Parrot Conservation Changes a Catholic Tradition
Fifteen years ago the yellow-eared parrot was presumed extinct. Its rediscovery in Colombia forced the Catholic Church to abandon an age-old tradition, and brought about one of the most amazing comebacks in the Americas.
Jardin lies in a verdant hanging valley 5,000 feet up in the western cordillera. Its inhabitants are known for their industriousness, reflected everywhere in tidy farms, glossy horses, and glorious flower boxes. Coffee is the staple crop. Higher up, farmers clear the cloudforest for grazing, creating near-vertical pastures that cattle trample into corduroy. In heavy rains these wales become fracture lines along which the soil subsides in great earthen scallops.
Intact forest can slide, too, and mud, shattered trees, and rainy-season erratics--fallen boulders the size of Barca-loungers--choke the vertiginous dirt "highway" that zigzags up the cloud-sodden ridges to the parrots' dormitories, pushing the jeep so close to cliff's edge that in a couple of spots this lily-livered journalist opted to walk.
Still, the road isn't half as scary as it used to be.
"You know that in Colombia in the past we've had problems with guerrillas," Castano says delicately. His colleagues collapse in laughter. Castano relents. "Okay. The immediate past." For decades this route, a key corridor for FARC guerrillas, was iffy in daylight, dangerous at night. Landowners stayed in town, paying the protection money known as vacuna--vaccine--to right-wing paramilitaries and guerrillas. Late in 2001 guerrillas kidnapped a young Dutch Ognorhynchus researcher and held him for eight terrifying months.
In 2002 presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe rode a hard-line anti-guerrilla platform into power and threw the country's resources into a controversial war against guerrillas and the drug cartels. This area became safer, but at the expense of other government programs. Paradoxically, that provided an opportunity for habitat conservation, says Felipe Barrera, Ognorhynchus project director.
"Uribe pushed municipalities to become more autonomous, to pay their own health or education or road maintenance costs," Barrera says. "Municipios must prioritize. Jardin has reforestation goals it can't meet. So ProAves' activities offered a big advantage."
The ProAves team began collecting and germinating seeds of fruit trees eaten by the parrots. Castano worked with landowners to incorporate these into living fences, shade canopies, and stream buffers, particularly in the coffee zone, where native vegetation is rich with birdlife both resident and migratory. "That open, broken canopy where the parrots go down to feed happens to be the key area for wintering cerulean warblers," Salaman says, "the fastest-declining North American songbird." Collaboration with the local coffee cooperative and the American Bird Conservancy produced a bird-friendly specialty coffee and yielded the country's first conservation easement.
Not all the landowners care about conservation, Castano says, "but people were sick of the violence and fear of the last 40 years." People were open to new approaches.
In the end, perhaps in acknowledgment of the changing times, it was the church itself that broke the deadlock. Padre Raul was transferred. His successor was Padre Mario Agudelo, Jardin born and bred. "God doesn't care what branches we use," Padre Mario announced to the ProAves staff in 2003. "Bring us some options." Padre Mario chose bamboo. It was not a success.
"Trash," says Adela Marulanda bitterly. "That bamboo was trash."
Dona Adela, a widowed resident of Jardin, devotes herself to church decorations. "I do something different every time," she says. "Arranging flowers. Draping the altars with cloths. Of course, for Palm Sunday we would arrange palm branches everywhere. Oh, they were magnificent." The sour-lemon look returns. "Bamboo! People still have a bad taste about it."
It was traditional to save the palms after the priest had blessed them, Dona Adela says. "You would tuck the palm behind your door and if a storm was coming, you would burn a leaf on the patio, reciting three credos. With the ash you would draw three crosses on the ground. And the storm clouds would move away!"
Dona Adela paces through the ritual, stepping out to the covered front gate, miming the burning, the ash, the crosses, the credos. As she speaks, the afternoon sky darkens to a bilious purple.
"With bamboo, what happened? The first day it was green, the second day the leaves all dried up and fell off. Pfff! Now it was like a plain broomstick. What good is that?"
A clap of thunder punctuates her sermon and the heavens let loose, rain pouring down in torrents, trapping pedestrians who plaster themselves helplessly up against the buildings. A sheet of water sluices down the cobblestone street. The rare umbrella inverts itself in a tremendous gust of wind. Satisfied, Dona Adela purses her lips then raises her voice as lightning explodes over the town. "I tell them it's not the wax palm and it's not going to run out! But they don't listen!"
Jardin's Catholic church--a 1920s Gothic stone monolith--occupies a broad dais at the head of the town square. You can see its shiny steeples from just about everywhere in town, since the street grid around the square is only a few blocks deep and no other building is higher than two stories. People walk to the market, to school, to the hairdresser, to the bank, or hire a three-wheeler taxi. The milkman rides a handsome strawberry roan, hooves clattering on the cobblestones, strings of plastic milk jugs looped over the saddle horn.