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Colombia Perspective: Biodiversity

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Background

Large areas of natural habitat for a range of plant and animal species are being lost every year in countries around the world, and Colombia is no exception. This loss is mainly due to Mankind’s exploitation of these areas for agriculture, fuel or minerals. Unless we can demonstrate that these areas are more valuable left as they are, we will continue to lose biodiversity at a fast rate.

The costs of leaving natural areas untouched is easily measured in terms of the loss of value which would otherwise be brought by farming or mining the land, but the benefits are often taken for granted can be harder to put a value on. In fact, environmental economics does allow us to value the services we receive from the land. These include, for example, the supply of fresh water, recreation and tourism, and biodiversity itself.
Colombia is rich in a particular unique ecosystem found in the northern Andes: the páramos. The country is home to over half (60%) of the total area, with the rest being mainly found in Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.  Páramos are generally cold and humid high-altitude wetlands which lie above the altitude of continuous forests but below the permanent snowline. In equatorial areas, this is typically at a height of 3,100 to 4,000 metres. 

These areas have unique vegetation (including giant rosette plants) and provide habitat for a variety of mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles. Páramos are also a carbon sink, tying up carbon which would otherwise stay in the air as carbon dioxide. This is particularly important for the key issue of climate change, since carbon dioxide is one of the main drivers of higher global temperatures.
Another vital role for páramos is water supply. In Colombia, these ecosystems provide fresh water to 85% of the population, so their loss would have a big impact on everyday life. 

Colombian páramos cover 2.9 million hectares of land, but this is only 1.6% of the country’s area. Despite their importance, only a third of the area lies within National Parks and so is protected. The remaining two thirds is at risk of disappearing, mainly through human activities such as cattle raising, mixed agriculture and mining. Coal and gold are important exports and there is particular pressure to expand the mining sector to promote economic growth. 

In fact, an analysis shows us that forgoing some of the direct benefits of expanding mining or farming would make better economic sense overall. It is probably impossible to stop some erosion of these ecosystems, but reducing their rate of loss by half from its current 1.2% a year would be smart. Compared to business as usual, meeting this target would mean nearly 300,000 more hectares of páramos being in existence by 2050, continuing to provide fresh water and conserve biodiversity.

The annual costs of conservation are significant, amounting to $67-89 million in 2050. However, even the lowest estimated benefit – $100 million a year – is greater than the highest cost, and the benefit could be as high as $152 million. The agriculture and mining sectors would lose the potential revenue from exploiting virgin páramos, but Colombian society as a whole would benefit from the continuing supply of fresh water. 
This study looks at one very specific example of an ecosystem important for Colombia, but the same principles can be applied to valuing other natural habitats. Destruction of these for short-term economic gain is not necessarily the best option for sustainable economic growth.