This article was originally published in Earth Island Journal.
“Camouflaged soldiers move through the dense fog of Colombia’s Páramo de Sumapaz, a high-altitude wetland overlooking the capital, Bogotá. Although this wetland has been the site of years of intense fighting between government and rebel forces, the soldiers posted here are not engaged in military action — they’re gardening.
The soldiers in the Páramo de Sumapaz belong to Colombia’s First High Mountain Battalion (BAM, for its Spanish name). Trained to hunt their opponents over a hostile high-altitude environment of perpetual fog and sub-freezing temperatures, they are now engaged in building greenhouses, nursery plots, and laboratories. Their mission is the cultivation of the furry, cactus-like frailejón (fry-lay-HONE). This rare and endangered plant is key to ensuring Colombia’s main source of fresh water. And it is disappearing.
“The loss of frailejones might cause the collapse of the páramo ecosystem, with huge consequences for the human populations relying on its ecosystem services,” said Dr. Mauricio Diazgranados, one of Colombia’s foremost frailejón experts and the research leader at the Natural Capital and Plant Health Department at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in the United Kingdom.
Diazgranados does not exaggerate the region’s importance. Roughly 70 percent of Colombia’s population gets their water from the páramos, where the frailejón is a “keystone species,” meaning that the other plants and animals of its ecosystem depend upon it for their own survival. Humans too, are dependent on this native plant: In the perpetually foggy páramos, the frailejón traps tremendous amounts of fog on its downy surface. The fog sticks to the frailejóns’ skin as water droplets, which fall to the ground when they grow sufficiently heavy. The accumulated water flows into the lakes and rivers that act as reservoirs for both drinking water and hydroelectricity for most of the country…”
Read on at: Earth Island Journal.