Ethnobotany of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán: climate change and conservation strategies in the Colombian Andes
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán in the Colombian Andes is protected as a National Natural Park since 1977 because of its fragile páramo ecosystems, extraordinary biodiversity, high plant endemism, and function as water reservoir. The vegetation on this mountain is threatened by expanding agriculture, deforestation, tourism, and climate change. We present an ethnobotanical inventory among local farmer communities and discuss the effects of vegetation change on the availability of useful plants.
We used 76 semi-structured, 4 in-depth interviews, and 247 botanical collections to record the ethnoflora of the farmers and surveyed from the high Andean forest to the super-páramo, including native and introduced species. We organized 3 participative workshops with local children, high school students, and campesinos’ women to share the data we acquired in the field and empower local plant conservation awareness.
We encountered 174 useful plants, most of them native to the area (68%) and almost one third introduced (32%). The Compositae was the most species-rich family, followed by Lamiaceae, Poaceae, and Rosaceae. The majority of plant species were used as medicine, followed by food, firewood, and domestic tools. Local farmers reported declining numbers of páramo species, which were now only found at higher altitudes than before. Although our informants were worried about the preservation of their natural resources and noticed the effects of climate change, for several commercial species, unsustainable land use and overharvesting seemed to be the direct cause of declining medicinal plant resources rather than climate change.
We recommend conservation plans that include vegetation monitoring, people’s perceptions on climate change, and participative actions with the communities of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán.
KeywordsAlpine ecosystems Sierra Nevada del Cocuy Campesinos Climate change Colombia Conservation Local perceptions Páramos Useful plants
National Natural Park del Cocuy
- SN Cocuy-Güicán
Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán
Climate change affects altitudinal plant distribution in high-elevation tropical mountains [1, 2, 3]. Perceptions on climate change in mountain ecosystems indicate that local people can give relevant insights about climate change dynamics as they are narrowly acquainted with its surroundings [4, 5]. From an ethnobotanical approach, climate change affects human-vegetation dynamics, like altering the patterns of planting and harvesting in the Himalayas , disrupting traditional plant practices in British Columbia , and affecting the diversity of useful flora in alpine ecosystems, and therefore threatening the traditional knowledge associated with these plants [5, 7]. These studies stress the need to consider local people’s perspectives to reduce the impacts of climate warming. Changes in plant diversity as a consequence of climate processes show alarming effects on plant population over time [8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13]. Predictions on the effects of climate warming in the Andean ecosystems include displacement, adaptations (physiological changes), and local extinction of plant communities [8, 9, 10]. Ethnobotanical research in Andean mountain ecosystems have mostly focused on medicinal plant use by local communities [14, 15, 16]. Research on non-medicinal plants of importance for the inhabitants of high altitude zones, or on local perceptions on the decline of useful plants related to climate change are lacking. Apart from climate change, agriculture, pasture, and logging activities constitute the main drivers of deforestation of the Andean tropical forests and high altitude tropical wetlands, locally known as páramos [17, 18, 19].
In this paper, we present the results of an ethnobotanical inventory in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán (from now on “the SN Cocuy-Güicán”) and discuss the possible effects of climate and land use change on the future availability of useful plants for local farmer communities. The SN Cocuy-Güicán rises in the northern range of the Eastern Cordillera of the Colombian Andes. Since 1977, this region is protected within a National Natural Park (NNP-Cocuy) because of its fragile páramos, extraordinary biodiversity and endemism, and its function as a corridor for migratory species under conditions of climate change . Páramos and Andean forests provide drinking water to Colombia’s large cities, like Bogotá, Medellín, and Bucaramanga. With the largest extension of glaciers in Colombia, the SN-Cocuy-Güicán is a valuable freshwater reservoir that supplies the Orinoco and the Magdalena River basins . The local population consists of indigenous U’wa people, who occupy the eastern flanks of the SN Cocuy-Güicán, and more recent settlers (“colonos” or “campesinos”). The latter are farmers who inhabit the western flanks and were the focus group of our ethnobotanical research. The vascular flora of the páramo of SN Cocuy-Güicán is well documented [22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27], but the few ethnobotanical studies in this area focused on few medicinal plants , potatoes  or specific plant families such as Ericaceae . Previous ethnobotanical research among farmers in the same Boyacá department (in Guacamayas at 32 km downslope from El Cocuy and in Villa de Leyva at 300 km distance) highlights the relevance of the useful flora for preserving their cultural heritage and biodiversity [31, 32].
