Scientists believe a key element in preserving the population lies in identifying and protecting the ‘jaguar corridor’
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will be in London this 10 November to receive the Kew International Medal for his "work to protect the biodiversity of Colombia".
According to Richard Deverell, Director of the Royal Botanical Garden Kew, by 2018 Santos will have "doubled the area under national environmental protection from 13 million hectares at the beginning of his government to 28.4 million hectares in 2018".
The extent to which these areas are really protected and the means by which the state monitors them, is, however, being questioned by local environmentalists involved in a test case at the heart of the future of Colombia's protected areas.
Last month Colombia's environment minister Luis Murillo was also in London, promoting his government's protection of Colombia's biodiversity.
Two days before he had left Colombia he announced he would explore the possibility of listing the wetland of the Cienega of San Silvestre under the Ramsar Convention, an area vital to threatened species and from which 300,000 people in the neighbouring city of Barrancabermeja source their drinking water.
But the area had already been protected: in fact, it formed a vital part of the ‘jaguar corridor', an international network of protected areas.
It had been established that the big cats passed through the wetlands having swum across Colombia's longest river, the Magdalena, to reach neighbouring populations that in turn link towards Venezuela and the Amazon.
The protected area was known as the "regional district of integrated management of the wetlands of San Silvestre", in which damaging activities were banned.
But in 2014 the local environmental authority, the Autonomous Corporation of Santander(CAS) consented to local company Rediba in allowing a zone within the centre of this protected area - to be de-protected so a rubbish dump could be built. Law 838 of 2005 otherwise bars the construction of dumps in protected areas.
Esteban Payán, the regional director of Panthera, the big cat charity that has spearheaded the jaguar corridor concept, described the decision to build the project as "absurd". Locals appealed to the Constitutional Court claiming the dump was contaminating local water sources.
While the Constitutional Court ruled that the site had "put at risk the local population, who have been exposed to pollution from the project", it only ordered Rediba to improve its handling of waste.
In June, it gave the CAS until 20 December to consider whether to close the site permanently. The mayor of Barrancabermeja has meanwhile declared a state of "sanitary emergency" which allows the Yerbabuena site to remain in use while CAS decides how to respond.
Oscar Sampayo, of the local environmentalist association GEAM, told The Ecologist: "The minister is touring Britain and talking about protecting biodiversity and expanding protected areas, while here the jaguar corridor is being degraded by the inactivity of public functionaries."
At best naïve
For Sampayo, protection means "that the dump be closed, that its licence be revoked, and that the polygon [the "de-protected" area] be re-integrated so that the fragile ecosystem of San Silvestre can be protected."
The head of the CAS at the time the licence was issued, Flor María Rangel, is in jail awaiting charges of corruption.
The current director of the CAS, Gabriel Alvarez Garcia, told The Ecologist: "This authority has the right to grant permits to infrastructure projects that will impact the natural environment: the CAS director at the time [of Rediba's solicitude] decided that the request from the mayor of Barrancabermeja was necessary and complied with the law."
Lawyers acting for local residents describe the Constitutional Court ruling as at best naïve.
Local paediatrician and environmentalist Yesid Blanco says: "The CAS has demonstrated itself to be a corrupt entity, working against the laws and principles it should defend.
"There needs to be a profound reform of the way that all regional autonomous corporations are formed and controlled. At the moment there is no entity that regulates them".
He added that the expansion of protected areas is proceeding as a requisite of agreements made with the European Union as part of their support for peace accords with the FARC guerrillas, but this expansion is taking place without providing the finances needed to make such protected areas operative.
"This situation in Barrancabermeja is so important because the government needs to enforce the norms of protection for the jaguar corridor because this part is so important, it's the only link between the populations in central and south America.
"Europe needs to make sure that the government is abiding by its promises of protecting areas of special environmental importance, rather than putting a rubbish dump in the centre of the jaguar corridor.
"It's clear that the CAS is not acting as an organ of control, which leaves us with little hope for the future of our environment."
Luis German Naranjo, Conservation Director of WWF Colombia, told The Ecologist that the performance of the regional environmental bodies (which are tasked with making the promises of President Santos and Minister Murillo a reality across Colombia) varies depending on their funding levels.
He added that their dual responsibility - that of issuing licences for economic and infrastructure projects, and of protecting the environment - could be "a potential source of conflict".
The "regional autonomous corporations" such as CAS gain the most significant part of their funding through the fees, fines and licences tied to economic activity within their jurisdiction, meaning that increasing such activity can become privileged over rural monitoring.
The irregularities surrounding the Yerbabuena site have continued to make the news. On 13 October Rediba manager Liliana Forero Cala was placed under house arrest while prosecutors investigate her in relation to the site for procedural fraud, environmental contamination, damage to natural resources, concealment and destruction of evidence, and invasion of private property.
Whether such processes will influence the future of the site remains unclear. The president of CAS assured The Ecologist that the organisation would consider all environmental and social objections raised by the community before deciding on whether or not to close the site.
Environmentalists across Colombia will be watching with some scepticism to judge whether the Yerbabuena site will serve as a turning point for environmental protection in Colombia.