had when he visited Chocó, on the Pacific coast, in 1954.
“It is entirely sensible to think that if someone had thought of planting a banana plant on that land, the fruits would have grown swollen with grains of platinum. However, the reality indicates that not even those fabulous bananas could be brought to the nearest market before they began to rot, “the Colombian Nobel laureate wrote about the experience.
Fragmented from the first day
Geography was decisive in this corner of the world before it was “discovered” or, in other words, before the Spanish conquest.
“Maintaining a hegemonic and centralized control in such an abrupt geography is very difficult and that is why here there were no great empires like the Inca (in Peru) or the Mayan (in Mexico)”, says the anthropologist Jorge Morales.
“Although they reached levels of development similar to the others – there was stratification, hierarchies, goldsmithing, specialization of work and priests -, our indigenous groups were not expansionist nor did they have important exchanges between them because geographical barriers, the difference in land, were a practical and symbolic obstacle“, analyze.
It is estimated that in Colombia today there are between 80 and 115 indigenous groups, one of the highest figures in the world, only comparable with India, a country three times larger and 30 times more populated.
During the Colony (1550-1810), the inability to centralize power in a single city gave rise to a political struggle that continues even today: that of the center and the regions.
“The Spanish settled in a fragmented way, they put the capital of the Viceroyalty in an absurd place (Bogotá, in the center, far from the coast) and the cities were formed in isolation,” says historian Jorge Orlando Melo.
“This generated a tension between federalists and centralists that originated the first civil war (1812-1814) and a permanent distrust of the regions towards Bogotá,” he adds.
The main effect of the clash between the capital and the regions was a constant – and in a certain way ongoing – discussion about the distribution of royalties. That fostered the development of informal and illegal markets across the country and corrupt alliances between the elites of the parties, he says.
“Illegal states” in remote lands
The dispute over how to organize the Republic continued at least until 1991, when a new Constitution gave more autonomy to the regions and established specific mechanisms for the distribution of the budget.
But the damage, experts agree, was done: economies, cultures and politics had been configured under the centralist model in an inherently fragmented country.
And today we cannot avoid talking about the land and its property when explaining most of the dramas of Colombia.
The indigenous and peasant demand for land restitution is a historic debt and, despite the umpteenth initiatives to subdivide and legalize it, it remains uncertain who owns more than half of the territory.
Wherever the land has recognized owners, 81% is in the hands of 1% of landowners. And where not, it was occupied by guerrillas and paramilitaries.
The rulers, at least until the 1991 Constitution, implemented a country model that saw biodiversity as an obstacle rather than an advantage for development, experts say.
“The developmental production model of large investment, large machinery, large-scale agriculture, of the technocrat who distorts local knowledge about the land (…) was imposed. They turned their backs on the peasants and biodiversity,” he says Melo.
The absence of agrarian and political reforms in favor of democratization was the main argument of peasant militants to take up arms in the 1960s.
Three decades later, the guerrillas had not only become powerful armies thanks to extortion and drug trafficking, but they had colonized much of the remote territories of the country where the state was conspicuous by its absence. There, cultivating coca and marijuana became, until today, the most profitable job option.
The violence and crisis in the countryside displaced eight million people during the armed conflict, according to the UN.
Country behind its diversity
With violence involved during its 200-year history, the country tried to connect through rivers, railways, highways, and airplanes without any system ever consolidating.
The result was that each territory developed on its own, with its own customs, gastronomy or economic support. The regions starred in competitions and suspicions between them more than collaboration and solidarity.
In addition to the fact that regionalism produced political and economic struggles, as experts point out, it has also prevented the emergence of a national trait, dish or idiosyncrasy.
The cliche is to say that “the only thing that unites us is schoice (of soccer)“.
Juliana Zárate, a political scientist and cook from Barranquilla, is the co-founder of Mucho, a business that brings exotic products from remote areas to the cities. Your job is literally to defy complex nature while extracting its valuable output.
“Sometimes we find products that we had only seen in books, or that were only available over there in India or Vietnam (such as pipilongo, a variety of pepper), and we get excited just to know that someone, somewhere in Colombia, it produces them “, says the entrepreneur.
“But then we have to do a whole odyssey to get him out of there by boat, by boat, by charter, because if not, it is impossible,” he adds.
In Colombia there are 28 types of snapper (fish) and three are consumed, more than 3,000 species of beans and seven, 1,000 varieties of mushrooms and four are obtained.
At the same time, 71% of Colombians do not eat fruits or vegetables, according to the government’s National Survey of Nutritional Situation (Ensin).
“We have found that there two types of distances —Zárate continues—: a geographical one, because it is very difficult to transport the products, and a cultural one, because people do not know or do not want to know the products of other parts “.
However, he concludes, “seeing how difficult it is to connect with our products has also been a way of seeing the immense possibilities that exist; it is like feeling that there is a country to discover”.
In a slow, tortuous and sometimes unsuccessful way, the peace process that the State signed with the guerrillas in 2016 has opened the possibility of entering those remote territories where previously only illegal armed groups exercised control.
“Colombia is facing an unprecedented opportunity,” argues Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobotanist. “There is a beautiful convergence between the country that discovers peace and the citizens who recognize the spaces and indigenous knowledge of places that were previously prohibitive.”
The Canadian and Colombian citizen concludes: “A unification of Colombians can occur under the premise of nature, of biodiversity as a flag“.
A refounding of the country based on what they say God gave to Colombia: its rugged and exuberant nature.
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