Since the colonial period, human pressure on the páramo ecosystems increased due to social and economic changes . New productive land systems replaced the more sustainable indigenous agricultural practices, based on altitudinal and seasonal zonation of land use. The introduction of exotic species (wheat, peas, broad beans) was combined with the application of European land use techniques (monocultures) and the introduction of cows and sheep in high altitude rural areas. The campesinos group emerged during the Spanish colonization as a consequence of settlement policies and the demand for farm labor, displacing the indigenous groups towards remote areas in the mountains .
What are the plant species used by the campesinos?
At what altitudes do they collect useful plants?
What is the proportion of native versus introduced species?
Have the campesinos noticed a reduction in plant availability?
Could potentially declining plant resources be associated with climate change?
We expected that local farmers would use a large number of plants because they rely on their natural resources since the colonial era. We anticipated to find a greater proportion of native species than in nearby Andean areas [31, 32], as the SN Cocuy-Güicán is a quite isolated mountain with high levels of plant diversity [22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27]. We also expected a reduced availability of plant resources due to overharvesting practices. We hypothesized that farmers had to collect plants from higher altitudes than in the past as a consequence of climate change and vegetation zones moving upwards [11, 12, 13]. We hope that this study will provide international support to preserve the cultural heritage and the fragile páramos of the SN Cocuy-Güicán. Our inventory serves as a basis for implementing projects on environmental education and sustainable development, such as ethnobotanical field trails for children and tourists, and useful plant workshops in schools or community groups.
The study area
The vascular flora of the páramo includes about 482 species and the superpáramo accounts for 175 species [23, 38]. The local population is distributed in two main municipalities: Güicán (pop. 5920) and El Cocuy (pop. 5383) . We worked with farmers who inhabit the higher areas of the western flanks of the SN Cocuy-Güicán, within the Vereda de San Antonio de la Cueva (Vereda de la Cueva), Parada de Romero, and Lagunillas sectors (Fig. 1).
We walked into the field and along existing mountain trails with staff from the NNP-Cocuy and local farmers (one young girl of 9 years old and 9 men ca. 20 to 55 years old) to collect useful plant specimens from our base camps in La Esperanza, Kanwara, and Guaicaní (Fig. 1). Farmers pointed out useful plants to us, but we also selected plants ourselves to verify whether they were used. We also brought fresh and dried specimens to the campesinos’ villages to discuss the previously collected ethnobotanical information during home interviews (33 men ca. 20 to 75 years old and 35 women ca. 9 to 80 years old). We used these specimens in the interviews or we asked our collaborators to show us the plants they were mentioned. We combined 76 semi-structured interviews with 4 in-depth interviews and participant observation with local people, following the Code of Ethics of the International Society for Ethnobiology . We used snowball sampling  to find collaborators who were willing to share their ethnobotanical knowledge and indicate well-known plant experts in the community. Valid and reliable data was assured by interviewing a high number of participants and selecting knowledgeable plant people. We focused on plants known and used by the campesinos, either in the past or the present, because their general floristic knowledge would allow us to detect plant use changes that could be related to potential declining plant resources or new regulations by the park authorities. Interviews were formulated around the following questions: What plants do campesinos use and for what purposes (including plant part, preparation, application)? Where these plants are collected (habitat, altitude) and what is their domestication status (cultivated, wild)? Have you noticed any change in the use or availability of these plants? What is the cause of declining resources of useful plants? From whom did you learn how to use these plants? All interviews were held and recorded in Spanish.
Our inventory covered all ecosystems: Andean forest, sub-páramo, páramo, and super-páramo within the NNP-Cocuy. We collected three duplicates of each specimen and we recorded their uses, local names, habitat, habit, and location, using a high-sensitivity GPS device (Etrex-GARMIN). We surveyed in the markets of Cocuy and Güicán to document the commercialization of (medicinal) plants from our study area. Vouchers were deposited at the herbaria of the National University of Colombia (COL) and the Andes University (ANDES) in Bogota. The specimens were identified at the COL herbarium.
We organized our data in an Excel table (Additional file 1) with the following information: collector, collection number, collection date, geographical coordinates, family, scientific name, specialist who identified the specimen, plant description, collection locality, domestication status, native or introduced, habit, habitat, vernacular names, language, uses (parts used, preparation, application or illnesses treated), and name of the informants. We consulted the Catálogo de Plantas de Colombia  to know whether a plant was native, endemic, or introduced and we checked the plant list  for the current scientific names according to the APG III system. We categorized plant uses in medicinal (including veterinary uses), food (including seasonings), wood (including firewood, construction, fences, and tools), domestic (including handicrafts and decorative items), fodder, ritual, dye, and restoration. The latter category included those species that were used to restore disturbed páramo ecosystem. We also asked for the campesinos’ perspectives and personal experiences related to climate change and plant availability.
