Conservation through militarisation, tourism and eviction in Tayrona National Park, Colombia

The Tayrona National Park (Parque National Natural Tayrona) is located on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia and is one of 60 protected areas under the South American country’s National Park System that covers around 17 million hectares or around 15 per cent of the national territory. The park was declared a protected area as early as 1964 and covers an area of 15,000 hectares, including a 3,000-hectare marine area (Briiggemann and Rodríguez, 2004). It is one of the most biodiverse areas in Colombia. Popular with both domestic and foreign tourists, the park welcomed nearly 450,000 visitors in 2018 (Alvarez, 2019).

While the Tayrona National Park does not overlap with any designated Indigenous reservations (resguardos), it is part of the ancestral territory of four Indigenous groups that inhabit the nearby Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which was declared a Biosphere Reserve in combination with the Tayrona National Park by UNESCO in 1982 (Ojeda, 2012). The 30,000 members of these Indigenous groups, the Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo, who live in the combined Biosphere Reserve area of 400,000 hectares, trace their ancestry back to the pre-Colombian Indigenous Tayrona from whom the park derives its name. Sacred places - where the Indigenous groups present annual pagamentos (ritual offerings) to pacha mania (Mother Earth) — are recognised in the park’s management plan (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016). The local office of the Unidad Administrativa Especial de Parqnes Nacionales Naturales (UAESPNN) in charge of park management has aimed at forging close ties with Indigenous associations who they regard as eco-guardians and conservation allies (Ojeda, 2012; Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016).

The Tayrona National Park is inhabited by several small fishing communities and many peasant groups that have migrated to the park since the middle of the 20th century (Ojeda, 2012). Most of these settlers (colonos) were displaced by violent conflicts in other parts of the country, and many of them have been involved in the cultivation of illicit crops, such as coca and marihuana (Ojeda, 2012). In contrast to the Indigenous groups that inhabit primarily the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta protected area, the colonos are stigmatised as both eco-threats and security threats. From the 1970s until the early 2000s, the park’s area was controlled by paramilitary forces — with knowledge of and support from the Colombian state — that provided security to drug lords and private landowners who had become the targets of guerrilla groups (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016). Land ownership of the Tayrona National Park has been opaque and complex; while Ojeda (2012, p. 363) maintains that 90 per cent of the protected area is “de facto in private hands ... notwithstanding its legal public character”, media reports suggest that 84 per cent of the park are ‘properties under discussion’, hence the exact legal status of the majority of the park remains unknown (Е/ Espectador, 2017). Some of the large landowners are local elites whose ancestors obtained the properties through royal decrees dating back to Spanish colonial times (i.e. pre-1819) or who have recently acquired land titles despite the illegality of land sales given the protected area status of the park (Ojeda, 2012).

Shortly after taking office, former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) launched a national policy of ‘Democratic Security’. Part of that policy was a dual strategy of tourism promotion and securitisation of tourism hotspots to guarantee the mobility and relative safety of tourists (Ojeda, 2012). The strategy culminated in the promotional campaign ‘Colombia is Passion’ with the slogan ‘Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay’ kicked off in late 2007 by the government’s tourism promotion arm, Proexport Colombia (Fletcher, 2011). For the Tayrona National Park and its inhabitants, this meant being increasingly targeted by paramilitary ‘clean-up’ operations. Given the insecurity of land tenure within the park, the peasant settlers (colones) and fishers could be easily dispossessed and evicted from their land to ‘secure the area’ and make room for tourists. In March 2010, a sevenhousehold strong fishing community was evicted by park officials who destroyed the fishers’ huts that had existed for about 50 years, while sparing the luxurious private beach homes (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016). Most fishers had to move to the nearby city of Santa Marta to look for new livelihood opportunities (Ojeda, 2012).

A more subtle approach was employed in 2005 through granting a ten-year tourism concession to Unión Temporal Tayrona (UTT), an alliance between the Chamber of Commerce of the nearby city Santa Marta, the private travel company Aviatur and the travel agency Alnuva, with the aim of relieving the UAESPNN of the burden of administering tourism activities in the park (Ojeda, 2012). Although UTT occupies not more than one per cent of the park’s territory, it controls the strategically important tourist zones along with the two park entrances. Ojeda’s (2012) study found that the privatisation of strategic areas through UTT has increased the pressure on natural resources, park inhabitants and local associations who formerly provided most of the tourist services.

