Interrogating land and water use change in the Colombian Andes

Socio-ecological tensions, farming and habitat conservation in Guantiva-La Rusia

Highlighting the Cabot Institute’s commitment to growing the evidence base for water-based decision making, Dr Maria Paula Escobar-Tello (Co-Investigator) and Dr Susan Conlon (Post Doctoral Research Assistant) introduce the social science component of an exciting three-year project called PARAGUAS, an interdisciplinary collaboration between UK and Colombian researchers to investigate how plants and people influence the water storage capacity of the Colombian Páramos…

In June 2018, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) jointly awarded funding to five UK projects under the Newton-Caldas funded Colombia-Bio programme. The Colombian Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias) subsequently awarded funding to 24 smaller Colombian projects under the same programme. PARAGUAS – How do the Páramos store water? The role of plants and people” is one of the five UK-funded projects.

Páramos are crucial for the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of people (Photo © María Paula Escobar-Tello, University of Bristol)

Crucial source of land and water

The páramos are tropical mountain wetlands found between 3000m and 4500m of elevation in the Andes. Known for their extreme water storage and regulation capacity, they generate exceptionally high and sustained water supplies to farmland, settlements and cities downstream. They are also an important repository of biodiversity. Páramos have been historically inhabited; first by pre-Colombian indigenous communities and nowadays by heterogeneous campesino communities who depend on them as a primary source of water crucial for their livelihoods and wellbeing.  In the last few decades, several political, economic and armed conflict dynamics have pushed the agricultural frontier to increasingly higher elevations. The combined pressure of land use and climate change has already degraded many páramo areas and their potential demise has generated widespread concern across all levels of governance in Colombia, as well as within the NGO sector and research community.

Growing tensions in water conservation

A diversity of actors – government, NGO, community organisations, farmers – are interacting in the conservation of water in the Guantiva-La Rusia páramo, each with their own knowledges and understandings of the water storage function of the páramo, as well as contrasting views on who should benefit from this function and on the political economy of conservation efforts. Our team began to explore two sets of dynamics where these contrasting views were manifest during a pre-fieldwork campaign in January 2019.

In the first dynamic, local populations experience national and regional conservation efforts to address land and water degradation through the delimitation of the páramos – a controversial ongoing land management process whereby government authorities seek to map the areas they believe should be conserved to protect the páramos. One approach in these new land management policies and plans is to extend national park land under protection through land acquisition, which overlaps with complex pre-existing land ownership arrangements. In addition, the Ley de Páramos 233, 2018 (Páramos Law 233) prohibits farmers from carrying out productive activities on formerly-used land, which is now defined as páramos by authorities, and tasks local authorities with negotiating with farmers and supporting them in finding alternative economic activities.  While this ban may sound ecologically necessary, multiple actors question the processes that have defined the páramo borderline for several reasons including its implications on farmers’ livelihoods, identities and ecosystem knowledges.

In the second dynamic, water conservation policies and plans prioritise the channelling of water from the páramos to the aqueducts that supply the populations downstream through land purchases that lead to changes in land use and the piping of springs and streams. These processes are equally contested and have led to community-level forms of organisation, representation and resistance; as well as to multi-scale and multi-issue conflicts between different campesino sectors; between local, regional and national-level political and environmental authorities; and between different discourses about environmentalism and modernisation.

Our project goals

As the social science component of PARAGUAS, we want to explore these different sets of socio-cultural and political tensions. We will do this by investigating how and why land and water use has changed in the Guantiva-La Rusia páramo and how this is related to public policy decisions that have shaped (or not) how local páramo inhabitants, particularly crop and livestock farmers, interact currently with the páramo through their day-to-day farming practices. Our aim for this part is to expose lesser heard voices in the conservation debate and listen to how local inhabitants articulate their understanding of the water regulation function of the páramo.

We are busy preparing for the first round of fieldwork in May 2019 and are designing our methodology of interviews, focus groups and digital storytelling techniques in close collaboration with our colleagues at Loughborough University. Watch this space for further updates!

