As I travel through the Tatacoa Desert it looks just like a scene from a Spaghetti Western, with its sparse vegetation broken by abundant cactus shoots; and over the hill comes a man on horseback. Just like a low budget Spaghetti Western, all is not what you expect: the Westerns were not shot in the USA but in Italy, and this particular desert is located in Colombia, a country more associated in the popular imagination with jungles.
However, deserts certainly exist in Colombia and they are a growing tourist attraction, particularly this one, which is located around five hours drive from Bogotá. The area is home to 7,500 people who live off the land, growing plantains, aloe vera and goats. Their livelihoods are under threat from the regional government, which is planning to make more land available for tourism by expelling the peasant farmers. In December 2008 it had the area declared a natural park but the local population only found out about it three months ago.
Diana Valenzuela, a lawyer from the nearby city of Neiva and president of the newly formed association of those affected by the plan, explains “We applied for funding from the Ministry of Agriculture for some projects in the area and they asked us to produce a certificate that stated that the land for the projects was not subject to any legal proceeding or any restrictions by other authorities. We thought nothing of it and applied for the certificate and that’s when we were told that four years ago the area had been declared a natural park.”
According to the regional government in Huila and the regional environmental authority, the aim is to protect and conserve this unique habitat. The park covers some 36,000 hectares with a buffer zone that could see it extended to 65,000 hectares. Most of the area is designated as “untouchable” which, as the plan states, means that “that the environment has to be protected from the slightest human alteration with the aim of restoring and maintaining the natural conditions forever.” This means no agriculture. It is, as Diana Valenzuela says, “the effective mass expulsion of the population. If they can’t work the land they will have to leave.”
The paradox is, of course, that most of the population has lived there for years, some for generations, without doing significant environmental damage. I came across one young farmer who told me that his farm had been in his family for at least 100 years. Like many, he knows no other way of life.
Although the government only talks about conservation, business interests are moving in. The well-known businessman, Jean Claude Besudo, has already expressed an interest in the area. His company Aviatur has already benefited from eco-tourism projects set up in natural parks in other areas of Colombia. One such case is Gorgona Island on the Pacific which most of the locals have not visited since it passed into private hands as they cannot afford the entrance charges. Diana Valenzuela says that they are worried as the plan includes an area for a five star hotel complex to be run by a Colombian company, called Comfamiliar, which specialises in resort tourism.
In fact, the whole plan is one based on privatising the area for tourism. There is a medium impact area and a high impact area, referring to the degree tourism will impact on the environment, both of which are reserved for companies like Comfamiliar. The “untouchable” area includes a tourist trail right through it and the five star hotel complex is smack bang in the middle. Moreover, there are real reasons for questioning the authorities’ real commitment to the environment. In order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Neiva, they gave the go-ahead to a motor rally from the 12-15 July. There is nothing quite like a motor rally, with hundreds of cars churning up the dirt, to damage what the farmers recognise as a fragile environment.
The authorities only carried out superficial environmental studies. These did not include a proper inventory of flora and fauna nor capture and recapture studies on the wildlife. Instead, a Dutch NGO, commissioned to prepare a report, came up with a document that provided few statistics and, in some sections, shows disdain for the local population. It includes a photo of one farmer with an accompanying note that states: “We interviewed this farmer for three hours and all he said was ‘no ma’am, yes ma’am´.
Local government employees seem ill-prepared for the task they are undertaking. I accompanied Diana Valenzuela to one meeting where a government official told her that they were going to use an old environment management plan. When it was pointed out to him that the law had changed in the intervening years and the old plan was no longer in compliance with the law, he just looked surprised. On another occasion, the governor told us that after four years they had finally realised that the night time sky which is clear all year round would be affected by the luminous contamination coming from the hotels. The area is home to Colombia’s only observatory and yet it seems in their rush to facilitate a lucrative tourist industry they had overlooked this.
The farmers have organised and have come up with their own eco-tourist plans based on the existing infrastructure with visitors being housed by locals. They are also drawing up agricultural plans to reduce the impact of goat herding. In contrast, the government has the backing of international environmental NGOs that have given their support to the expulsion of the peasants, a sort of green fascism that will hand over the area to foreign tourists and international tourist operators.
It is said that the best things in life are free and the Tatacoa is one of them. It is an amazing, beautiful area and it saddened me when I left it to think that it will be no more and it won’t be free, not even for the locals. Like the Gorgona, it will be a pay-as-you-go resort for the well-to-do. Like in the westerns, the blue-eyed stranger will win out over the evil swarthy types.
The campaign to save the Desert can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org