Sharing data with the community
The most cited health conditions for which people used medicinal plants were colds (flu, sore throat, cough), wounds, stomachache, heart problems, blood circulation, and female reproductive health issues (menstruation cramps, abortion, child delivery, vaginal baths). Although edible plants were numerous (36 spp.), some constituted famine or emergency foods, used in times of scarcity or special energy demands [52, 53]. For example, the raw marrow of Espeletia stem rosettes was eaten during the amine period caused by the violent conflict between the Conservative and Liberal parties in the 1950s. Other plants were consumed fresh to obtain energy and alleviate the thirst during high physical demand activities in the mountains, such as the leaves of Echeveria bicolor, bulbs of Cyrtochilum revolutum, the entire lichens of Thamnolia vermicularis, and fruits of Vaccinium floribundum. Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and long onions (Allium fistulosum) were the most popular crops cultivated in the SN Cocuy-Güicán, both grown for home-consumption and the market. Lesser crops were peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba), but these were sometimes also purchased in the markets. Maize and wheat were cultivated for subsistence in a few plots.
Domestic uses were mentioned for 22 species, but local inhabitants said its relevance had decreased, just like the use of plants for natural dyes and rituals. Hypericum juniperum and H. laricifolium were used as brooms to clean the house before plastic brooms appeared in the SN Cocuy-Güicán. Crescentia cujete and Lagenaria siceraria were used to store and carry “chicha,” an ancestral indigenous drink made from fermented corn. Chicha is no longer made by the campesinos as it has been replaced by the commercial beer and other alcoholic beverages. Globalization has influenced the farmer’s previous self-sufficiency on natural resources and promoted modern lifestyles with less reliance on the local vegetation and gardens and a greater dependence on industrial products.
We also encountered “new” plant uses that emerged in 1998, during the restoration of degraded páramo vegetation. Some of the species that the NNP-Cocuy employees used in their nursery garden “El Alto de la Cueva” at 3950 m were Buddleja bullata, Calamagrostis effuse, Diplostephium spp., Draba cocuyensis, Espeletia spp., Lupinus pubescens, Myrsine dependens, M. guianensis, Pentacalia corymbosa, Polylepis quadrijuga, Senecio niveoaureus, S. wedglacialis, Vallea stipularis, Viburnum hallii, and Weinmannia microphylla. Most of these were traditionally used by the campesinos (see Additional file 1) but are now used to restore páramo areas that have been degraded by the cattle or deforestation. The NNP-Cocuy employees used only native plants for restoration projects in the National Park.
When the settlers brought livestock to the Andean páramos, many exotic plants from Europe were introduced as fodder. Examples are Dactylis glomerata, Pennisetum clandestinum, and Lolium perenne. The colonization and expansion of these grasses have been stimulated with the increase of grazing areas, created by clearing and burning patches of páramo vegetation and cutting large areas of Andean forest, causing paramisation. Páramo species quickly pioneering arrive first and with them also native weedy species (e.g., Paspalum bonplandianum, Lachemilla orbiculata, and species of Juncus, which are rare in pristine páramo. Also other exotic species arrived with them such as Hypochaeris radicata, Digitalis purpurea, Rumex acetosella (pioneering after potato harvest), R. obtusifolius, and Trifolium pretense.
We identified 11 medicinal and edible species harvested from the NNP-Cocuy in the markets of Cocuy and Güicán: Aloe vera, Aloysia citriodora Alternanthera lanceolata, Citrus x aurantium, Coriandrum sativum, Cymbopogon citratus, Matricaria chamomilla, Melissa officinalis, Ocimum basilicum, Petroselinum crispum, and Senna occidentalis. Except for A. lanceolata and S. occidentalis, all species were cultivated exotics and sold in herbal corsages. Our informants stated that in the past, a greater diversity of native plants was sold at the markets, including Draba litamo and Niphogeton dissecta. The current scarcity of these species, as perceived by the campesinos and observed during our field walks, and the restrictive policies by the NNP-Cocuy on harvesting páramo flora could explain these changes in plant diversity on the market.
Climbing higher to harvest useful plants
The farmers we interviewed mentioned a reduction of native and especially medicinal plant resources. Species like Draba litamo, Senecio wedglacialis, Niphogeton dissecta, Lepidium bipinnatifidum, Passiflora mixta, and Acaena elongata were more difficult to find and had shifted to higher altitudes. These changes could be caused by climate change, as the temperatures have increased 2 °C in the SN Cocuy-Güicán in less than four decades  and the páramo vegetation tends to colonize areas above their distribution range in response of climate warming [11, 12, 13]. Farmers reported that the weather was already unpredictable and the decrease of the snow causing water shortage affected the vegetation, including their crops. They indicated that crops like maize and wheat were now cultivated at higher altitudes. One farmer reported: “50 years ago, some cultivars were planted in a specific time of the year, nowadays they can be planted all year because the climate has changed.” Another farmer commented: “This [climate change] can be good in some sense, for those who have water to maintain them, but we cannot predict the weather anymore.”
