View of hut in Colombia's Eastern Andean Piedmont.

On the Andaquí Trail: Exploration and Conservation of Colombia’s Eastern Andean piedmont

Douglas C. Daly

Sadly, given the human and financial resources currently devoted to studying the flora of Amazonia, it isn’t possible to study all of it at once, so NYBG scientists have had to choose priority areas, based in part on the institutional resources in a given area. Dr. Ben Torke has selected Southeastern Amazonia, working closely with a very young university in Santarém called the Federal University of Western Pará (UFOPA). I have focused for 25 years on the Brazilian state of Acre, recently expanding the scope of the effort to include the rest of Southwestern Amazonia.

Starting in 2010, however, I began to collaborate with SINCHI, the Amazon research institute of Colombia, which has a small but dynamic botanical team. The domain of the SINCHI botanists is fascinating because the Oriente includes the eastern slopes of Andes, which drain into several Amazon tributaries, so in addition to lowland rainforest, it includes montane forests and cloud forests. The focus of my collaboration with SINCHI is the Departamento or State of Caquetá, which has the dubious distinction of the highest rate of deforestation in all of the Oriente and one of the highest in the country. The region’s steep terrain makes its forests easily degraded and its soils quickly eroded, and it is under intense development pressure for cattle, agriculture, mining, and cultivation of coca.

Within Caquetá, we have focused our efforts on the Andaquí region, for several reasons. The historic trail that crosses the region has been in continuous use since pre-Conquest times for trade and escape, even though the terrain is too tough for mules; the name derives from indigenous groups that were never pacified. Keeping in that tradition, a local NGO called Tierra Viva has successfully resisted pressures and occupation by guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, narcotics traffickers, and developers; Tierra Viva’s founder, Herasmo González, was threatened several times and was the runner-up for the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013.

Moreover, biologically Andaquí is incredibly rich and, until recently, unknown. In 2016 I received a grant from the National Geographic Committee on Exploration to cross the Andaki reserve with botanists from SINCHI, assisted by members of local families. In ten days, we made 1200 collections, corresponding to ca. 1000 species, something almost unheard of. The specimens are under study, but we have no doubt the results will yield numerous species new to science.