Natural Resources
Vol.05 No.16(2014), Article ID:52864,25 pages

Systematic Conservation Assessment for Most of the Colombian Territory as a Strategy for Effective Biodiversity Conservation

Marcela Portocarrero-Aya*, Germán Corzo, Angélica Diaz-Pulido, María Fernanda González, Magnolia Longo, Lina Mesa, Andrea Paz, Wilson Ramírez, Olga Lucía Hernández-Manrique

Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources, Bogotá, Colombia

Email: *

Copyright © 2014 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).

Received 22 September 2014; revised 3 November 2014; accepted 26 November 2014


Colombian ecosystems maintain key ecological processes that support thousands of species, including human beings. With the expansion of the country’s population, and the implementation of a government’s development plan based on an economy centred on extraction patterns, the conservation of these ecosystems is at serious risk. It is a priority to implement effective strategies that ensure the protection of the country’s biological diversity as well as the mitigation and prevention of threats and to contribute to its proper use. Colombia’s development strategies as well as its peoples’ wellbeing depend on the suitable condition of its natural assets. The identification of surrogates of conservation, the formulation of conservation goals, the prioritization of key areas and the formulation of conservation strategies based on the preservation, restoration and sustainable use of the territory and its biodiversity are proposed for 60% of the emerged land (~ 700,000 Km2). This research aims at giving proper guidelines to manage the territory and finding common points between development and biodiversity conservation, as well as to use this input for the development and implementation of a National Decision-making Support System (DSS) that will potentially have an impact on Colombia’s environmental policies and territorial planning schemes.


Decision-Making Support System, Key Areas for Conservation, Biodiversity, Colombia, Sustainable Development

1. Introduction

In tropical ecosystems, conservation and management decisions are characterized by their complexity and uncertainty. This is a result of the dynamism of the ecosystems, the lack of knowledge regarding their structure, composition and function, and the complexity of the human communities that live and depend on the resources provided by these, and in the difficulties in valuing natural resources and ecological services, accompanied by the involvement of numerous stakeholders in the process [1] . Conservation and management decisions are also tempered by social and political conflicts in countries with poverty, insecure land tenure, unstable political systems, and other social and political issues [2] .

Colombian ecosystems are not an exception in complexity and as a mega diverse country it is responsible for the proper use of threatened ecosystems and species, of those considered unique among others in the world, and the ones providing goods and services vital for its people. According to the latest National Development Plan 2010-2014 [3] , Colombia aims to reach prosperity through the development of five main engines: agriculture, infrastructure, housing, innovation, and mining and energy. All these are part of an economic development strategy that constitutes, sadly, the main foundation for Colombia’s population wellbeing [4] . For decades, the country’s natural resources have been used and exploited to generate prosperity and have contributed enormously to improve the wellbeing and income of a large part of its population. However this success has been accompanied by an environmental deterioration and issues like logging, biodiversity loss, and water and air pollution have been accentuated [1] [5] - [9] . The expansion in the demand for food, for traditional fuels and biofuels is increasing, and with it the pressure for land conversion and in many places the enhancement of poverty [10] . Maintaining healthy ecosystems and ecological processes is vital for the proper functioning of any economy and it must be acknowledged by national authorities who keep pushing national and regional development actions without understanding the direct connection among the natural capital, people’s welfare and the country’s development [11] [12] .

In Colombia, approximately 40% to 60% of the land area remains in natural conditions while the remaining has been heavily transformed by human activities [5] [6] [9] . Part of this remnant naturalness, is due to the presence of Indigenous and Afro-descendant Territories that cover ~30% of the emerged land [13] , accompanied by a comprehensive network of 58 Protected Areas that cover 11.38% of the emerged land and 1.48% of the ma- rine area. However, recent publications have shown important changes in the forest cover, forecasting on-going and alarming scenarios for the country’s biodiversity [5] [6] [9] .

Currently new challenges have been set up regarding biodiversity conservation. These challenges must deal with a heterogeneous country with a growing economy based on the extraction of its natural resources, a rich but poorly known biological and cultural diversity, social unbalance and noticeable gaps in the information needed by decision makers. So conserving what already is protected by law and effective planning of the territory and its components constitute the key and essential ways of overcoming part of these challenges for the national and regional environmental authorities, research institutes and the civil society, as well as for the Ministries of Energy, Development, Agriculture, Housing and Infrastructure [3] [4] .

