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We have become accustomed to endorsing climate change with the blame for natural disasters. But it has no conscience, no will. We must look more closely at the consequences of our actions to recognize our own role in the natural disasters we suffer.

When numerous authorities, journalists and activists referred to the disasters of the landslides of February 2018 and 2020, most pointed a finger at climate change as responsible for the disasters. However, are those rainy years really terrible? Do the rains bring visceral catastrophes that threaten our belongings and even our existence? O, on the contrary, are the rains a blessing for agriculture workers? Aren’t abundant rains key for assuring the availability of subterranean water supplies, the water that is, to date, the most important source for consumption and agriculture in Cochabamba?

In order to understand why these disasters happened, we should look at the impacts that our society  has on our surroundings (in this case, the valley of Cochabamba, including the southern slopes of Tunari National Park). Botanists agree that only small fragments remain today of the forested vegetation that once ran the length of the Tunari’s southern side. The clearest example are the Polylepis subtusalbida forests, which once were extensive between approximately 3000 and 4000 meters above sea level, and which today only survive as small forest fragments, some of which are rather poor quality  (Fig. 1). Trees like the once abundant Kageneckia lanceolata are now extremely hard to find, and mixed forests of Aliso acuminata, Tipuana tipu, Jacaranda mimosifolia and others that ran the length of Tunari’s slopes are now rare elements in the landscape.

Figure 1. A degraded relic of Polylepis subtusalbida, a high-Andean tree that is almost endemic to the Cochabamba mountain range (Photo: Marcia Salvatierra)

                    We change the landscape and modify natural cycles, and ultimately these changes affect our lives.

The native forests of Tunari National Park’s southern slopes were initially cut to satisfy the needs of those that lived on these same slopes as well as those living in the Cochabamba valley. Once the native forests were gone, the ground was left unprotected and soil erosion began. In an attempt to recover the soils, exotic trees like pines and eucalyptus were introduced in mass in the 20th century. Although the intentions were good, this action didn’t help stop the soil degradation, as plants like eucalyptus absorb a lot of water and do not provide nutrients to build the soils. These plantations also are not adequate habitat for many of the local native animals. These forestry stand are empty habitats in comparison to native forests. As a result, today there are several threatened species, like the Cochabamba Mountain-Finch (Poospiza garleppi), which is endemic to the central Andes of Bolivia (and the majority of its population is within Tunari).

Figure 2. A landscape affected by man-made fires in 2019 (Photo: Marcia Salvatierra)

The annual man-made fires continue to affect the few hectares of forest remnants that still survive on the southern slope of the Tunari National Park (Fig. 2). The slopes with grasslands can recover easily. However, when the forests are burned, they require assistance to recover.

Restoration of native vegetation will minimize the probability of future landslides in the long term. But to minimize the impact of the probable disasters in the short term, civil retention works and urban planning are key.

Today, the better part of the watersheds (or micro-watersheds) of Tunari National Park no longer have native forest cover to protect the soil. This is the case in the Taquiña watershed, and these conditions were key for the formation of the 2018 and 2020 landslides. The soil, helped by the force of gravity, came down with a violence unseen before and carried along everything in its path. Unfortunately, in that path were houses built in previous riverbeds and very close to the current riverbed of the Taquiña River. These are the houses that were destroyed.

Figure 3. Civil works built by the Department of Watershed Services (Departmental Government of Cochabamba) in order to stop the spread of dirt in the upper part of the Taquiña watershed. Note the abundant loose, eroded soil, vulnerable to landslide in the following rains (Photo: Huber Villca)

The construction of civil works begun by the Cochabamba departmental authorities (e.g. retention walls; Fig. 3) is, without a doubt, a quick way to lower the risk of disaster recurrence, and these structures actually succeeded in preventing a new landslide in February 2021. But are they sufficient? If what we want is to truly minimize our vulnerability to these disasters, we should be thinking in definitive actions for recovering already degraded soils.

Forest restoration is the solution. It is the only way to recover soils and significantly reduce the risk of future landslides. Recovery of native vegetation will be important in order to regulate the water cycle in these watersheds (Fig 4). Creating forests, we also create the necessary lungs to mitigate the impact of the greenhouse effect and improve air quality for all.

Figure 4. Model of the water cycle in the Taquiña watershed with two scenarios: one where the watershed is not reforested and the other with reforestation (Source: Amandes/Faunagua)

In one of them most difficult years, due to a pandemic that brought the world to a halt, several groups proposed the beginning of a change to restore ecosystem functions that Tunari National Park provides for those living in Cochabamba.

Even though 2020 was an extremely difficult year for everyone, Asociación Armonía, a non-profit organization in Bolivia, proposed program development to restore native vegetation in the landscape of the southern slopes of Tunari National Park. Andes Action, a pan-Andean initiative led by Global Forest Generation and Ecoan, actively supports this initiative. This restoration program is part of an initiative to implement restoration and protection actions in the most threatened Andean Forests in five Andean countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador y Perú).

Since the beginning, Armonía understood that achievement depended on the establishment of an alliance with local actors. Armonía promoted the consolidation of a solid association with the communities of Cruzani, Laphia, Linkupata, Thola Pujru and Totora, communities within Tunari National Park (with the idea of expansion to other communities in neighboring municipalities), the departmental government of Cochabamba, the municipal governments of Tiquipaya, Sacaba and Quillacollo, non-profit organizations like AICCA-Condesan and Faunagua-Amandes, and several regiments of the Bolivian military (CITE, Policía Militar de Cotapachi, Servicio de Búsqueda y Rescate de la Armada Boliviana- SBRAB de Cercado y Carcaje and el Regimiento Tumusla). These last actors, together with community members were, without a doubt, key to planting an impressive number of trees. Thanks to this joint effort, we planted 104,070 seedlings of native trees from the beginning of November 2020 to the end of March 2021 (Fig. 5), making this the largest planting/reforestation activity in the Bolivian Andes using exclusively native trees.  

Figure 5. View of the Cochabamba Valley. The red areas show reforestation efforts from Nov. 2020- March 2021.

This union of different actors took time, but we brought together people with different political and religious beliefs that are frequently divisive and profoundly polarizing. Even with these differences, we have shown Bolivians that we can be united and work together when we have the clear goal of assuring the well-being of our children and our future in a grand sense.

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