The Hamilton Spectator

On the Plains, Ranchers Have Become Rangers

- By JENNIE ERIN SMITH

SAN MARTÍN DE LOS LLANOS, Colombia — The llanos region spans almost 600,000 square kilometers through Colombia and Venezuela. Hot winds blow over its grassy hills, and scattered forests of Mauritius palms shelter hidden streams. For centuries this landscape has been shared by ranchers and cattle, which learned to coexist with jaguars, panthers, anacondas and crocodiles.

In December, Colombia declared a new national park in a corner of the llanos that borders the Manacacías River. The Manacacías joins the larger Meta River; then the Orinoco River, which forms part of the border with Venezuela; and there feeds into a tributary of the Amazon. At 681 square kilometers, the new park, Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de Manacacías, is not Colombia’s biggest. But it is strategic, protecting a crucial link between this vast tropical savanna and the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. The park is six hours from the nearest town, San Martín. To reach it, one must navigate unmarked roads across an undulating sea of green prairie grass.

On a ride into the nascent park in late November, just days before it was legally declared, Thomas Walschburg­er, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservanc­y in Colombia, explained why it was needed so urgently. Cattle rearing, the traditiona­l livelihood of the region and one that was easier on its rivers and soils, was giving way to a new agricultur­al frontier. Fields of African oil palms, and white-trunked eucalyptus trees, were encroachin­g ever closer to the park’s boundaries.

The nutrient-poor soils can support these crops only when doused with fertilizer­s. Intensive agricultur­e compromise­s the water, and the ability to sustain life, in a key transition zone between the llanos and the Amazon. The hope is that by protecting this small puzzle piece of savanna, a whole lot more can be saved.

A rare alignment of science,

philanthro­py and a new carbon tax allowed Manacacías to take shape over more than a decade. During that time, a community had to be persuaded that it was worthwhile.

Hato Palmeras, the Rey family ranch, sits in the southern part of the park on 10,100 hectares. On a November

afternoon, Ernesto Rey, 68, prepared to drive his cows out of the park’s limits, never to return. The ranch would be turned over to the government.

William Zorro, the new park’s director, had come to see the Rey cows leave. Not everyone living within the boundaries of the park was as cooperativ­e

as the Rey family; some would not vacate until they absolutely had to. Mr. Zorro, 51, hoped to welcome tourists to the park one day, but the immediate concern was getting the community to accept it. For two years his team had promoted the park and its mission to residents of San Martín.

Mr. Rey was reluctant to sell at first. His parents built this farmhouse. Save for a period when right-wing paramilita­ries invaded the llanos and extorted landowners like him, Mr. Rey’s memories here were good ones. “How can I not still love the farm where I’ve spent my whole life?” he said.

San Martín is home to a cattle-centric culture. Every 11th of November, it erupts in a wild spectacle that has occurred since 1735. Teams of horsemen dressed as Spanish, Moorish, African and Indigenous warriors engage in mock battles.

Each horseman inherits his role from an older male relative, making the cuadrillas, as the battles are called, the domain of just a few families. Ernesto Rey has ridden in them since 1970 as a Galán, or Spaniard. Since his early teens, his nephew Oscar Rey has too.

The younger Mr. Rey, now 44, worked on the family ranch for much of his life. He has become a park ranger. A younger generation no longer wanted to work on huge, isolated ranches, he explained. With fair offers for their properties, and few interested heirs, most landowning families were willing to sell.

Ernesto Rey and his cowboys awoke before dawn. After breakfast, they took off on their horses. Within two hours they and 300 cows would cross a river and leave the park’s limits.

The park workers and conservati­onists left soon afterward. Oscar Rey joined his colleagues as they stopped at a bend of the Manacacías River. The rangers frequently checked in on this sandy shoreline, as people routinely placed fishing nets across it. Mr. Rey had known it since he was a boy, when his grandfathe­r taught him to shuffle as he walked barefoot in the water to avoid being stung by rays.

Everywhere around him were tracks made by tapirs, peccaries, capybaras and lizards. It was almost the time of year when freshwater turtles dug nests in the riverbanks, he said. Mr. Rey’s grandparen­ts ate their eggs, of course, but future generation­s would not.

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 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Clockwise from top, cattle being driven out of Manacacías National Natural Park in Colombia; Oscar Rey, pointing, and Oscar Gaitán, who work for the park; a man dressed as a warrior; Ernesto Rey and his cattle; fighters in a cuadrilla.
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Clockwise from top, cattle being driven out of Manacacías National Natural Park in Colombia; Oscar Rey, pointing, and Oscar Gaitán, who work for the park; a man dressed as a warrior; Ernesto Rey and his cattle; fighters in a cuadrilla.

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