Activities such as mineral and oil exploration and extraction (almost 200,000 Km2 have been allocated for mining prospecting) [5] , agriculture and ranching (with the use of technologically intensive systems), and the generation of hydropower (through the construction of dams) are big threats to the country’s natural assets. These risks are enhanced by the lack of law enforcement and political will, as well as a current demand for goods and services leading to changes in the consumption patterns of the country’s inhabitants [3] [13] . It is also important to take into account that currently Colombia’s peace talks between the Government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, People’s Army―an irregular military organization) considers a post conflict scenario based on the enhancement and improvement of the agriculture, the rural peoples conditions and the restitution of the territory for productive activities. If this is done without considering the carrying capacity of the land, its ecological structure and network, the availability of water resources, and the connectivity and integrity of natural and undisturbed ecosystems, ecological conflicts could occur and therefore socio-economic conflicts too.

Threats have been identified but little is known regarding their impacts on the territory and its biodiversity, and even less information is available regarding the vulnerability of the land and its natural features. Information regarding these issues is crucial for effective conservation planning [14] -[17] . For this reason it is very important to have a way of establishing conservation goals that will try to secure parts of the territory for the implementation of conservation and management strategies.

The latest National Report on Biodiversity [18] stated how urgent it is to formulate and implement holistic, integral and systematic conservation strategies to stop this on-going deterioration, which is now noticeable with phenomena such El Niño and La Niña, costing the country and its people money and wellbeing. The formulation of integrated conservation initiatives and their implementation in an accurate way is urgent. The renewed and adaptive methodologies need to be used according to specific objectives, realities, and needs, while integrating conservation strategies (preservation, restoration, sustainable use, and knowledge generation) into the operational and development plans of the sectors and the government.

Systematic conservation assessments are key to have a full view of the territory and its components and making the formulation and implementation of territorial planning-strategies less random [19] - [27] . According to Sakar et al. [27] , “systematic conservation planning is a dynamic process in which prioritization tools aid decision makers in identifying good policy options”. A good number of these tools have been standardize to suit different countries, regions and objectives within prioritization exercises in places like Africa [21] , Australia [24] - [26] , Europe [28] and North America [20] [29] [30] where good and reliable information on biodiversity is available. In tropical regions biodiversity knowledge is still quite poor and prioritization tools need to be adapted and modified according to objectives, areas and available information [13] [28] .

Systematic conservation includes a series of complementary strategies that all together aim at giving solution to environmental conflicts that lead to social conflicts caused mainly by an existing economic inequality (Colombian GINI Index: 55.9) [31] . The prioritization of key areas for conservation and the identification of species as surrogates of conservation have become one of the most accepted strategies among conservationists and local inhabitants [32] - [36] , as well as proper tools within systematic territorial planning. Many different approaches can be used to identify key areas, and numerous tools for their identification have been developed [13] [24] [25] [27] [29] [32] [36] .

The identification of surrogates of conservation has been useful, especially in countries with rich biodiversity. The representation of a full variety of biodiversity within a single species or a group of them has proved effective in ecosystem-based conservation strategies. Conservation surrogates are also useful in the identification of areas of high environmental value and in areas proposed for special protection (National Parks, Reserves, Freshwater Protected Areas and so on). This strategy is useful in Colombia, where the understanding of the species, their habitats and dynamics is poor. The Colombian conservation goals set in the National Policy for the Integral Management of Biodiversity and its Ecosystem Services (PNGIBSE) aim to identify these elements of biodiversity and establish strategies that can prevent their disappearance [5] .

Colombia counts with approximately 33 portfolios of key conservation areas [37] - [39] all providing different conclusions and recommendations on how to manage particular conservation objects and/or their territory. These have been made with different methodologies, study areas, scales, conservation goals, and objectives, making their unification into a single portfolio that could show priority areas at a national scale very difficult. Most of the portfolios for priority areas end up giving a map of ones and zeros, priority and non-priority areas, imparting the idea that the non-priority areas are subject to be used without discrimination. Conservation strategies or guidelines are needed for both priority and complementary [non-priority] areas to establish proper territorial management proposals that might be useful and common to both conservationist and developers, closing the existing gap between them.