Local inhabitants had noticed the retreat of the glaciers and the decrease of snow on the mountain peaks. Many farmers commented on this phenomenon, with statements like “The most affected by climate change are the glaciers, the decrease in water” and “If there is less water, some plants will be affected, especially those that live in the marshes” and “Plants are now growing where there was snow before”. Most farmers, however, related the decrease of the snow to tourist activities, such as stepping and littering on the snow. The farmers that were previously informed by the NNP-Cocuy campaigns related it to climate change. As the snow continues to disappear, the páramos’ freshwater supply will decrease, which will directly affect the farmers subsistence. As observed by local communities in the Himalayas  and British Columbia , planting and harvesting patterns are changing, and therefore the behavior and farming habits of their inhabitants must adapt, in a relatively short time, to these changes.
The campesinos we interviewed mentioned that they perceived an increasing scarcity of Draba litamo, known as “lítamo real”, a small herb that is made into an infusion or macerated in wine to revitalize and obtain eternal youth. For several days, we surveyed field areas that farmers pointed out as the (former) natural habitat of D. litamo, but we could only find a few specimens at the very end of our fieldwork. Some of the medicinal species were previously gathered in large amounts to be sold at the market, like the D. litamo. The increasing scarcity or absence of this plant indicated dwindling resources of this species. In this case, however, overharvesting seemed a more important factor causing the decline in medicinal plant resources than climate change.
The decline in other medicinal plants that are now found in higher altitudes could be affected by overharvesting practices rather than climate change due to its commercial and therapeutic value. Nevertheless, climate change processes could be playing a role in their ecological distribution and abundance that might be observed in long term.
Changes in plant uses
As concluded from the campesinos’ information on useful plants, the traditional uses of at least 18 species had declined over time or disappeared altogether. However, the farmers we interviewed still had considerable knowledge on useful plant resources in the SNN-Cocuy, as they pointed out 174 useful species. The skepticism of our informants about modern medicine, its price, and the lack of medical facilities in the area could be an explanation for the popularity of natural plant medicine. Edible plants were numerous (although many of them exotic), but emergency food was seen as a great ally in the extreme conditions of the high mountains. Farmers had noticed a decline in the volume and diversity of domesticated edible crops over time. The land became less fertile due to the use of agro-chemicals and overexploitation . The lack of incentives in agriculture, the high rural to urban migration rates in the last decades, and the decrease in the number of children per household (more sustainable but less workforce) have caused campesinos to shift to farming activities that include more cattle heads and less crops . This less risky investment provides more meat-derived products to commercialize. The transition from a diverse and self-sufficient agriculture to monocultures of potatoes, maize, long onions, and intensive grazing has also been observed among farmers in nearby areas [31, 32] with the consequent loss of traditional agricultural knowledge.
The campesinos in the SN Cocuy-Güicán retained substantial knowledge about plants used for their wood, but in contrast with the local inhabitants of Villa de Leyva , the demand in this category was much lower, probably because the collection of native woody species for construction, fencing, or firewood had been restricted in the páramos by the park authorities. As logging activities in the park were prohibited, plastic, metal, and other building materials were now more popular than before. The restrictive policies in the páramo and superpáramo emerged from the unsustainable exploitation of some plant resources (e.g., Espeletia spp. and Polylepis quadrijuga), which were used for firewood, to make fences or to build houses (Fig. 4). The consequence of this large-scale extraction in the past, especially during the ninetieth and twentieth century  and the legal prohibitions afterwards, is that many traditional plant uses have been abandoned. The same native woody species, however, were now used for restoration projects by the employees of the NNP-Cocuy.
Comparable to other studies on Andean ethnobotany [31, 32], the proportion of native plants used by our study group (68%) was more than twice the number of introduced species. However, the farmers in the SNN-Cocuy used a considerable proportion of introduced plants to feed their cattle (55%), for consumption (44%), and to heal themselves (40%). Plantations of introduced trees like Pinus patula and Eucalyptus globulus have displaced and decreased the natural resources of native useful plants [55, 56]. Pine plantations cause soil acidification and water loss, which affects the original vegetation [57, 58]. However, introduced species also have become important for the subsistence of local farmers in the provision of food, medicine, and fodder. Although the discontinued use of native species may erode the traditional plant knowledge , the input of introduced plant medicine can also enrich the local pharmacopeia . This was also observed in our study area, where many introduced medicinal species (Mentha spp., Origanum spp., Calendula officinalis, Borago officinalis) were cultivated in house yards or purchased at the market, so their presence may have a limited impact on the natural environment.