The PARAGUAS project is supported by the Newton-Caldas Fund and funded by the NERC and AHRC [grant number NE/R017654/1].  PARAGUAS is led by Principal Investigator Dr France Gerard (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) and Co-Investigators Dr Ed Rowe (Centre  for Ecology & Hydrology), Mauricio Diazgranados (The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), David Large (University of Nottingham), Wouter Buytaert (Imperial College London), Maria Paula Escobar-Tello (University of Bristol), Dominic Moran (University of Edinburgh), Michael Wilson (Loughborough University) and supported by the research group ‘Biología para la conservación’ of the Universidad Pedagógica Tecnologica de Colombia (UPTC) – Dr Liliana Rosero-Lasprilla and Dr Adriana Janneth Espinosa Ramirez, the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH) – Dr Susana Rodríguez-Buriticá, The Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UN) – Prof Conrado de Jesus Tobon Marin and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) – Dr Liz Johanna Diaz.
NERC Programme: Exploring and Understanding Colombian Bio Resources
Newton-Caldas Fund

This blog is written by Cabot Institute members Dr Maria Paula Escobar-Tello nd Dr Susan Conlon from the School of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Dr Maria Paula Escobar-Tello


Social and environmental justice

This is Bristol: Numerous green businesses and voluntary organisations, a multitude of cyclists, recyclers and circular economists; ethical banking and a local currency; a Council-owned windfarm, Energy Company and low-carbon investment strategy; local food production, community energy, sustainable housing developments.  The 2015 EU Green Capital and the owner of the most rapid and extensive decarbonisation ambition of any city or nation in the world.

This is also Bristol: Congestion, polluted air and a polluted harbour, heat-inefficient Victorian homes, fuel poverty and food deserts. Economic inequality magnified by environmental inequality.

Bristol has been a leader in the environmental movement for decades, and it has been a leader in tackling climate change. I’ve been studying climate change for 30 years but am still in awe of the Bristol spirit.  And since arriving in Bristol, I’ve tried to help my small bit: I was with George Ferguson in Paris when he pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; I also collaborated on the Council’s Resilience Strategy and, more recently, Marvin Rees’ One City Approach, and especially its environmental theme.

Consequently, I was enthused to see Bristol pass a motion of intent, declaring a Climate Emergency and a desire to become carbon neutral. Carbon neutral across all sectors. By 2030. This is the ambitious Bristol that I love.

And yet I am wary.  I am wary that in our fear of catastrophic climate change and in our urgency to declare a Climate Emergency, we fail to build a genuinely inclusive movement.  And such a movement is needed to achieve the tremendous change that is required.

We must drive our society towards sustainability, circularity and carbon neutrality. It is necessary to protect our civilisation, to protect all of us and our planet.  But most of all, we must minimise climate change because climate change is unjust.  It will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more.  It will affect children more than their parents. The young more than the old.

And it will affect the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated – and it will do so not just because of the unfortunate coincidences of geography but because of the structural inequalities in that same society that we are fighting to save. Heat waves kill the poor, they kill outdoor labourers, the working class. Sea level rise will trap, drown and infect the poor, those without the means and wealth to freely move among nations. The volatility of food production will be particularly devastating to those who already struggle to feed their families, who already lean on food banks and charity. Hurricanes and storms will continue to devastate the communities with the least recourse to escape, who likely already live in flood-prone areas, who can be sacrificed, like those in Puerto Rico, with minimal political repercussions.

Climate change is an affront to our putative ideals of fairness and equality. It is classist.  It is racist.

But if climate action is a question of social justice, then those marginalised groups must be part of the movement.  They must set the agenda of that movement.  They must lead the movement.  And if they are not, those of us who claim the title ‘environmentalist’ cannot ask why they are not engaged, and instead must ask how we have failed.  We must challenge ourselves, our privilege, our dialogue and our institutions and understand how we have excluded them. Have we invited marginalised groups to participate in our events and our agenda?  Or have we honestly co-created an open space for multiple agendas?  Have we recognised that destroying inequality is a legitimate starting point for fighting climate change?  Have we recognised that many of our proposed solutions – entirely rational solutions – can be implicitly racist or sexist?

If we are going to prevent catastrophic climate change, then we must act fast and with unrelenting persistence. But at the same time, we must be patient, check our privilege and listen to those who have been marginalised by past environmental movements. This is especially true because it is those same marginalised groups who will most likely bear the greatest burden of climate change. We assault these groups doubly if we do not centre their voices in our common cause.  And because the environmental movement is unstoppable – technologically and socially inevitable and therefore economically inevitable – exclusion from these opportunities is yet a third assault.

I am by no means an expert on co-creating powerful social movements, fuelled by equality amongst the participants and effective in achieving change.  But I have been lucky enough to work and learn from those who do. They have shown undeserved patience and understanding and trust.

They taught me that it is vital to recognise not just your own privilege but the economic, historical or social privileges of the institutions one represents. In my case, a world-leading university.  In other cases, a business or a trust – even a small green business or cash-starved charity. And even a movement, especially a movement perceived as being by and for the white middle class.