An initial step to the identification of key areas should be the formulation of conservation goals. These goals will help to understand which proportion of the territory is fundamental and vital for the maintenance of ecological processes, the species and their assemblages. Conservation goals will be accomplished with the best areas of the territory, those with the highest levels of naturalness, connectivity, integrity, provision of ecosystem services and other characteristics that will help to organize the territory making easier the implementation of territorial planning and conservation schemes, according to an adequate balance between the offer and social demand of ecosystem services [40] [41] .

In Colombia, so far there has not been a single initiative where the development sector and the environmental stakeholders participate at a large scale trying to combine elements from both sides. For this reason the Hum- boldt Institute (part of the National Environmental System and the party responsible for carrying out scientific research on biodiversity, as well as providing information for decision makers to ensure the integral manage- ment of the country’s biodiversity and its associated ecological services) and Ecopetrol (the largest oil company in the country) joined forces to formulate conservation strategies, guidelines and projects in the 60% of emerged territory in prioritized and complementary areas for biodiversity conservation. This part of the territory corres- ponds to the area of influence of the company and the results aim at leading territorial planning programs as well as addressing the implementation of activities to avoid and mitigate threats to the biodiversity. These activities will be complemented by voluntary and obligatory compensation schemes aiming at the no net loss of biodiver- sity and even at its improvement as part of the company’s corporate’s social and environmental responsibility.

The manuscript presented here seeks to answer a basic set of questions regarding biodiversity conservation in Colombia: What to conserve? (Surrogates of conservation―coarse and fine filter targets); How much to conserve? (Conservation goals); Where to conserve? (Identification of priority and complementary areas); and How to conserve? (Formulation of conservation strategies according to the involved actors and their jurisdiction). All these represent complementary conservation actions as part of a systematic conservation planning strategy aiming at becoming the inputs of a National Decision-making Support System [DSS].

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. Study Area

The area comprises 703,726 Km2 (60% of the emerged territory) corresponding to the regions of the Caribbean (139,298 Km2), Pacific (118,955 Km2), Andes and Amazon piedmont (255,288 Km2), and part of the Orinoquia (190,185 Km2) (Figure 1).

2.2. Territorial Analysis Units (AU) (What to Conserve?)

The formulation of Territorial Analysis Units is the result of an integration of hydro-biological and biogeography features incorporated into three thematic maps generated exclusively for this project at a scale of 1:100,000: Hydro-biographic Zones, Biogeographic Districts and Biomes. The integration of the three layers here constitutes our Coarse Filter Targets. All AUs are homogeneous within and heterogeneous among them, intending to incorporate a high biological content with a historic and current view from a terrestrial and aquatic perspective. The AUs located in the Páramo ecosystem were identified using the Atlas of Páramo [42] . They were chosen as single AUs due to their ecological singularity and the representativeness of their biodiversity in the territory [42] and therefore their composition differs from the others.

Conservation Surrogates (What to conserve?)

Based on the literature review and the methodologies for the identification of fine filter targets (FFT) proposed by WWF, CI and TNC [43] - [47] , a series of species of flora and fauna were chosen as candidates to be surrogates of conservation.

A list of all terrestrial and aquatic plants and all vertebrate species registered in the study area was compiled. The information for each clade came from published papers, grey literature, red books of endangered species, collections and world data bases. The long list highlighted the impracticality of trying to protect every single element and the importance of identifying a few species to be used as conservation surrogates that represent the high number of species reported for the study area.

The criteria and sub-criteria established to identify fine filter targets (species) (Table 1) [44] -[46] [48] [49] was ranked from 1 to 5 (being 1 the lowest and 5 the highest) and then the following algorithm (Equations (1), (2), (3)) was applied to prioritize those species with the best features to qualify as candidates to be surrogates of conservation.




After this first filter, the resultant species were reassessed by a group of experts whom ranked them again based on the threats and the vulnerabilities of each species. The final qualification helped in the identification of the final surrogates of conservation for each taxonomic group.

