Wetland culture and tourism at Xieti Nature Reserve, Colombia

The Xieti Nature Reserve is a small private nature reserve (3.2 Ha) adjacent to Lake Tota in Colombia that is committed to conservation and sustainable tourism, with a focus on promoting wetland culture and tourism. It is managed by nonprofit Fundación Montecito, an environmental NGO founded in 2010. Xieti received confirmation of its status as an OECM (Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures) site for Colombia in 2022, the first and still the only sole private OECM site in the region so far, and it is registered as such within the Colombian Ministry of Environment, and in Protected Planet.

Despite its limited size and the non-protected surroundings (which faces significant human intervention, mainly from agriculture and inattention to environmental health), the reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, including birds, amphibians, and plants. The high Andean ecosystem that corresponds to this reserve has been under long-term restoration since 2014 and results are now gradually becoming visible.

A core objective for Xieti is to facilitate a follow by example call to sustainability around Lake Tota. The surrounding region has potential to spread the reserve’s environmental awareness and call to join conservation as a community effort. Xieti Nature Reserve is contributing mainly with links to the local rural school and in activities with children to raise conservation awareness. Visitors to the reserve can participate in a variety of activities, such as birdwatching, hiking, canoeing and learning about the local ecosystem.

The Xieti Nature Reserve is a good example of linking tourism and conservation because it is actively involved in conservation and ecological restoration of a high Andean wetland and its basin. It takes a leading by example approach with a focus on wetlands as a motivational pilot for others to see and follow (linking environmental education in all of its initiatives), whilst at the same time promoting wetland tourism as means to share with others.

The reserve hopes to establish a wetland centre and a wetlands school (for local rural children), both at a small scale and in complete harmony within its own site. Xieti wants to be recognized for its sustainable use of a wetland ecosystem, which includes the reserve’s own high Andean forest ecosystem as an open school and site for evidence. Xieti believes the best way to educate and convince others to follow is by example.

Restoration began back in 2014, by simply planting as many native trees as possible. Development of the wetland centre purpose followed, with a calendar of activities linked to wetland conservation. Conserving wetlands is not only about wetlands themselves, but also an integrated approach to work with nearby ecosystems, its biodiversity, communities and education. Restoration then took more of a holistic approach, including the opening of an apiary (aimed for pollination) and a plant nursery, more native tree planting, creation of a map to promote an “adopt a plot” initiative aiming to increase funding and support. Xieti won international support from the PBNF (The Netherlands) to progress with bird conservation efforts. Xieti is also a member of GlobalGiving and is listed on the Restor platform.

Some impacts to date include;

Nearly 5.000 native trees planted (in 3.2 Ha), with a survival rate of ~70%.

An apiary with nine beehives and three honey harvesting seasons.

A plant nursery with 12 native species available and four successful examples to germinate native trees, run with rainwater harvesting.

Domestic outflow water from the guest house treated with a Green Filter (constructed wetland), creating a safe nutrient cycle and a water source for plants.

Biodiversity in the reserve being monitored with important data that is gradually growing, all of which is accessible from its website.

Small trials of initiatives to harvest water (with cloud fishing) and passive restoration methods (digging holes on slopes to slowly regreen the surroundings by contributing to better rainy water cycles).

Being recognized as the first OECM area in the region, and already part of Protected Planet.

To have served and contributed as a motivational initiative to grow bird conservation efforts around Lake Tota. The Apolinar’s Wren is now seen as a flagship species for one municipality nearby.

To host scientific research from an expert biologist on bird species Cistothorus apolinari.

Nearby rural schools have adopted bird conservation efforts in their award-winning school environmental project (called Apolinar’s Wren Guardians).

To host fieldwork on spider research (currently under laboratory work in a national university). Researchers have found one new species.

To host a small environmental festival, Muyso Festival, for three years in a row to highlight myths and conservation related to Lake Tota.

The reserve has received support from a variety of sources, including political/management, financial, and educational.

-Political/management support: The reserve has received support from the Colombian Government (the local municipality, the environmental regional authority, and the Ministry of Environment which leads OECMs in Colombia), in a variety of ways such as recognition, support for events and initiatives and invitations to participate in governance. It has helped to protect the reserve’s land and resources. The reserve has also received support from local communities, including the local rural school, who have helped to enforce conservation policies and educate visitors about the importance of protecting the environment. Xieti also received valuable support from networks including the World Wetland Network, Wetland Link International, GlobalGiving, Comunitur, socialbnb, and the Living Lakes Network.

-Financial support: Besides its own support by Fundación Montecito’s founders and their families, the reserve has received financial support from a variety of sources, including international donors, foundations, and individual donors. This financial support has helped the reserve to develop its infrastructure, implement its conservation programs, and educate visitors about the importance of conservation. Revenue from tourism is yet to be a significant supporting source to the reserve’s self-sustainability, but reaching that is one of the main goals in the near future.

-Educational support: The reserve has received educational support from a variety of sources, including universities, schools, non-profit organizations, and individual internships for whom the reserve has provided a site for research. This educational support has helped the reserve to develop its own knowledge, and develop educational programs for visitors, train its staff, and raise awareness of the importance of conservation.