Having recognised that privilege and in many cases the structural racism, sexism and wider inequalities that come with it, it is our obligation to decolonise those institutions rather than to plead for yet more labour from those our institution oppresses.  It is our obligation to do our own research and to commit our own emotional energy and labour. And when we do work with marginalised groups, we are compelled to respect their expertise by paying them for their services.  Major institutions will pay consultants 100s of thousands of pounds for a re-brand or governance review but ask marginalised groups to help address our diversity challenges by serving for free – by serving on our Boards, attending our workshops, advising on our projects.  It is insulting to imply that the privilege of entering our institutions and projects is adequate compensation for their time, their re-lived trauma or their expertise.

Of course, a recognition of the limitations of our institutions, our organisations and our movements is only the start. The next steps involve a fundamental reckoning with the word ‘our’ in those projects – who has owned these, who owns them now, who will own them in the future?  And given those answers, are they fit for the challenge at hand? Are they projects capable of becoming genuinely co-owned, co-creative spaces, where not just new members are welcomed but also their new ideas, challenges and perspectives?  Or are these projects that must be completely deconstructed, making way for the more energetic ones to come?  Do we ourselves have the humility to deconstruct our own projects and cede our labour to those of someone else?

These are challenging questions and the answers are not as simple as I imply.  Those of us who have been fighting climate change, plastics in the ocean, toxins in our soil, pollution in the air, and the non-sustainable exploitation of our planet are deeply invested in the struggle and in the solutions we have forged. It is not trivial to patiently draw in new perspectives nor to have our ideas questioned – we have been fighting an establishment for five decades that has been guilty of predatory delay and manipulation of public understanding.  We are right to be wary of anything that delays action, right to be uncivil, impatient and intemperate.

But it is also time to concede that a thousand ripples have yet to become a wave.  Certainly not the wave needed to dismantle the environmental degradation that has become a near-inextricable feature of our society.

In Bristol, we have the potential to create this wave together.  We have a Partnership, a One City Approach and a cross-party ambition without precedent. This is the time to re-invigorate our environmental movement, to align it with our other challenges, to become genuinely inclusive and diverse.  It will not succeed with a simple majority, with a mere 52% of the vote.  It will have to be a new political project but with an apolitical community that rejects the discourse of division and embraces new and unexpected collaborations.

It will be a community that makes use of all of our talent and is united not with a single strategy or action plan but a common cause and shared values. It will be a community that thrives through a multitude of equally respected agendas.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Professor Rich Pancost, Head of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.  This blog has been republished with kind permission from the Mayor of Bristol. View the original blog.

Professor Rich Pancost

Is population growth good or bad for economic development? Part 2

This blog has been reposted with kind permission from the LSE International Growth Centre blog.  In the previous post we described the shifting views of economists and demographers regarding the relationship between population growth and economic development. In short, rapid population growth in developing countries was thought to be a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, irrelevant (or even positive) in the 1970s and 1980s, and again an obstacle to robust economic growth from the mid-1990s up until today. Moreover, these changing views were very much in line with the evidence available for each period. How can we explain this?

There is currently no consensus on the matter. But we argue that this is an instance where historical context really matters for models of economic development and interpreting empirical data.

The post-WWII boom and bust

Since the end of World War Two, there have been two quite distinct sub-periods to world economic growth, which are well documented by economic historians ([i],[ii]). The first was the post-war economic boom, which ended around 1973. As Table 1 shows, the global economy grew very rapidly between 1950 and 1973. Indeed, wealth was created more quickly during this period than any other—either before or since.

It was an era of extraordinary political and economic change characterised by decolonisation, the rapid diffusion of knowledge and technology around the world, booming international trade, and high levels of public and private investment in the growing number of sovereign nations. It was also a period of historically unprecedented population growth, driven in large part by rapid declines in death rates, primarily in poorer countries.

Table 1

This all changed in the early 1970s. The collapse of the Bretton Woods system and rising inflation exposed the world economy to the risk of recession—a risk that was realised with the first Arab oil embargo in 1973. A further oil price shock in 1977, a series of debt crises in developing economies in the 1980s, and the disintegration of the USSR around 1990 led to a sustained period of economic malaise, with the notable exception of rapid growth in some East Asian countries.

Between 1973 and 1990 in particular, global GDP per capita growth slowed considerably. Despite a slight recovery between 1990 and 2008, GDP per capita never regained the momentum of the post-war ‘Golden Age’. Since 2008, global growth has been downright miserable.