Figure 1. Study area―Caribbean, Pacific, Andean, Amazon (piedmont) and Orinoquia Regions, Colombia.

2.3. Conservation Goals Calculation (CG) (How Much to Conserve?)

Conservation goals for each Unit of Analysis were obtained from the unified index of probability of collapse of biodiversity [50] . This index was constructed on the basis of threats and vulnerabilities and the interaction amongst them, considering different levels of threats and therefore different levels of impact on each one of the AUs according to each one of their vulnerabilities. Two separate indexes were conducted for terrestrial and aquatic realms, their data normalized, and then unified into a single scoring.

Conservation goals were set between 17% and 60%. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Goal 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 states: “by 2020 at least 17% of the terrestrial and freshwater territory should be managed efficiently and in a equitably way, as well as to be ecologically representative” [51] . That idea was taken and considered accurate to set the minimum goal for each AU at 17%. The maximum was based on some authors [17] [52] [53] that have considered and demonstrated that changes superior to the 40% in the original condition of the territory can cause the loss of homeostasis of the ecosystems. Minimum values of risk are associated to minimum conservation goals and vice-versa.

Using data from the index of probability of collapse of biodiversity, the maximums and minimums percentage values (0.33; 100) [50] were associated to the minimum (17) and maximum (60) conservation goals. The values were plotted (Conservation Goals vs. probability of collapse) looking for the best relationship (linear, exponential or potential) between them. A third point (3.65, 30) was used to give more certainty to the graph. The probability of collapse value of 3.65 corresponds to the Mode value of the data, and the 30% of CG to what Odum (1989) [37] stated regarding an ideal 30% to conserve the functionality of any territory (with the exception of ecosystems with special spatial distribution such as Tropical Dry Forest, Mangroves and Páramos) (Figure 2). With the final formulae, the conservation goals values were obtained.

Potential Function Formulae: Y = 22.02 (X0.2199);

Y = Conservation goal (%);

X = Probability of collapse (%).

2.4. Prioritization of Key Areas: (Where to Conserve?)

The areas were prioritized using a decision tree as a prioritization tool. Twenty-nine (29) variables were used following the order presented in the Table 2. These variables or fields were applied one after the other, resulting

Table 1. Criteria for the selection of conservation surrogates (fine filter targets).

Due to the little information available for terrestrial plants regarding their ecological function, this criterion was not taken into account and in the equation (Equation (1)) the value of habitat dependency was multiplied by 1.

Figure 2. Potential function curve between conservation goals [%] and the probability of collapse [R2 = 0.9989].

Table 2. Variables and categories used to build the decision tree.

*Geographic Institute Agustin Codazzi; **Colombian Institute for Rural Development; ***Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies.

in a hierarchy of branches within branches that produced the characteristic decision tree form. Each branch of the tree leads to a selection of pixels (30 m × 30 m) starting with those already under legal conditions (PAs, Forest Reserves, Strategic Ecosystems) and then those pixels reaching the best conditions (high connectivity, high integrity, etc.) to the ones with less number of conditions. The selection of pixels stopped the moment the conservation goal per UA was reached.

2.5. Management Strategies (How to Conserve?)

Three main strategies were defined for the prioritized areas (preservation, restoration and sustainable use). They were classified according to the characterization that all variables summed together gave to each pixel (Table 3). Land cover, legal status, functionality and integrity were the main characteristics to classify.

Given that the conservation planning proposal is systematic and integrated and looking for the complementarity with the prioritized areas, alternative conservation guidelines were given to the non-prioritized (complementary) areas.

3. Results

3.1. Terrestrial Analysis Units (AU) (What to Conserve?)

A total of 268 AU’s resulted, from which 51 are in the Caribbean, 46 in the Pacific, 141 in the Andes, 14 in the Amazon piedmont and 16 in the Orinoquia region (Figure 3).

Table 3. Conservation strategies for the priority areas within 60% of the Colombian emerged territory.

*According to the land cover classification.

Figure 3. Map of territorial analysis units (extended legend Appendix).

Conservation surrogates (Fine Filter Targets) (What to conserve?)

