Exploring Colombian páramos in the archives and the field
As part of the project “Integrating ecological and cultural histories to inform sustainable and equitable futures for the Colombian páramos” research associate Hanne Cottyn took her first research trip to Colombia this summer. Read all about it here!
Research trip, June – August 2019
Hanne Cottyn, Department of History
As part of the project “Integrating ecological and cultural histories to inform sustainable and equitable futures for the Colombian páramos” I undertook a first research trip to Colombia in the course of the summer (14 - 28 June, 27 July – 1 August). Within the project, I form part of the team that focuses on processes of historical transformation of the páramo, a highland ecosystem of the Northern Andes. Formed by UK and Colombia-based researchers in History, Anthropology and Cultural Studies, our team conceives páramo landscapes as both the product of historical processes and historical actors in their own right. While páramos are transformed through the interaction between humans and non-humans, they form a key constituent in the lives of multiple species. This approach comes with methodological challenges, especially regarding landscapes that have largely escaped history. How do we trace the history of living landscapes? Which sources can help us understand the role of animals and other non-humans in landscape transformation? This first research trip served to do a first scooping of archival and library collections and to explore several páramo sites in order to start planning the research activities of the coming years. During this research trip, the team also established contacts with Parques Nacionales Naturales, several centres of the National University of Colombia, and researchers at the Universidad Javeriana.
Teams of researchers from the University of York and the Instituto Humboldt visited the National Park of Chingaza, east from Bogotá, and spent three days in the Sumapaz region, south from Bogotá, together with the team of geographer Lina Córtes of the National University of Colombia. Thanks to the collaboration with brilliant local guides, we were able to “read” and understand the “footprint” of several historical human activities in the landscape and their (often unintended) consequences. Where tourists now hike through protected areas, the appearance of mountain bamboo “chusque” tells us this once served as pastureland for milk cows. Where the invasive species ulex europaeus (Gorse) was once deliberately introduced as a living fence to protect water reservoirs, its aggressive expansion now sparks horrified reactions by locals. Where peasants once had to negotiate the organization of their daily activities with the guerrilla leaders of the FARC, they now negotiate potato cultivation and cattle ranching with the authorities of the National Parks.
The research combines ethnographic fieldwork with archival research. My exploration started in obvious research destinations such as the National Library and the Archivo General de la Nación in search for sources on agrarian policies, land rights and environmental governance in páramo areas since the nineteenth century. I screened more specific collections in the archives of the peasant educational radio Radio Sutatenza (Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango); the personal archive of “the father of Colombian geography” Ernesto Guhl; the personal archive of sociologist Rocío Londoño resulting from her decades-long research on the Sumapaz region; and the Mammalogy Collection of the Instituto de Ciencias Naturales. A wide range of sources was identified and explored; from photographs instructing peasants how to improve potato production to animal skulls, from songs composed by locals about the páramo to executive resolutions, from agrarian surveys to oral testimonies about bear attacks. Through a creative and interdisciplinary approach, these sources will guide us in unravelling the more-than-human history of the páramos.