Rapid economic growth mitigates the potential negative impact of rapid population growth

In considering these trends, two key observations must be made. First, accelerated population growth in the post-war boom years was stimulated largely by the diffusion of medical knowledge, technologies, and public health initiatives that dramatically reduced death rates from infectious and parasitic diseases ([iii],[iv]). This coincided with a period of rapid economic growth. However, importantly, sustained improvements in mortality did not depend on sustained economic growth. Among other things, this is evident from the fact that there is no obvious correspondence in Table 1 between population growth rates and GDP growth rates at the global level.

sustained improvements in mortality did not depend on sustained economic growth

Second, in a surging world economy (i.e. between 1950 and 1973) poorer countries benefited from a positive investment environment and burgeoning employment opportunities. At both the household level and the aggregate macroeconomic level this buoyant economic environment likely helped mitigate the economic strains associated with the larger family sizes and accelerated population growth that characterised the period.

When times are tough, family size matters more

After 1973, mortality continued to decline in most countries despite stagnating output. This meant that, in the aggregate, there was less output produced (e.g. income) per person. Sluggish global growth also meant that the pie of investment and employment opportunities shrank, rendering larger families a greater economic liability at both the household and the macroeconomic level.

With less income-earning opportunities, but the same number of children, households must cut spending—in some cases they may even need to pull children from school and put them to work. In the aggregate, this translates into lower savings, less investment, and a workforce that may ultimately be less productive (if less educated or unhealthy).

In sum, the negative impacts of rapid population growth were masked in the earlier period by a buoyant global economy and mortality decline that happened to accompany rapid economic growth, but was not ultimately dependent upon this growth. When this unique episode of global economic history came to an end in 1973, the underlying negative association between population growth rates and economic growth rates was revealed.

the negative impacts of rapid population growth were masked in the earlier period by a buoyant global economy and mortality decline that happened to accompany rapid economic growth

We can see this in Table 2, which presents a very simple regression model periodised in line with our interpretation of the role of history in shaping the statistical relationship between population growth and economic growth. We look at changes in the relationship over the entire time period, and within each of the two discrete economic periods outlined in the historical analysis above.

In column 1, we find a clear negative and statistically significant correlation between these variables when considered over the long run (i.e. between 1950 and 2008) and controlling for initial GDP per capita. In column 2, which covers the economic boom period from 1950 to 1973, we find no statistically significant relationship between these variables. The negative and highly statistically significant relationship returns, however, when we consider the period of economic slow-down after 1973, as we expected.

Table 2

This model is clearly highly stylised: economic growth performance depends on a wide range of factors beyond population dynamics, such as investment, trade, education, and the quality of political and economic institutions. Our key point is that properly periodising the simple cross-sectional models that have been at the heart of so much debate (and policy) provides some important insight into the matter.

If our interpretation of the data is correct—i.e. if global economic circumstances do indeed mediate the relationship between demographic change and economic performance—then the post-2008 regime of weak global growth doesn’t bode well for poor countries with high birth rates.

While there has been a modest resurgence of interest in family planning initiatives among international development organisations in recent years, much more could be done to ensure that all adults (and women in particular) have the means to choose how many children they have. Indeed, the UN estimates that today there are about 225 million women who do not want to become pregnant, but are not using safe and effective means of family planning.

if global economic circumstances do indeed mediate the relationship between demographic change and economic performance—then the post-2008 regime of weak global growth doesn’t bode well for poor countries with high birth rates.

The challenge is a particularly urgent for many countries in Africa and the Middle East—where the potential micro and macroeconomic benefits of reducing very high fertility levels are likely to be considerable.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Sean Fox from the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences.

Sean Fox

Note on sources

All data up to 2008 used in these posts were derived from Angus Maddison’s Statistics on World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2008 AD; data for 2008-2014 is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. Our sample for Figure 1 and the Table 2 consists of all countries with a population of 5 million or more in 2008 for which data were available. 102 countries fit these criteria and collectively represent 94% of the world’s population.

[i] A. Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007).

[ii] Frieden, Jeffry A. (2006) Global Capitalism: It’s Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

[iii] Preston, Samuel H. (1975) ‘The changing relationship between mortality and level of economic development’, Population Studies, Vol. 29 (2): 231-248.

[iv]Cutler, David, Deaton, Angus and Adriana Lleras-Muney (2006) ‘The Determinants of Mortality’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 20 (3): 97-120.