The identification of conservation surrogates is considered a complementary strategy to the identification of AUs, the conservation goals calculation (CG) as well as the identification of key areas and the generation of strategies for their conservation (Table 4).

3.2. Conservation Goals Calculation (CG) (How Much to Conserve?)

Unified probability of collapse values ranked from 0.50 to 151, corresponding to percentage values from 0.33% to 100% [50] . A minimum conservation goal set at 17% was given to the minimum percentage value of collapse and the maximum conservation goal of 60% was given to the maximum percentage of collapse. The maximum conservation goal of 60% was given to the AU (3058) Orobiome with Andean and high Andean forest on the western slope of the Eastern Cordillera located in the Andes region (Figure 3, Appendix). Average results per region show that both the Andes and Caribbean regions have the highest values and the Pacific and Amazonia piedmont exhibit the lowest. This is a result of the levels of naturalness in the regions. Additionally, the Andes and the Caribbean have, for centuries, been exposed to high impacts due to anthropogenic activities. It is estimated that almost 70% of the country’s population is located on the Andes mountain range [6] [9] [54] [55] (Figure 4, Figure 5).

To the Units of Analysis of Páramo, due to their current status, were awarded with a final conservation goal of 100%. The conservation goal corresponds to the minimum area in each AU needed to fulfil biodiversity conservation requirements under actions of preservation, restoration and sustainable use. In the case of the Páramo Units, the legislation considers them strategic ecosystems therefore their entire area must be under conservation strategies, the same as preservation.

Table 4. The most relevant species as surrogates of conservation per taxonomic group.

Figure 4. Average values of conservation goals for the five regions―Amazonia, Andes, Caribbean, Orinoquia and Pacific.

Figure 5. Map of conservation goals for the study area.

3.3. Prioritization of Key Areas (Where to Conserve?)

A series of areas, totalling approximately 703,726 Km2 (60% of the emerged land), were prioritized at a 1:100,000 scale. Of that area, 52% (365,434 Km2) was identified primordial for conservation, 47% is considered complementary and 0.52 has been already urbanized (cities, ways and infrastructure).

The prioritized areas (Figure 6) are constituted by those best pixels that reached the identified conservation goals in each Unit of Analysis. The best pixels are considered those with the best composition in terms of legal coverage, strategic ecosystems, integrity, connectivity, ecosystem services, opportunities for conservation, and land cover (Table 1). The use of a decision tree as a tool for prioritization allowed us to have a clearer and well defined way to select priority areas of conservation and additionally it allowed the identification of conservation mechanisms based on stakeholders, their jurisdiction and competence.

3.4. Management Strategies (How to Conserve?)

Management strategies were given to the prioritized and complementary areas. The complementary areas attempt to give additional information on the territory to stakeholders and decision-makers. Contrarily to other

Figure 6. Priority and complementary areas for biodiversity conservation in 60% of the emerged territory of Colombia.

prioritization portfolios, these areas are not presented as zeros on a map but as areas key for integral management and territorial planning strategies.

Management strategies aim to give an integral approach on how to manage the territory seeing it all as a whole (Table 5, Figure 7). The characterization of each pixel (30 m × 30 m) by 29 different variables allowed the visualization and classification of the territory according to different perspectives, views and questions.

The results also show that the study area still encompasses interesting levels of naturalness covering approximate 338,752 Km2 of the territory mentioned (~48%), with semi natural areas comprising ~25% and transformed containing ~26%.

Of the totality of the territory assessed, 18% is already protected under two main strategies: Protected Areas (National or Regional and other within the Unique Register of Protected Areas) and Forest Reserves (Law 2nd 1959). These areas have already been prioritized and are protected by law. However, their current and future conservation depends on the management given to these areas by the responsible authorities. Another 10% of the prioritized areas correspond to natural areas with important levels of integrity and connectivity, as well as natural areas within strategic ecosystems. These areas are proposed to be declared under any legal category of protection, either a protected area or another complementary conservation strategy, otherwise its naturalness can be lost along with its biodiversity, ecological processes and associated ecosystem services.

