Its is a short drive from Cali over the misty peaks of Los Farallones, past El Dieceocho, to the pacific slope of Colombia’s Western Cordillera. But in this distance, many things change, both in terms of the visible environment, and in more subtle ways. In moving from the inter-andean valley to the pacific slope, one becomes acutely aware of the reason why the peaks of the Western Cordillera are so constantly shrouded in mist, and why here forests are so abundantly green and moss-hung. This reason has a name: the Cocó-Darien. Famous as the place that stopped the Pan-American Highway, with its impenetrable forests and up to ten metres of annual rainfall, the Chocó is a massive lung, harvesting and respiring great humid breaths of the moisture moving in from the warm pacific coast, and condensing it against the high peaks of the Andes. In these forests, the almost constant rain humidity has allowed the growth and diversification of a massive profusion of life-forms, including many species not found anywhere else on the planet.
The more subtle difference is socio-political: sadly, as in so many lowland tropical forests, there is now a push for Colombia to open this region to exploration for gold, timber, and oil palm expansion, industries whose profit balances are intricately linked to the global flow of capital and commodities markets, or the transition from fossil to bio-fuel alternatives. This process has already begun, in places illegally, yet the reason for this region’s relatively intact state to this day is yet more machiavellian. Long revered by indigenous andean communities as a gift from the gods, coca (Erythroxylum coca), is cultivated on a large scale on these slopes, converted to cocaine, and trafficked through coastal ports to lucrative markets in the US and Europe. FARC, the organization that has for almost the last 50 years been pitted against paramilitary groups and Colombia’s successive governments in the world’s longest running civil war, is considered to draw a substantial amount of its funding from coca traffic, and has been infamously portrayed by the US government as a narco-terrorist organisation for this reason. The civilian toll of this conflict, its impact on lives and livelihoods, and its contribution to the rise of the paramilitaries and the subsequent burdening of Colombia with one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, are an ongoing tragedy. This violence and unrest also makes parts of the Chocó region an unsafe place to travel, and limits opportunities for people living there.
Happily, at this moment a long-running peace-process is drawing to a close in Colombia: (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/16/colombia-brink-ending-civil-war-farc), in the terms of which FARC are pushing for a radical shift in the way coca cultivation is viewed. Rather than criminalizing the growers, they display a healthy dose of connectivity-consciousness in suggesting instead a thorough examination of the socio-economic factors that contribute to coca cultivation being an attractive option, the corruption which surrounds the continued existence of international markets that receive the products, and the interests of the chemical companies supplying the ingredients for coca-processing on a massive scale.
It is an unfortunate irony meanwhile that a side-effect of this conflict has been the preservation of one of the worlds last great lowland rainforests. At Los Pericos
a micro-catchment reserve on the pacific slope, only two hours drive from Cali, I was lucky enough to sample some of the tangible and intangible benefits of this conservation. Tangible, in that I could join a throng of day-trippers from nearby Buenaventura (a city not recommended for travel by tourists, for its high crime rate), in enjoying the ecosystem services of cool flowing water, and respite from the heat offered by the many streams that flow form the cloudy peaks here. Intangible in the soul-recharge offered by time spent in an intact and functioning forest. I was even inspired to try to capture that feeling of connectedness in the above peice “conexiones”, consisting of a rainforest stream and boulder, painted with naturally occurring ochre from the site. For me the simple points and lines represent the interdependence of all components of the biosphere. I sincerely hope that not only will peace come to Colombia and the Chocó soon, but that in peace, we can also find ways to recognize the vital importance of intact ecosystems, not just as natural resources to be extracted, but places of intrinsic value that cannot be estimated in pesos or dollars.