Uribe’s successor in the Colombian presidency, Juan Manuel Santos (2010—2018) — who would later become a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize 2016 for his efforts in negotiating a peace agreement with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia {Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) — further stepped up the promotion of tourism in Tayrona National Park by attempting to tap into the high-end tourist market. In 2011, plans were revealed that the Thai multinational Six Senses Hotels, Resorts & Spas group wanted to construct a luxury resort on one of the park’s pristine beaches (Villegas, 2019). The project was backed by President Santos who praised the company’s ecological virtues, yet it was alleged in the Colombian media that some of his family members had been involved in early design phases (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016). As part of the legal process, the Ministry of Interior had to declare whether Indigenous groups were present in the area {El Heraldo, 2011; Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016) which would necessitate a prior consultation process according to Colombia’s multicultural legislation and the country’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). When the Ministry certified that there was no indigenous presence in the park boundaries, Indigenous communities were outraged as they have evidence of historical ties to the land through earlier settlement, occasional transit and regular rituals (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016). While in 2012 it was reported that three of the four Indigenous groups present in the area had given their approval to the tourism project, the Kankuamo remained categorically opposed, stating that it infringed on their sacred sites and that their position was “untouchable and non-negotiable” (Trent, 2012, n.p.). Following continuing pressure from Indigenous associations, local and national politicians, legal representatives, and environmental groups, President Santos himself terminated the project but with the stern warning that he would “cleanse the park” (Bocarejo and Ojeda, 2016, p. 180). The Six Senses project was not the only luxury ecotourism project, where Santos had to change his original stance. A project led by a domestic investor linked with the travel company Aviatur, the Los Ciruelos Eco-Resort project, also had to be stopped in 2013 with massive implications including a multi-million US$ lawsuit (see Box 7.4).

Box 7.4 Attempted green grab by the ecotourism project of the Colombian company Reserva Los Ciruelos in Tayrona National Park

In 2009, the Colombian company Reserva Los Ciruelos with close ties to the travel company Aviator was granted a government permit to construct a luxury resort with twelve eco-lodge units in Tayrona’s Concha Bay. Yet it was later revealed that the construction would affect one of the park’s important ecosystems, a biodiversity-rich dryland forest, and infringe on the sacred sites of Indigenous people who were not previously consulted about the project.

Construction of the eco-resort started in 2011 but was suspended later that year, when the National Environmental Licensing Authority (Autoridad Nacional de Licencias Ambientales - ANLA) and UAESPNN found out that the company had withdrawn freshwater from an illegal source. The suspension was lifted in late 2012, but in the meantime two research institutions (the Humboldt Institute in Bogota and Icesi University in Cali) had informed the environmental authorities that the dry forest where the eco-resort was to be located would suffer irreparable damage. In early 2013, then President Santos expressed his disapproval of the Los Ciruelos project via Twitter. It was later revealed that he had been warned as early as November 2011 that the construction of hotels would constitute a threat to Tayrona’s ecosystems. Following another temporary stop to the project imposed by ANLA in mid-January 2013 on environmental grounds, the Magdalena Administrative Court ordered the immediate suspension of Los Ciruelos environmental license until proper consultations with the four Indigenous communities be conducted, a ruling that was upheld a year later by the State Council.

The company filed a lawsuit against the State in 2014 for direct reparations of US$3.37 million, followed by another one in 2015 against ANLA, the Humboldt Institute and UEASPNN for compensation of US $180,000 in lost revenues. In mid-2015, ANLA lifted the suspension and issued a modified environmental license, but - according to the company - the regulations had changed the economic parameters of the project to such an extent that it was not considered financially viable anymore.

Sources: Edmond, 2013; Schertow, 2013; El Espectador, 2013, 2017;

O’Gorman, 2017; Alvarez, 2019; Segiumento, 2019

The judgement against the Los Ciruelos Eco-Resort project also had major implications for Aviatur’s other tourism services, as the travel company was ordered to consult with Indigenous communities regarding all activities that

Wildlife tourism and fortress conservation 139 affect their sacred sites. In the years 2017-2019, the Tayrona National Park was closed for one month annually to give the local ecosystem time to ‘heal’ from the impact of tourism. In mid-2019, a public tender was issued, as UTT’s concession would expire in 2020 after a 15-year lease (Alvarez, 2019). Yet, in December of the same year, UAESPNN suspended the bidding process, awaiting a decision by the Administrative Court of Santa Marta on the guarantee of the fundamental right to prior consultation with the Indigenous communities (Florez Arias, 2019). As the next tourism concession will have a duration of 23 years, the Tayrona National Park and its guardians have reached a critical juncture.

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