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Recuperating Colombia's Ciebas River basin

Reforestation, agroforestry and sustainable agricultural practices have been promoted (© FAO)
Reforestation, agroforestry and sustainable agricultural practices have been promoted

Colombia's lush Ceibas River basin spans about 30,000 hectares of Andean forest. Situated between 1,800 and 3,300 metres above sea level, the area is rich in biodiversity and contains highly endangered flora and fauna, such as the evergreen Andean cedar and oak trees. The Ciebas River meanders through the hilly forest terrain to the southern city of Neiva, the only source of potable water for the city's 350,000 residents and numerous other communities living in the basin.

But, although 14,400 hectares of the river basin was zoned as a national forest reserve in 1963, felling of valuable timber and intensive agriculture around Neiva, including cattle ranching, has led to deforestation, soil erosion and river pollution. It has also resulted in increased flooding, economic losses for rural communities and water shortages in the city. Since 2009, however, a public-private partnership implemented by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in collaboration with local and regional government, private enterprise and the local community, has battled to reverse this situation, creating a transferable project model to restore and conserve the entire river basin.

Reaping the fruits of hard work

The Recuperation of the Ceibas River Basin initiative promotes reforestation of natural vegetation inside the basin reserve as well as agroforestry and sustainable agricultural practices around it. The project is a collaborative effort by the Government of Huila - the municipality of which Neiva is the capital - Neiva Public Enterprises and the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Magdalena, which created a trust fund to finance the work. A council of the river basin was also formed, consisting of four community groups responsible for educating the estimated 600 families in the river basin in its restoration.

Communities have been trained to stock nurseries with quality native plant material (© FAO)
Communities have been trained to stock nurseries with quality native plant material

Through FAO-led farmer field days, workshops and tours, communities have been trained in protective management techniques, such as stocking nurseries with quality native plant material. Agroforestry systems to cultivate citrus, coffee and cocoa trees incorporate methods of conservation agriculture, such as use of 'green manure' to boost soil fertility. Walnut trees, for example, are planted alongside coffee trees and pruned after two years, with the biomass distributed as organic manure.

Outside the basin reserve, highly nutritious mulberry and moringa trees are being planted in areas where ranching is permitted, to improve cattle fodder. Income generating alternatives to cattle ranching and timber extraction include mixed vegetable gardens, fish ponds and rearing rabbits and chickens. Many families supply small outlets in Neiva as well as their own families, improving both food security and income.

Hands-on community involvement

An integral part of the project's design was to involve the community at every stage. Rural and urban representatives sit on the overall steering committee, where they have decision-making powers over project activities. The result has been a higher uptake of good agricultural practices, such as the use of green manure to boost vegetation growth instead of burning grass to encourage new shoots, which leads to soil degradation.

The community has been involved at every stage (© FAO)
The community has been involved at every stage

"Participative projects have demonstrated that the only way of generating sustainability, responsibility and solidarity in the community is through participation," says Humberto Rodriguez, Ceibas project coordinator from FAO Colombia. "The community is managing its own development." Gender equality is also integral; women receive training in empowerment and participate equally in all activities.

Already, 32 farm communities have restored forest cover across half of the Ceibas River basin. Checks and balances to ensure sustainability have been put in place, with the direct inclusion and involvement of all project partners on the steering committee. But challenges remain and when FAO participation is withdrawn at the end of 2012, this model will be put to the test.

Results on the ground show that reforestation efforts have been successful throughout the basin. In addition, a clean water supply for Neiva's residents has been restored. Rural communities are moving away from previously dominant cattle ranching and timber felling as their only source of income and are adopting agroforestry and conservation agriculture. Hope is building that this model will stand the test of time and sustain the forest habitat for future generations to enjoy.

Written by: Georgina Smith

Date published: September 2011


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