In 1991, researchers exploring the wet forests along the banks of the Río Ñambí in the southwestern Colombian region of Nariño spotted a small bird with a distinctive facial pattern flitting through the moss-covered branches in the canopy. It was a new species for science, and they named it the Chocó Vireo.
The research team was accompanied by twelve students from the nearby town of Altaquer. Inspired by the discovery to protect their region’s biodiversity, those students initiated a non-profit foundation and named it FELCA (Fundación Ecológica Los Colibríes de Altaquer). They also raised money to purchase a large tract of neighbouring primary forest, which became the Río Ñambí Natural Reserve. Today, Mauricio Flórez Paí, one of those twelve students, is the Reserve Director, and his brother Cristian serves as the Director-General of FELCA.
FELCA’s aims include conservation, investigation, environmental education, and community outreach focused on the biodiversity hotspot of the Andean foothill forests of southern Colombia. This region contains the highest concentration of threatened species in Colombia and has faced numerous threats from coca cultivation, mining, deforestation, and armed conflict. Over the years, many members have suffered intimidation and violence, but they have always persevered.
As part of their conservation work, FELCA supports at least three annual monitoring expeditions in Río Ñambí. These expeditions investigate the status of vulnerable birds like the Baudó Guan, Chocó Vireo, and Banded Ground-Cuckoo, as well as several species of critically endangered frogs found in the reserve. Recently, researchers discovered four new species of spiders for science during one of these expeditions, further confirming the region’s importance as a biodiversity hotspot.
The foundation has also expanded its conservation efforts beyond Altaquer by establishing new protected areas in the region. In recent years they have created El Quinde Natural Reserve, which protects Mountain Tapirs and water birds around La Cocha Lagoon, and Bangsias Bird Lodge, home to a large population of Moss-backed Tanager. Working with the local Awá Indigenous people, they also supported the creation of a protected area of 1,500 ha of primary cloud forest in the Magüi Reservation near the border with Ecuador
FELCA has not only served a vital purpose in protecting and conserving this remarkable biodiversity, but it has also taken on an invaluable role in the local community. Their motto is “A Community Effort for the Conservation of Nature”. Since the beginning, they have strived to make sure that conservation always provides benefits and economic alternatives for the people of Altaquer.
The foundation works with local schools to support children’s naturalist clubs and provide training and educational materials to young people from the region. From the age of 15, students from these clubs serve as co-investigators on local research projects and eventually as researchers and ecotourism guides. Many have gone on to study biology and tourism.
Mauricio points to the example of Martín, a young bird-lover who is now an Audubon-certified bird guide and leads groups from all over the world on birding expeditions in the region. Today, 20 families living near the reserve are involved in ecotourism projects, and FELCA is supporting a collective of 25 local women to develop profitable projects in artisan crafts and sustainable energy. The foundation has become a cornerstone of the local community.
Mauricio is proudest of the difference they have made in the lives of local children: “FELCA has been like a school for them to learn about the biodiversity of the region. What we’ve achieved, despite the conflict that surrounded us for many years, is to send those young people down the right path, away from illicit activities, and towards positive ones like biology, nature tourism, and an appreciation of biodiversity.”
It’s been thirty years since the Chocó Vireo discovery inspired a group of young people to dedicate their lives to conservation. FELCA has a long road ahead to securing the future of this globally important haven of biodiversity. Still, their commitment and dedication for the past three decades have been invaluable in preserving these ecosystems and changing the lives of the people of their community.
Chris Bell is an English writer and birder who has lived in Colombia since 2011. He has worked as the editor of Colombia’s biggest bilingual travel blog, The Colombia Travel Blog, and contributed content to Culture Trip, World Nomads, Uncover Colombia, National Geographic Traveler, The Bogota Post, and CNN. He currently works as Head of Content for WhereNext, a production company in Colombia, and hosts a birding video podcast on YouTube, The Birders Show. Birding is his greatest passion and he has travelled to all 32 Colombian departments, observing over 1,400 bird species along the way. Chris Bell relies on his NL Pure 8x42 for his birding adventures.