As the CBD states [51] , complementary to the preservation strategy, restoration schemes are vital to mitigate and hopefully overcome the cumulative negative effects that have been deteriorating the country’s ecosystems and peoples’ wellbeing [68] . The results show that 78782.3 Km2 (11.2% of the total of the study area), are suitable for any restoration strategy (restoration, rehabilitation and/or recuperation).

The proximity between the restoration and preservation sites presented in Figure 7 must be used to generate integrated initiatives to achieve complementarity and connectivity among areas. It should also be used to validate the methodology used for the identification of priority areas and the assignation of conservation strategies to aid territorial planning schemes.

In a developing country like Colombia, where its economy is based on the extraction of natural resources, it is key to understand the composition of the territory, its biodiversity, ecological processes and the ecosystem services provided. Natural, semi-natural and transformed areas cannot be managed and used in the same way. The complementarity of the strategies is relevant if a proper management of the territory, aiming at the conservation of its biodiversity but as well as the enhancement of the country’s wellbeing, is pursued.

The territory, under the sustainable use strategy, corresponds to 77,242 Km2 (10.9%) of the research area. This strategy is divided in two, sustainable use of terrestrial resources and sustainable use for hydro-biological resources. The two ecosystems and its interphase have different needs and therefore different management options.

Table 5. Management strategies for 60% of the emerged territory of Colombia.

Figure 7. Conservation strategies for prioritized and complementary areas for 60% of the emerged territory of Colombia.

Due to the lack of information regarding freshwater ecosystems at a national scale and for management purposes, the only wetlands reserved for preservation purposes where those located within National and Regional Natural Parks, and Páramos (where they are legally protected), the rest are considered of common use therefore these were put under this strategy of conservation. More information regarded their conservation status is need- ed to classify them under the restoration strategy.

For complementary areas, the identification of strategies was done according to the naturalness and legal protection of the area. For the case of these areas, there were not found protected areas under the National System of Protected Areas, but areas under the jurisdiction of Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural communities were found. The combination of naturalness and legal protection resulted in three main categories: Natural and semi- natural areas with high integrity or connectivity (within and outside Collective Territories) (16.1%), Natural and semi-natural areas with medium, low or without integrity or connectivity (within and outside Collective Territories) (16.4%) and transformed areas (15.5%).

Having divided the territory into multiple strategies, it is intended to make the role of all stakeholders easier. For decision-makers either in the development sectors (oil, mining, agriculture, ranching, and infrastructure) and the national and regional environmental authorities, the information presented here constitutes a guideline for operation, planning and conservation schemes. If both sides use the information together, the results of their interventions on the territory should be less harmful to the national biodiversity and thus more intelligent and successful for the developing sectors.

4. Discussion

The most irreversible of human impacts on ecosystems is the loss of native biodiversity. According to the National Research Council of the United States [56] “the maintenance of biodiversity is one of the less intuitive ecosystem services that have been recognized”. Biodiversity is also about eating, staying healthy and finding shelter for plants, animals or humans. As Kaimowitz and Sheil [57] stated “it is not a question of ‘either/or’, but rather of finding a better balance”, for this reason its protection and management have to be seen from an inte- gral point of view including not only all the stakeholders ranging from users to both the conservation and environmental institutions and the development sectors [1] [58] - [60] , but different approaches, strategies, actions that combined together are able to give solution to complex and multi-criteria scenarios.

Systematic territorial planning has traditionally been viewed as an important way to protect biological, environmental and social assets in terrestrial ecosystems [1] [17] [36] [61] - [65] , and it is still in its infancy for freshwater ecosystem conservation. However, it represents one of the best strategies to meet the objectives of development and conservation, making it possible to have in the same territory the development, the protection and the sustainable use of the biodiversity [66] .

Worldwide conservation initiatives, including the identification of key biodiversity areas, have started to be developed based on the valuation of ecological characteristics [64] [67] and allowing for development, wellbeing and prosperity programs. The alliance between Ecopetrol and the Humboldt Institute is one of the first in the country where a big part of the territory is considered and assessed systematically as a conservation and development strategy.

