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Posts Tagged ‘Colombia’

Looking back at working on its nature policies for a week, Colombia holds a concentration of humanities challenges, from melting ice (Colombia is losing its glaciers) to poverty and conflict. Their responses to these challenges reveals the best and worst of the effects of economics on the environment.

The worst is the rapid expansion of mining in response to global metal price rises in the last decade (e.g. gold). This market signal has stimulated production at the cost of colossal externalities from mining, often carried out illegally in nature reserves, but also creating huge health problems. Small scale gold mining uses mercury to separate gold from its ore, but the final stage of burning to separate the mercury (which vapourises at a lower temperature) and the gold is usually undertaken in towns due to the risks of being robbed at rural mine locations. This results in mercury exposure not just to the miners, but to their neighbours in towns. The highest environmental concentration of mercury ever recorded was in Colombia; freshwater biodiversity is suffering.

On the other hand, Colombia is proud of its mega-biodiverse natural environment. It has several policies that earmark resources to conserve the natural environment (e.g. spending part of license fees for companies on forest restoration). So in these cases, economics provides the structure to transfer resources to enhance the environment. It’s a microcosm of how, as an environmental economist, I view the global economy: most markets don’t reflect environmental costs and collectively cause colossal damage, but without markets how can we reallocate resources to protect nature?

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I am currently applying the cowburps principles in an evaluation of Colombian biodiversity polices. Unfortunately for my colleagues’ jetlag, the meetings are being held in a hotel basement conference room, but I undertook some first hand research of this ‘mega-biodiverse’ country for a few days before the meeting started.

The highlight was visiting a private nature reserve – financed by entry fees, rock climbing and horse riding services, and accommodation provided in an impressive wooden ‘refugio’ (lodge) where I stayed – nature tourism in action. Reaching the lodge involved a 2km hike from the entrance, which started at 2,630m above sea level and dropped 450m through cloud forest on the slopes of the central Andes. They limit entrance to 120 people per day, and I encountered a dozen Europeans, mainly Germans, but the majority of the visitors where Colombians, from the country’s new middle class.

This walk could be covered in 20 minutes, but it took me 2 and a quarter hours, because there were simply too many birds to see. I encountered 3 mixed flocks of birds moving through the forest, which take a lot of concentration to follow as birds move at all different heights from the neck-straining canopy to underneath the leaf litter, each pursuing its ecological niche. I saw 17 species of bird I’d never seen before, including four from genus (family groups) I’d never seen before. To put this in context, seeing more than one new species per day when birdwatching in Europe would be good. As a nature-tourist, it was worth every penny.

As I emerged into the forest clearing near the Lodge, I puffed out my cheeks in exhaustion and rested my hands on my binoculars. An American teacher saw me breathing heavily and holding my chest and came over to ask if I was alright – I reassured him that I wasn’t having a heartattack. It did make me think that the name ‘refugio’ was apt, as going in doors was the only way to take refuge from this overwhelming ornithological diversity. I could just listen to the howler monkeys, and sneak a glimpse at the hummingbirds outside the window.

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