Expert interview with two ornithologists at Lake Tota
In November this year, we had the pleasure of meeting the ornithologists Diana Carolina Macana and Johana Zuluaga-Bonilla. We were able to join their fieldwork for one day at Lake Tota and conduct an interview with them. This English article is drawn from that interview. You can also find a Spanish language podcast of the interview on our NGO blog. In the interview, Carolina and Johana share details of their work and explain environmental issues around Lake Tota, including what happens when species go extinct. We also had the chance to talk with them about our new environmental education project, SueTy, which contributes to our conservation initiative for the Apolinar’s Wren at the Guáquira’s Bay, Lake Tota, supported by the PBNF.
Carolina and Johana both studied Biology at the UPTC University in Tunja, Colombia. Fifteen years ago, they started to focus their work more specifically on birds and their habitats here at Lake Tota. During their long research relationship, this ecosystem became a crucial place for them. However, over the years, they have noticed various environmental problems in this area such as increasing pollution, the extinction of two species, and the loss of vegetation around Lake Tota. We are very grateful that they could share some of their knowledge with our NGO in this interview, so that we may gain a deeper understanding of these human-ecosystem relations.
Why are birds so especially important for our environment? What makes it so urgent to protect the “Apolinar’s Wren”, an endangered bird living around Lake Tota?
C: Birds have a special place in nature. Everything in nature works because there is an equilibrium. If one species disappears, this causes everything to lose balance, even when this is not directly visible. The Apolinar’s Wren is important for Lake Tota because it has, like every species, a specific function in the ecosystem. Moreover, it controls the population of insects, is part of the food web, and has an impact on the flux of nutrients in the lake. Also, I think that seeing birds has an impact on us humans. Spotting them and having them around us can inspire us to feel closer to nature.
J: In addition to that, seeing and hearing the birds singing, moving and building their nests – they are part of not just the environmental balance and the food web, but also are part of our landscape and they deserve a place in it.
Let´s talk about the importance of the Apolinar’s Wren in a global context: Is it common to find this bird around the globe?
C: The Apolinar’s Wren is an endemic bird from Colombia and you can only find it here in a very particular area in the high wetlands of the Eastern Andes, the Páramos. Its distribution is extremely localized. Because of that, and the decrease of their territory through pollution, the bird is highly endangered. There are very few individuals of this species left.
Could you please talk a little bit more about the threats the Apolinar’s Wren and its environment must face?
J: The large amount of onion farming and the associated heavy use of pesticide cocktails around the lake, the intrusive and non-endemic rainbow trout in Lake Tota, and careless tourism are some of the main threats the bird and its environment have to face. Furthermore, the lack of environmental education and the resistance to change farming practices do not help to create positive change, but rather a multi-sided conflict. The interest in developing an oil industry nearby increases the risks and may potentially cause further problems.
C: Another big problem is the poor waste water management of the surrounding towns and hotels at the lake shore. But we have to remind ourselves that all these named factors of pollution also have an effect on our human health, because the water of Lake Tota is drinking water for 400,000 people. Eutrophication in Lake Tota is a further problem. The recent removal of algae in the lake contributes to this and has had an effect on our Apolinar’s Wren, which lives and nestles in the reeds around the lake shore. This shy bird needs a very calm place to nest and is threatened by this practice of algae cutting.
“Losing species and watching their disappearance also means that we lose knowledge about them and, overall, some of the privilege to enjoy nature.”
Maybe let’s talk about extremes: What will happen if this bird becomes extinct?
C: Recently, we quite suddenly had the experience of what can happen when species disappear in the ecosystem, when the Greasefish (Rhizosomichthys totae) and the Colombian Grebe (Podiceps andinus) were driven to extinction. It is not a coincidence that the aquatic vegetation at Lake Tota has changed. Some of the original vegetation also went extinct with these two species. Now, we have invasive non-local vegetation in the lake and we can see how unbalanced the ecosystem is right now. The extinction of the Apolinar’s Wren could cause another instability in the ecosystem. We as humans cannot see ecosystem vulnerabilities and fully understand the potential future changes directly. Furthermore, losing species and watching their disappearance also means that we lose knowledge about them and, overall, some of the privilege to enjoy nature.
