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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Visit to the Chicaque Cloud Forest

Cecilia Zarate-Laun
(Translated by Emily Hansen, Assistant Program Director)

Just thirty minutes from the chaos and noise of Bogotá lies the Chicaque cloud forest. The pure air and clear waters of this peaceful forest make any visitor quickly forget the racket of the nearby large city. The forest envelopes the visitor in a state of mind focused on meditation, spirituality and history. Accompanied by agronomist Eliseo Daniels, a guide who works for the park, our delegation from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, along with two professors from the University of Santo Tomas, began a long morning of coming to understand this beautiful forest.
Our guide began by thoroughly explaining what a cloud forest is and how it is of global importance. Cloud forests are found in altitudes between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level, and the fauna of the forest removes water from the fog and clouds when the wind blows, thereby helping to preserve the ecosystem that allows the forest to thrive. The fog that arrives to the forest comes from many different areas, and is therefore a mixture of cold air currents such as those from the Bogotá and Magdalena rivers, and warm air currents from the nearby town of La Mesa and from the departments of Tolima and Huila.
Upon capturing the water from the clouds through a process called evapotranspiration, the plants of the cloud forest concentrate in their leaves this water that has never been rain. The trees and plants then filter the moisture through their roots to supply the water sources that become rivers. Due to constant dripping caused by this process the floor of the Chicaque forest is always wet, and drops of water are constantly falling.
When the winds combine and turn into water, streams are created. Chicaque, Velez and La Playa, forming a beautiful waterfall, are just a few examples of such streams. The forest is full of plants such as orchids, ferns, lichen, bromeliads, and epiphytes (plants that grow upon another plant), many of them endemic, only growing in this forest. One of the aspects of the forest most highlighted by our guide was the largest oak forest near Bogotá. This oak forest contains trees that are exclusively of the Quercus Humboldtii species. This species is, sadly, endangered because the hard quality of the wood makes it a very desirable commodity, and during the 19th and 20th centuries this type of oak was used to construct houses and railroads.
When we noticed that there were not many bird sounds in the forest our guide explained that the noise of visitors silences them, but that when the birds are singing, especially at dawn and dusk, the noise can be deafening. Many different kinds of birds can be found in Chicaque, including fifteen different species of humming birds. One species, the Black Inca (Inca Negro) is endemic to the forest. There are also other animals such as sloths, armadillos, squirrels, spiders, nocturnal monkeys, butterflies, amphibians and lynx.
Through the middle of the forest runs a path made of great stone slabs. Our guide explained this path’s history: Originally this path was a road for the indigenous people who went to trade with the Chibchas, a Colombian indigenous group that lived in the highlands. During the colonial era the road was paved by the indigenous people to facilitate the passage of horses. It was via this road that the Viceroys arrived to take possession of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Nueva Granada was the colonial name for Colombia). It is because of this history that on the two-hundredth anniversary of Colombian independence parades were organized to travel this road, and some of the stones were fixed for the commemoration of the independence celebration.
We are very lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know this marvelous forest because, unfortunately, with a continuing increase in population, poverty and the need to cut wood for cooking, constructing houses, or ranching, the cloud forests are disappearing. Global climate change is raising temperatures and changing water cycles. Plants that are endemic to forests such as Chicaque are dying.
After a long walk through the forest we arrived at a shelter where we enjoyed a soup lunch typical of the Sabana de Bogotá high plateau region. Chicaque is a private forest; in the early 70’s a group of ecologists decided to buy the plot of land in order to conserve Chicaque as a forest reserve near Bogotá. This forest is unique because you can geographically see up to what point the destruction of the cloud forests in Colombia has arrived, because the people of the Sabana de Bogotá region are using the portion of the cloud forest just outside of the park boundaries for the production of flowers and grains that are not native, and for the shepherding of milk cows.
It was a privilege for our organization to be able to make this visit, because it offered us a place of rest and meditation after an exhausting week of being in meetings and hearing tragic tales of the history and reality of the conflict in Colombia. The visit to Chicaque is an experience that we will repeat with future delegations.  CSN would like to thank Professor Rafael Mantilla from the University of Santo Tomas for putting us in contact with the Chicaque park administration.
During our time in the Chicaque cloud forest, we were privileged to be accompanied by Professor Peter Bunyard, an English biologist who explained to us how the climate change is affecting the Amazon region. One of the students on our delegation, Junior Journalism Major Josh Moody, wrote about his conversations with Professor Bunyard :
During our hike through Chicaque my classmates and I chatted with Santo Tomas Professor Peter Bunyard, a biologist by trade. Dr. Bunyard explained the importance that the Amazon region plays in the world climate. Having performed fieldwork in the Colombian Amazon rain forest, this was a matter of great importance to Bunyard, one that he possessed a thorough understanding of. Bunyard argued that rampant destruction of rain forests is contributing not only to global warming, but also to a series of catastrophic and destructive weather patterns prompted by this deforestation. Bunyard predicted that unless the trend of deforestation ended, destructive weather patterns would continue and global warming would accelerate.
Dr. Bunyard and I also engaged in a conversation about aerial fumigation policies, in which I recounted some of the points we had heard the previous day from Carolyn Cooley, the U.S. Embassy Political Officer charged with the task of overseeing human rights. Bunyard seemed shocked at my recollection of Cooley glossing over the facts and citing biased reports in defense of fumigation policy. As determined as Cooley had been about denying the damage, Bunyard was equally assertive that fumigation policies are severely damaging to the environment. The two of them fell on opposite ends of the argument, and I found Bunyard's professional opinion to be more realistic and less policy driven. Unlike Cooley, I believed Bunyard.



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