Characterization of Ecosystem Services in an Area of Orinoquia's Foothills

A local perspective of biodiversity and well-being

Talía WaldrónInstituto Alexander von Humboldt Julián Díaz-TimotéInstituto Alexander von Humboldt Juan Camilo González VargasFundación Reserva Natural La Palmita, Centro de Investigación María Isabel Vieira MuñozInstituto Alexander von Humboldt Carolina Mora-FernándezFundación Reserva Natural La Palmita, Centro de Investigación María PinzónFundación Reserva Natural La Palmita, Centro de Investigación

What does a local person need to live well? What natural resources are necessary in his or her daily life? What are the consequences of their use in terms of conservation?

The current state of Orinoquia's foothills is the result of a long history of occupation and transformation of its ecosystems. Its management poses a challenge in the search for sustainability and adaptation to global and regional changes.

Orinoquia's foothills have witnessed the rapid transitions that Colombia has experienced concerning economic, political, and social matters. For example, the soil in savanna and foothill ecosystems has, in general, changed from being used for a mostly extensive form of cattle raising to an intensive one. It has also been affected by other transformations caused by the expansion of the agricultural frontier and the construction of infrastructure, among others1,2,3. Such drivers of change have modified the way resources are used and how human populations relate to them, producing a growing regional economy4 that follows foreign guidelines. Therefore the challenge of managing this socio-ecological system in constant flux resides in recognizing the extreme climatic dynamics of the region and summoning all the persons involved so they may actively participate. Such involvement should contribute to the planning, execution, and follow-up plans of territorial management, conceived as the essential base of an appropriate form of managing and maintaining biodiversity and its derived ecosystem services.

It is therefore necessary to "link the community, indigenous peoples, criollos from the area, newcomers to the region, and vulnerable groups in order to create development proposals that contribute to strengthening processes that are sustainable, equitable, and inclusive4. In this way, the theoretic foundation is that ecosystem services at a local scale offer a lush route towards understanding the relationship between communities and their environment.

The project "Conservation of Threatened Species in the Area of Influence of the Bicentenario Pipeline" has the goal of developing a social and ecological diagnosis of the territory. It identifies the main ecosystem services with the purpose of establishing management guidelines framed in the Integrated Valuation of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IVBES) 6. The exploration of concepts such as human well-being, territory, and conservation, along with the study of the existing relationship between daily life and the maintenance of the quality of natural resources, resulted in a collaborative construction of knowledge with many communities in six municipalities of Arauca and Casanare.

Location of study area and prioritized areas
prioritized areas
Bicentenario Pipeline

Land covers

Artificial territories
Agricultural territories
Forests and semi-natural areas
Wet areas
Bodies of water
Percentage of ecosystem services in the areas in use identified by the inhabitants of the villages of San Joaquín and San Salvador (Tame, Arauca)

Casanare River and streams

River banks



Does not apply



Crops (plantain and rice)

Cattle raising

Hunting and fishing



Hydration, trough



Hydration, trough


Hunting and fishing

Cattle raising

Subsistence crops (manioc, corn, plantain, papaya)


wood (fuel)


flooding prevention

flooding prevention


recreation, tourism, and transport

recreation, tourism, and transport


The community in the villages of San Salvador and San Joaquín in Tame (Arauca) identified the places they used and in which they performed key activities in everyday life. These areas define the people's well-being and in turn are understood as ecosystem services (standardized with IVBES)6. For each area in use (Casanare river, marshes, river banks, savannas, and streams) 15 activities were recognized and classified as ecosystem services. The river and streams are areas in use in which the greatest number of activities take place.

Although the community highlights their typical work in the savanna and cattle raising as important parts of their identity, most of the population is identified with the activities that occur in the banks of rivers and streams. So the river and its banks are considered as the principal living space in which basic elements for well-being are produced, social relations are intertwined, and the ecosystems are managed.

In the last 30 years, the inhabitants of these villages have experienced great changes in their economic and organizational structure. In the past, their subsistence economy was centered on hunting, fishing, cattle raising in community-shared savannas, and the trading of salt through community banks. Salt was transported and sold along the rivers, making them places of community encounters. After the construction of the highway that connects Arauca to the southern parts of the country in 1990, other products such as bush meat and fish began to take part of the local commerce, changing the way in which these resources were used. Between 2002 and 2005, social, economic, and cultural dynamics were determined by the then intensified armed conflict. This phenomenon changed existing relations of power and the access to ecosystem services. It also ruptured community bonds of solidarity and reciprocity, forcing many inhabitants to abandon their lands.