To focus a bit on the positive side: What will happen if the bird population increases again?
J: The goal is the balance! First, we need to save the habitat and the population of the bird. For that, we need more environmental education to teach local communities about the impacts of our actions and our responsibility to save the water, vegetation and a variety of other species.
“Our parents and our society teach us to kill and dislike insects, spiders or frogs. We get raised thinking that bees can be dangerous. In these moments, we denaturalize our children.”
What is causing the increasing isolation of humans from nature, or why do you think that people are becoming more disconnected from our environment?
J: When we are children, our parents and our society teach us to kill and dislike insects, spiders or frogs. We get raised thinking that bees can be dangerous. In these moments, we denaturalize our children. This is a big problem, because we grow up with little interest in understanding the environment with its vegetation and its inhabitants. We need to be more in nature again, so that we can learn how to understand, love and appreciate it.
C: I think that working with very young children, in their first few years, is very important to make this message more effective. Of course, it is also powerful to work with adults and teenagers, but creating a respectful relationship in these first young years increases that person’s later actions. Therefore, we should teach children less theory and we should educate them in nature again. Learning through smelling, hearing and feeling your environment can create a much more meaningful connection. This will cause a sustainable change again.
Do you know a community, apart from indigenous groups, or a place which could be considered as a good example for treating the environment well?
C: I know an environmental leader from La Cocha lake in the Colombian state Nariño. She told me about all the work which they did recently together as a community. She told me that Lake Tota is an example of what “should not be done” with nature. Their community could be an inspiration, how to live and work on environmental conservation and to remind us that it is possible to have equilibrium in nature again.
J: Two years ago, I met an environmental leader in the Jamundí Cauca, Riberas del Rosario neighbourhood. That woman is not a biologist, nor did she know a lot about details in nature at that time, but she saw that the river needed to be protected. When I travelled to Jamundí, I spoke to her and her allies and together we prepared a book about the birds of their close neighbourhood. Together, we took pictures of the birds living in that environment and printed some of them to make these animals more visible for the local community. Then they worked together with the surrounding communities and taught them about birds and other animals in and around the river. Beyond that, they contacted the environmental authorities and began the protection of the river. They organized campaigns against dumping waste in the river and how to keep it clean. The community started to become proud of the river and its wildlife. Right now you cannot find pollution by local people in that area anymore.
“Smart local people are smart consumers – that is the key!”
What do you think we can do as local people around Lake Tota to protect our environment?
C: Not just the local communities, but also the Colombians as consumers of Lake Tota onions should demand better farming practices for the crop. The farming of onions is a big business, there is a lot of money and powerful people are involved in that trade. But being more conscious about the products you consume is one change that we can make in our homes straight away.
J: Yes, smart local people are smart consumers - that is the key!
And how should this change in consumer practices happen?
J: We need green products that are not polluting our environment. Being informed before buying is an important first step.
As you heard, we are currently organizing a new project named SueTy, which is a creative environmental education program. Do you think this project could cause a change in consciousness?
C: Yes, I think this project is very important. As I said before, to involve children in environmental education can be very meaningful and create connections at a very young age. Also, it is very important to strengthen this relationship in a fun way, away from theory and classrooms. We can learn so much more if we are having fun. We are looking forward to that nice work!
J: SueTy is an interesting proposal in which children talk about birds, gain further knowledge about their home, make music, sing birdsongs and create art. Also, they can learn about indigenous Muisca wisdom related to the lake. This project has so many dimensions. Maybe one child from that school becomes an ecotourism guide, or wants to protect the lake, our home, and can raise deeper awareness in the future.
*Disclaimer: some minor adjustments were made to quotes for clarity.
This interview was conducted by Felipe Velasco and Christin Meusel.
 For information about this subject: http://ctb.fundacionmontecito.org/p/petroleo-vs-lago-de-tota.html
 The eutrophication in Lake Tota is caused by an excessively high amount of nutrients in the lake, which is partly caused by the increased use of pesticides. Algae grows as a natural filter for these nutrients, but excessive growth of algae reduces oxygen levels in the lake and makes it less habitable for other species.
 Further information: http://ctb.fundacionmontecito.org/2019/12/especies-extintas-en-lago-de-tota.html