The Xieti Nature Reserve is a good example of how wetlands and environmental culture tourism can be used to support conservation when it has the support of political/management, financial, and educational stakeholders. These stakeholders can help to protect the reserve’s land and resources, provide financial support for conservation programs, and educate visitors about the importance of conservation.

In addition to these three types of support, the Xieti Nature Reserve also benefits from the support of its volunteers. Volunteers help the reserve with a variety of tasks, such as conducting research, monitoring wildlife, interacting with local schools and educating visitors. The reserve’s volunteers are an important part of Xieti’s success, and they help to ensure that the reserve is able to continue its conservation work.

The reserve is currently working on a number of projects, such as:

-Developing new educational programs for visitors. This includes a yearly calendar of activities with diverse options for engagement, all framed within establishing a wetland centre and a wetlands school.

-Creating new trails and hiking opportunities and including non-motorised navigational alternatives (canoeing, kayaking).

-Planting trees to restore the forest and its adjacent wetland (lake) shore, continuing to monitor to adjust interventions accordingly, and strengthening the “adopt a plot” strategy for restoration by requesting a donation of its costs and offering a membership with benefits in return.

The reserve is also working to increase outreach to local communities, in order to build support for conservation efforts and, at the same time, help as providers of indirect sources of income for our local community with initiatives that involve external services and participation (e.g. festivals to promote environmental culture). The reserve’s Facebook page is an important tool for communicating these plans and updates to the public, but having external wooden boards and communicating with other formats are also planned.

Tourism in our area (around Lake Tota and the Sugamuxi Province) is mostly national visitors, from within our Boyacá department and our surrounding regions, adjacent departments like Cundinamarca, Antioquia and Santander. International visitors visit as a small percentage.

‘Wetland tourism’ (an offer of activities linked to enjoying wetlands, with a harmonized connection to nature and local culture, open to all) is yet to be developed. However Xieti envisions huge potential, being inspired by worldwide examples (including WLI & WWT).

Xieti’s aim is to have a combination of mainly international visitors, nature-loving travellers, schools and academic groups, as well as company groups. Visitors who have an authentic and respectful appreciation for the region’s ancestral values will be encouraged, because Xieti believes nature conservation has to have a strong tie with cultural and indigenous roots. Services are mostly focused on having visitors willing to learn and appreciate wetlands and conservation, whilst also having fun.

Further support from the tourism industry is currently in a trial phase to ensure any development is sustainable and thought through properly.

The Xieti Nature Reserve´s example could be transferred to another protected area, or region, by sharing information and learning including the reserve’s zoning and management plan, educational programs and strategy (wetland centre and wetlands school), biodiversity and strategy for research and linkage with tourism, and calendar of events and marketing materials.

By sharing this information, other protected areas could learn from the Xieti Nature Reserve’s experience and replicate its success. The reserve’s Facebook page is a valuable resource for sharing this information, as it allows the reserve to reach a global audience.

Xieti’s collaboration and sharing strategy is similar to the CEPA program (communication-education-participation-awareness and capacity building), as an inner belief in the nonprofit to practice it constantly as part of a governance effort. Examples include:

Being active on social media (website, social page on Facebook, some on Twitter).

Actively volunteering and sharing mainly with local rural schools.

Participating frequently in lake-related events or discussion rooms.

Using Xieti as a visible spot to promote certain initiatives, like the Muyso Festival.

Networking in nature-reserve or wetland related topics, also in restoration and nature tourism.

Leading and making visible ‘Causa Tota’ to protect Lake Tota as a whole. Social media group ‘Mocilato’ has more than 3,000 people following with hundreds of posts with endless topics.

Being collaborative and open to others by principle, in terms of sharing requested information, creating easy and public access of our endeavours, and collaborating with scientists or students.

Having most findings about our nonprofit work, Lake Tota work and Xieti work visible and transparent to others, through a variety of formats – social media, blogs, regular media appearances, participation.

Being independent from government funding (this represents only 1% or so in relation to our budget).

Being perseverant, despite the great challenges of trying to get self-sustainability from conservation-related activities, external funding, donors, family and volunteering.

Gaining some level of recognition within our society has created a decent platform to facilitate collaborating and sharing with others.

To persuade others by example is a challenging and delicate path of coherence. Xieti is conscious about their own limitations and learning process along the way, but being tireless in demonstrating progress on ethics and commitment is certainly a great tool to facilitate collaboration and sharing.

Although the Xieti Nature Reserve opens to the public only by prior coordination, it was forced to close its chances to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the reserve was able to continue its conservation work by conducting research and monitoring the reserve’s wildlife. The reserve and nonprofit Fundación Montecito both used their Facebook page to stay connected with its public and raise awareness of the pandemic’s impact on nature.

The reserve is now preparing for future crises by developing new tourism products that will be more resilient to disruptions and facilitate distant interaction. The reserve is also working to increase its online presence, so that it can continue to connect with visitors even during times of closure.

Overall, the Xieti Nature Reserve is an example of how tourism can be used to support conservation. The reserve is committed to protecting the natural world (by sharing from examples on its small piece of land) and educating visitors about the importance of conservation. The reserve is also working to improve its operations and become more resilient to future crises.

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