Unsustainable land use, including overharvesting practices, combined with the effects of climate change affect the natural population of useful plants in the páramos of the west slope of the SNN-Cocuy. Monitoring the spatial distribution of vegetation over time is required to obtain quantitative data on the decline of plant resources and the direct causes for this decline in order to apply the proper conservation policies. The Colombian Páramo Vegetation Database (CPVD) , the GLORIA-Andes database , and the almost 200 records of the Cocuy páramo vegetation (1972–2017) collected by Cleef [23, 38] could be used as sources to study floristic distributions in the past, register current alterations, and predict vegetation changes in the future. This study confirms the concern among local farmers about the melting snow, so it is crucial to include people’s perceptions on climate change to design effective conservation policies [4, 5, 6, 62, 63, 64]. During our workshops, we noticed that local farmers worried about the preservation of their natural resources. Local concerns can be solved with the implementation of environmental policies and active participation that take into account the local population needs [5, 49, 64, 65]. Courses on environmental conservation for local farmers are highly relevant, especially for those who are directly involved in the tourist business. Employees from the NNP-Cocuy, specialists on plant resources management and local people should work together to develop conservational strategies towards sustainable tourism and practices and accomplish the policies that were implemented since the opening of the NNP-Cocuy, such as obligatory-guided heritage tours, limited number of tourists, and no garbage disposal in the environment . Placing local people as key actors will help to prevent the degradation of the floristic páramo resources and their cultural plant legacy.
Suggestions for further research
The SN Cocuy-Güicán is the ancestral land of Muiscas and Laches, forefathers of the indigenous U’wa group . Anthropologists have studied the U’wa’s land use and cosmovision [67, 68, 69, 70], but a systematic study of their useful flora does not exist. Ethnobotanical research among the U’wa is essential to complete the inventory of useful plants of the SN Cocuy-Güicán. Through comparative analysis between the ethnobotany of farmers and the U’wa, it can become clear to which extent exchange of knowledge on plant use have taken place among these two groups that once lived surrounded by the same natural resources.
We greatly thank Don Marco Arturo Valderrama for his kind hospitality and for encouraging us to conduct the community workshops. Special thanks to Don Luís Hernándo Barón and Don Jorge Raúl Carvajal Duarte for providing us some of the pictures we published here (Figs. 3 and 5) and Don Jairo Carreño and Pastor Correa for their guidance in the beautiful páramos. We also thank the dean of La Normal school in Güicán, Pastor Zambrano Salazar, for giving us consent to organize the activities with the children and the youth students, as well as the teacher Milton Real for facilitating this collaboration and Doña Luz Dary to set up the workshops with the women. We are grateful to all the inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Güicán for sharing with us their precious time, knowledge, meals, support, and kindness. This study would not have been possible without their participation, and it should benefit their needs promoting the conservation of their beloved homeland. We greatly thank Carlos Parra, Adolfo Jara Muñoz, and both the COL and ANDES staff for its logistic support and for hosting our plant collections. We also thank Dr. Jorge Luís Ceballos for his kind support during our fieldwork time and his valuable friendship.
This study was funded by the Alberta Mennega Stichting, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Treub-Maatschappij, the Hugo de Vries Fonds, and an anonymous donor in Medellin and in Ellecom (The Netherlands).
Availability of data and materials
All data collected and analyzed in this paper are included in “Additional file 1” as a supplementary information file. All voucher specimens are kept in the COL and ANDES herbaria in Bogotá, Colombia.
AC organized the expedition to the study site and introduced MAR and AA into the páramo flora; MAR, TVA, and AA designed the methodology; MAR and AA conducted the fieldwork and collected and identified voucher specimens; MAR analyzed and wrote the manuscript; TVA and AC corrected the manuscript; and all authors reviewed and approved the final version of the manuscript.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Before conducting interviews, the permission of individual prior informed consent was obtained from all participants. All work conducted was carried out under the International Society for Ethnobiology Code of Ethics. The right to use and authorship of any traditional knowledge of all participants is maintained, and any use of this information, other than for scientific publication, does require additional prior consent of the traditional owners, as well as a consensus on access to benefits resulting from subsequent use.
Consent for publication
We have obtained oral consent from the persons on the pictures to publish these.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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