Interview for El Pais

[English Translation]

THE PROTECTOR OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOREST

by Susana Serrano - Journalist of El Pais, November 16, 2019

For Rubén Darío Palacio, a biologist from Cali, the San Antonio [cloud] forest is in danger, and if something is not done quickly, its ecosystem could be damaged.

In 2017, Rubén Darío Palacio carried out research where he showed that Cali was the city with the greatest number of birds in the country.

In 2018 he published with his neighborhood friends an article about biogeographic regions in the tropical Andes in PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences], the second most cited scientific journal in the world.

Together with them he also created Fundacion Ecotonos, with which they seek to protect the country’s ecological diversity, discover new species and make their research known.

Soon, Rubén will publish in the journal Conservation Biology, one of the most important on issues of biodiversity conservation at an international level, an investigation on the current state of the San Antonio forest, which he did in the company of Fundacion Ecotonos

This would be your second publication on the San Antonio forest in a scientific journal of international stature. How do you feel about the recognition your work has received?

For me it is very gratifying that the knowledge generated through my research contributes to the conservation and restoration of this area.

The San Antonio forest is not only the heritage of Valle del Cauca, it is recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area worldwide.

Based on this new research, what is the current state of the San Antonio forest?

San Antonio is in a highly fragile state.

With my colleagues we have documented the changes that have occurred for over a hundred years, when the forest was pristine, and the Cali-Buenaventura highway had not been built.

We found that almost half of the forest cover has been lost, and although there are still areas with a good extension of forest, much of what remains are small isolated remnants.

As for birds, 31 species have disappeared. One of them was the Toucan Barbet a very attractive bird with a unique song, which in the middle of the last century was sold as a cage bird.

At that time the ornithologists warned that it was going to disappear, but not much was done, and now you ought to visit remote places to see the species. The abundance of the remaining species has also declined considerably.

It is sad not to be able to visit the forest of a hundred years ago.

In the last 20 years the forest has recovered, and consequently some species have returned, as is the case of the Colombian chachalaca, which for many years had disappeared.

What is needed now is to protect what remains and reforest other areas, to encourage the return of other species.

We still have time for the San Antonio forest and its birds to remain for another hundred years.

In your research you can determine the state of the forests through birds. How is this possible?

Birds fulfill many roles and functions within the forest and, therefore, are excellent indicators of its conservation status.

There are birds that are seed dispersers and others that pollinate the flowers.

There is also a difference in their habitats. Some live in the treetops; others forage on the ground in search of insects.

The disappearance of some species of birds is an indication of the state of the forest.

In the case in San Antonio, this is a sign that the forest is not in good condition, and this has consequences for other species and also for us humans because it puts the provision of ecosystem services such as water at risk.

What are the main actions that endanger the forest? What steps should we take and how soon?

The main concern is uncontrolled urbanization and the sale of land parcels in protected areas.

It is urgent that the municipal administration take serious measures to act in this regard.

The priority would be to avoid deforestation and pollution in the upper basin of the Cali river and also the reforestation of many areas down through its watercourse.

The Aguacatal river is also in the same situation and unfortunately has received very little attention.

As citizens, the main thing would be to get to know the forest of San Antonio, beyond the ‘Aguapanela’ with cheese that is sold at Km-18, because what is not known is not protected.

It is important to know that half an hour from the urban area we have quetzals (type of bird) and toucans. “Cali is Cali …" but you have to understand that a large part of its wealth is in its hills and mountains.

Fortunately, many organizations and individuals are already actively working on forest conservation, and the main thing would be to support these initiatives.

But all has not been lost, and there are many reasons to be optimistic.

We know that based on this research you have proposed a project to preserve biodiversity and water resources in the San Antonio forest through Fundación Ecotonos. How are they doing so far?

At Fundacion Ecotonos we are proposing the establishment of a 7 km long biological corridor to reconnect the San Antonio forest with the Farallones de Cali National Natural Park.

This project arises from the results of my research , where we found that the loss of connectivity between these two areas puts the ecological integrity of the region at risk, especially the municipalities of Cali, La Cumbre, Dagua, and Yumbo.

We already have international support from institutions like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and world-renowned experts like the British conservationist Stuart Pimm, winner of the 2010 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the father of ecological restoration, James Aronson.

Now we are looking for national and local support.

We recently launched the project at the Cali Tennis Club with a very good reception, and some companies and people have expressed their intention to collaborate, but we need much more help.

We are also forming alliances with other organizations that also have ecological connectivity projects in order to integrate our proposal with other efforts and, thus, achieve the restoration of a large area of cloud forests in the region.

In 2017 you led a study on the birds of the municipality of Cali, what do you think about the discovery of the dancing Tororoi? Do you think there is more to discover?

In our research we found that Cali has 561 species of birds, a number higher than any other city in Colombia and of many other countries in Europe.

The finding of the dancing Tororoi is an extraordinary addition to the list, because it is a species new to science. It also seems to me a great choice to make it an icon of the Cali fair, because it is a species that dances.

I want to emphasize that the discovery of the dancing Tororoi was not an isolated event or a fortuitous discovery. It is the result of a joint effort by institutions in Valle del Cauca that joined forces to promote the study of biodiversity and facilitated the presence of researchers in the area, an initiative that I applaud, as well as the work of all those involved in the process.

Many birders from the region had already visited the site and the possibility of finding new species in the Farallones de Cali was known. But to make these types of discoveries requires a lot of planning, mobilization of scientific equipment and trained personnel, in addition to continued monitoring and surveying, so it is not easy.

I believe that the limitation has always been the availability of economic resources, which are extremely scarce for this type of project. The will to do fieldwork is always there.

If there were more support, I am sure there would be many more discoveries at Los Farallones de Cali, where many areas are still unexplored.

In addition to the Dancing Tororoi, what other representative animals and plants of the area could we lose if we did not take care of the San Antonio forest and the Farallones de Cali?

Species such as the Colombian weasel, one of the rarest and most enigmatic mammals on the planet, which was recently photographed in the Farallones de Cali after more than 30 years without records, may disappear.

Many other birds may also disappear, including the multi-colored tanager, which is in danger of extinction and is the flagship species of the San Antonio forest.

There are other animals that are not as charismatic, but they are also threatened and just as fascinating.

An example is the Ruiz’s Robber Frog, which lives among the forest litter. It is very different from other frogs and was recently rediscovered around Dapa. The good news is that actions are being taken to promote its conservation.

In terms of plants, the Farallones de Cali and the San Antonio forest are home to an incredible variety of orchids that are threatened by illegal extraction.

Fine wood trees such as laurels and cedars and other very special ones such as black oak, endemic to the Andes of Colombia, are also in danger.

It must also be taken into account that rivers and streams are at risk, which can lead to a dangerous crisis in water resources.

The best way to avoid any tragedy is to preserve mountain forests, which are natural water factories.

What other research or projects you have planned for the future?

We have a project to establish a biological station in the area to carry out more research, train students in environmental issues, and provide information that contributes to keeping the forest in good condition.

Additionally, Fundacion Ecotonos is part of the Technical Steering Board of San Antonio, a group of eight organizations with technical and environmental experience in the area.

Recently, in the Steering Board we have consolidated a bank of projects with five strategic lines, ranging from the sustainable use and management of ecosystem services to the co-management of natural resources, through projects that involve green businesses and empowerment of the local community.

The invitation is for interested people and organizations to contact us to support the projects that are most of interest to them.