Trying to link a common point between conservation and development can be tricky and disappointing, but necessary and more important than ever [68] . The integration of conservation and development, through the generation of knowledge, could represent the only way that the effects of economic development and biodiversity loss can be minimized, mitigated or at least compensated, avoiding the net loss of biodiversity. As long as Colombia will continue to base its development and prosperity policies on the extraction of its natural resources, strategic ecosystems such as wetlands, Páramos, dry tropical forests and mangroves will probably suffer the most. For this reason it is urgent to formulate integrated conservation and development policies, initiatives and projects in high biodiversity areas to slowdown deterioration, and land and water conversion practices.

Ecopetrol participates in most of the steps of the chain of the oil sector, from the exploration and production to the transportation of oil and gas, to the manufacture of its products and their commercialization [69] . Each step implies risks and opportunities, either for the company, the regions where the activity is developed, or for the country. Minimizing those risks, by having better tools for territorial planning, will not only benefit the environment and their peoples, but also it will increase the company’s profits and benefits.

The identification of areas suitable for preservation, restoration and sustainable use, provide the country with the proper tools to intervene and manage the landscape in a suitable way [51] [70] . These conservation strategies aim to protect the biodiversity and the provision of environmental services that support and contribute to the human wellbeing and in turn to the development and economic expansion processes of the country. Complementary areas are expected to serve as buffers to those priority areas, as well as to serve as a land bank where conservation strategies can be implemented and sustain and support those actions implemented in priority areas.

The information compiled here is enormous and its effectiveness will depend on the stakeholder and how it is used. Both Ecopetrol (and other enterprises of the sector) and the Regional Environmental Authorities (and other environmental actors) will be able to conduct their actions regarding biodiversity conservation and territorial planning, and compensations’ obligations, within a clearer and more accurate panorama.

The decision tree used here included variables related to ecosystem services, strategic ecosystems, land use, patches integrity, legality of the land, and many others, constituting a new and efficient approach in its ability to identify areas that include a continuum of management options. According to De Ville [71] , decision trees turn raw data into increased knowledge and awareness of scientific issues, and they enable you to deploy that knowledge in a simple but powerful set of understandable ideas. The methodology also allows the managers of the information to use it in real-time negotiations. Shape files for the decision tree can be renewed regularly having updated results. The transparency given by this tool allowed the characterization of pixels of 30 m × 30 m in 703,726 Km2, and in turn more accurate results [72] . Understanding the information contained in the territory in terms of geomorphology, biodiversity, ecosystem services, legal ownership, land use and so on, is necessary for any prioritization, landscape design or territorial planning scheme.

For this reason, it is expected that this information can contribute to the implementation of a National Decision-making Support System as another tool that could facilitate the collection, organization and analysis of environmental, social, economic and even policy data. This will make any decision-making process easier regarding biodiversity and territorial management, sectors’ operations and planning [73] [74] . Complex solutions are needed to face complexity. Simpler solutions need to be left to countries and cases where the number of variables and their level of interaction are minor and controllable. Sometimes, simplicity rest importance to the important as well as to the complexity of the brain and its ability to create, transform and improve, things that can have an impact on the formulation and implementation of actions and strategies for biodiversity conservation and the management of the territory [75] .

It is expected that many, including Ecopetrol, will benefit from these results and will conduct their operational and managerial activities, as well as direct their compensation schemes to fulfil the aims of each conservation strategy. In addition to having a better approach to the territory and to eventually reach a dynamic balance between the conservation and the correct use of the country’s biodiversity. Other complementary conservation tools such as the analysis of probability of collapse of biodiversity [50] [76] - [80] , the identification of conservation goals and surrogates (species), are not only useful but also necessary to contribute to a more robust and trustworthy systematic conservation-planning scheme.

5. Conclusions

Of the approximate 70 million of hectares of the study area, 52% of the assessed territory constitutes the area with the best environmental conditions positioning it as priority for the implementation of conservation strategies focused on preservation, restoration, and sustainable use. Complementary areas (the remaining 47% of the study area) have to be managed responsibly aiming at finding a balance between the remnant natural and semi- natural ecosystems and the variety of human activities taking place on that territory.

The delimitation of the study area into conservation strategies constitutes a fundamental tool for the responsible management of the territory by the proper stakeholders (environmental authorities, productive sectors, civil society). This is all the more significant in a very complex area that includes two coast, three mountain ranges, five main river basins, and a variety of biomes, eco-regions and ecosystems, fundamental for the country in terms of biodiversity, and social and economic development.

