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Dr France Gerard (CEH) reports from the first field campaign conducted by the PARAGUAS research team in the high-altitude páramos of Boyacá, Colombia. PARAGUAS is investigating how people and plants are influencing water storage in páramos areas, which are the source of water for many in Colombia...

As I write, many of my PARAGUAS colleagues are with me in Boyacá, Colombia where we are halfway through our first field campaign, running from 15 February to 3 March 2019.

Our main objectives for this phase of the project are to:

  • Define the boundaries of 12 ‘micro-cuencas’ (i.e. small watersheds) located across our study area, the páramo Guantiva-La Rusia.
  • Establish a number of survey plots (5m by 5m) across each of our micro-cuencas. These will help us characterise the different hydrological response classes that dominate each micro-cuenca in terms of soil characteristics, and the number and type of plants.
  • Determine where to place a flow gauge and weather station. These installations will help us monitor the flow of water leaving the micro-cuenca and thus the water yield of the sites.
  • Fly a drone over the survey plots and their surroundings to capture the spatial variation in hydrological response classes, help with the estimations of plant numbers and produce digital elevation models.
  • Evaluate a preliminary radar (satellite) based map showing the spatial distribution in Guantiva-La Rusia of the peat-based wetlands, which form an integral and important part of the páramo. The water retention capacity of these wetlands is believed to play a major role in stabilising the water yield throughout the year.

With our páramo sites located at altitudes between 3500m and 4200m, a few of us, myself included, arrived three days early and stayed in Tunja (at 2810m), giving us the time to acclimatise. During our stay in Tunja we met with several of our Colombian collaborators at UPTC to visit the lab facilities they’ve made available to PARAGUAS, and discuss joint student projects.

Above left: Visiting the lab of Adriana Espinosa (UPTC); middle: discussions held with Francisco Cortes Perez (UPTC); right: testing our drone at high altitude (2810m) in the UPTC grounds.
Above left: Visiting the lab of Adriana Espinosa (UPTC); middle: discussions held with Francisco Cortes Perez (UPTC); right: testing our drone at high altitude (2810m) in the UPTC grounds.


We spent time working out how best to integrate a Colciencias-funded project led by Francisco Cortés Pérez (UPTC). This is investigating the effectiveness of introducing different types of fog catchers—ie, using naturally tall indigenous páramo plants or artificial screens—to increase the water yield of the páramo. During the earlier Colombia-Bio integration workshop held by NERC and AHRC in Bogotá, Francisco and I agreed that his study site, the páramo of Pan de Azúcar, should be one of the 12 PARAGUAS sites. The Pan de Azúcar is privately owned by Julián Barbosa (Fundación Tibairá) and managed as a nature reserve. Julián is passionate about conservation and is looking into ways in which he can sustainably use the páramo. In another páramo area, for example, he harvests honey and pollen from recently-introduced bee hives.

Espeletia health

We also took the opportunity to meet Amanda Varela Ramírez (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana) at the Chingaza National Park and collect drone imagery for plots where she is monitoring the health of Espeletia plants. This was possible thanks to the courtesy and support of the national park authorities who, at very short notice, gave us permission to fly our drone in the park. Espeletias are typically found in the páramos of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, and are iconic plants due to their unique shape and beauty. Recently, however, Espeletia plants have started to die in large numbers and it is yet unclear why.

The long-term monitoring of the health of large quantities of individual plants will be key to help evaluate current hypotheses. In a small PARAGUAS spin-off project we plan to test if drone remote sensing could provide maps of individual living and dead plants.


Paraguas Espeletia health
Left: My PARAGUAS colleagues Charles George (CEH) and Boris Ochoa-Tocachi (Imperial College London) standing next to Juan Carlos Clavijo Flórez, the Chingaza National Park director – on the right - who welcomed us to the Chingaza park and accompanied us with Amanda Varela Ramírez (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana) to her monitoring plots. 

Middle:  Amanda explaining to Charles the hypotheses behind the death of the Espeletias that have been proposed.
Right: Amanda checking the health of an Espeletia plant.


On 15 February the complete field team of 11 people met up in Duitama, the town closest to our most southern four micro-cuencas. Every day, a large team of nine people set out to survey where a flow gauge could be placed, establish the survey plots, fly the drone and collect soil data. It took two field days to develop an effective sequence of activities that allowed us to carry out all the required work within a single day. At the same time, a smaller team of two explored the landscape of Guantiva-La Rusia to evaluate the radar-derived map of wetlands. 

The team of PARAGUAS researchers and our support crew of 2 local guides and 3 drivers (Photo © Maurizio Diazgranados, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew)
The team of PARAGUAS researchers and our support crew of 2 local guides and 3 drivers (Photo © Maurizio Diazgranados, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew)


Establishing a routine

We are currently (24 February) halfway through our field campaign and have established six of our twelve sites. The team is now in a comfortable routine of breakfast at 6am, grabbing lunch, organising the equipment on the back of the 4x4s and leaving by 6:45am. We are then driven into the mountains where, depending on the site location, we face a 0.5hr to 1.5hrs hike before we reach our chosen micro-cuenca. While the drivers patiently wait for us at our drop-off point, we race against time, trying to beat the thunderstorms that invariably close in around 2:30pm, give or take 30 mins!

There is a real spirit of collaboration and everyone is supporting each other. This attitude is crucial to make a complex project, like PARAGUAS, that relies on the integration of different scientific disciplines, a success. The field team have been working hard and non-stop for seven days and today we are taking a well-deserved break. 


Paraguas mixed images
Left: Some of the team discussing the location of the next couple of plots in the páramo of Pan de Azúcar. Middle: Julián Barbosa (Fundación Tibairá) a great believer in conservation and the owner of the Pan de Azúcar nature reserve. Julián joined us in the field, helping out and explaining the landscape. Right: the honey and pollen harvested by Julián from beehives in another páramo area which he is managing in a sustainable manner.

"There is a real spirit of collaboration and everyone is supporting each other. This attitude is crucial to make a complex project, like PARAGUAS, a success." Dr France Gerard, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Members of the PARAGUAS team in action
Members of the PARAGUAS team in action


People standing in the páramo
People standing in the páramo


The PARAGUAS project is funded by the Newton Caldas Fund through NERC and AHRC [grant number NE/R017654/1].

PARAGUAS is jointly led by Principal Investigator Dr France Gerard (Centre  for Ecology and Hydrology) and Co-Investigators Dr Ed Rowe (Centre  for Ecology and Hydrology),  Mauricio Diazgranados (The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew), David Large (Nottingham University), Wouter Buytaert (Imperial College London), Maria Paula Escobar-Tello (Bristol University), Dominic Moran (University of Edinburgh), Michael Wilson (Loughborough University) and supported by the research group ‘Biología para la conservación’ of the Universidad Pedagógica Tecnológica de Colombia (UPTC) – Dr. Adriana Janneth Espinosa Ramírez, the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos – Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH)  - Dr. Susana Rodríguez-Buritica, The Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UN) - Prof. Conrado de Jesús Tobón Marín and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) - Dr. Liz Johanna Díaz.