At the northern tip of Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains rise up from the Caribbean Sea to become one of the country’s most biodiverse regions. This is the highest coastal mountain range on Earth, holding a myriad of unique habitats across its various elevations so that many endemic wildlife species have evolved to live only here and can survive nowhere else on the planet.
For instance, high atop the mountains within the cloud forest resides the Santa Marta Parakeet, an ornate green bird with flecks of fiery orange feathers and vibrant blue wing tips that inhabits a small range of just 263 square miles surrounding the San Lorenzo Ridge. Until the 1980s, the species was fairly common. However, as a result of devastating habitat destruction in the region during the past four decades, the parakeet is now Endangered with a declining population estimated to be less than 10,000 individuals. Much of the region’s other endemic wildlife also faces the grave threat of extinction, including the Santa Marta Toro (a tree-dwelling rodent that resembles a hamster), the Santa Marta Sabrewing (a rare green hummingbird that remains virtually unknown), and the Santa Marta Bush-tyrant (a brown flycatcher with a declining population of less than 1,700 mature individuals).
Today, only 15% of the original forest cover remains of the Sierra Nevada mountains, driving the area’s unique wildlife to the edge of extinction. Much of this is a result of expanding cattle ranches and coffee farms. Exacerbating the situation, deforested lands have been replanted with non-native trees, such as Mexican pines and eucalyptus. What little native habitat remains is gravely at risk of ongoing wildfires, set by local residents.
Since 2004, Women for Conservation and its Colombian partner have worked with communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta through a multitude of educational workshops and classes that raise awareness about the region’s exceptional endemic and endangered wildlife as well as the need for immediate conservation action. As part of these classes, both women and children learn to identify species as they participate in birdwatching lessons. Having developed a true appreciation for the region’s wildlife and their unique natural heritage, the communities now host an annual parrot festival in celebration of the Santa Marta Parakeet and the Sierra Nevada’s outstanding biodiversity.
To prevent deforestation and the ongoing destruction of habitat, women have been trained in sustainable livelihoods – such as the production of natural candles, soaps, jewelry, backpacks, and other artisan crafts. These ecologically friendly activities provide an alternative source of income, which empowers women while reducing their dependence on the region’s natural resources. Additionally, family planning campaigns have been introduced that offer information and access to contraceptives, a campaign that has been helpful in alleviating poverty and reducing stress on the natural environment. Finally, to promote reforestation and restoration of habitat, women’s groups have established tree nurseries with native species that have been used as educational models for the community.
Today, Women for Conservation seeks to expand its efforts by forming relationships with groups of women in new communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and additional plans are being developed to train communities in preventing the spread of wildfires and becoming part of Colombia’s growing ecotourism industry.