The methodology used for the prioritization of key areas allows the discrimination among a universe of possibilities, giving concrete conservation objectives through solid criteria, making easier and more efficient the implementation of conservation measures.

It is important to break the paradigm of conservation vs. development, and to start working together to reach mutual points that will try to highlight the importance of understanding the way natural resources and their processes act upon our daily activities and the economies of cities, countries and regions. Breaking this paradigm will allow the institutions in charge of studying and protecting the biodiversity to work hand to hand with the companies exploiting the natural resources, in this way it will be possible to generate the adequate synergies that integrate biodiversity conservation and economic development.

The determination of the complexity of the reality of a situation allows the implementation of interdisciplinary tools to interpret it in the most adequate and efficient way. In a complex country with complex biodiversity, people, stakeholders and sometimes policies, complex tools, strategies and answers are need.

The more detailed the conservation methodologies are, the more detailed and accurate the conservation strategies are implemented. However, uncertainty is a key variable within many of the strategies in tropical countries and for this reason it is important to consider the flexibility of socio-ecological systems regarding uncertainty to decrease any possible error during the formulation and/or implementation of these strategies. Different geographic scales, external investment and new methodologies, infrastructure and markets framed in the reality of economic development and natural resources overexploitation, are needed.

Colombia provides an excellent prospect to develop and perfect a Decision-making Support System. The use of transparent methods of prioritization allows the effective replication of the proceedings and their adaptation to particularities. It also can be a starting point to develop landscape design exercises considering an integral management of the country’s biodiversity and its associated ecosystem services. However it is necessary to gather more detailed information on land ownership and ecosystem conservation status.

According to the assessments, Colombia has already reached its commitments regarding Protected Areas coverage. However many obstacles need to be overcome to have a fully and successful management of these Areas. The proper implementation of the law would allow the Protected Areas System to reach conservation goals and objectives in addition to finding the balance between the conservation of the local biodiversity and the prosperity and wellbeing of the local communities associated to these areas that in some cases are part of the threats that impact the PAs, however most of the time local communities are opportunities of conservation. It is important to analyse the role of private property within conservation strategies and its effects providing effective governance for common pool resources.

The long list of conservation surrogates is just an example of the extreme richness of Colombia. A better understanding of these species is needed, however in the meantime their use as national, regional and local surrogates of conservation is fundamental to protect specific ecosystems and habitats, as well as ecological processes. The species selected will have a set of management and conservation strategies and guidelines that will be provided to the Regional Environmental Authorities as well as to Ecopetrol that will enforce their conservation through a series of scholarships that will be provided to students and researchers nationwide.

Finally, Colombia is going through a Peace Talk process, which hopefully will end up resulting in a winning solution to all Colombians. For this reason, a post-conflict scenario needs to be considered within conservation, development and management plans.


The authors of this paper want to thank Hernando García, Javier Barriga, Diego Cordoba, Catalina Sosa, Luz Marina Silva, and Federico Pardo from the Humboldt Institute and reserachers of this project, also thanks to the Colombian Oil Company Ecopetrol, especially to Jorge Alberto Rodriguez Roa, Andrés Pavia Pedraza, and Ana Maria Moncaleano from the HSE direction. Also thanks to Dr. Brigitte Baptiste General Director of the Humboldt Institute, Germán Andrade Sub-Director of the Humboldt Institute, Jerónimo Rodríguez Sub-Director of special projects of the Humboldt Institute, Carlos Lasso, Carlos Tapia, Juan Carlos Bello, Program Coordinators within the Humboldt Institute for their invaluable inputs to this project. To Ana María Hernández from International Cooperation of the Humboldt Institute, finally to the Information on Biodiversity System [Sistema de Información sobre Biodiversidad-SIB Colombia] for integrating systematic results on species´ databases. Special thanks to David Kieckbusch for revising the manuscript and to Patricia Murcia for translating maps and tables. Finally, thanks to Erika Peñuela and Jenny Sanchez, for their constant collaboration throughout the project.


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Terrestrial Analysis Units for 60% of the Colombian territory.


*Corresponding author.