Threats in the Northern Andes Ecoregional Complex

Few ecoregions around the world are as densely populated as those within the Northern Andes ecoregion complex. The Northern Andes are home to more than 40 million people. About 70% of the population in Colombia and Ecuador live within the complex. And these numbers are rising. The growing population is undergoing dramatic social changes. As the population and cities grow, the biodiversity of the region faces unprecedented pressures.
Many social changes are taking place in the Northern Andes, and a growing trend is the concentration of land in the hands of a shrinking minority. As small farmers move off their land, many move up the region's steep slopes, into forests, and onto paramos in search of land to cultivate. This migration results in large-scale habitat loss and fragmentation as native habitats give way to farms and contributes to habitat degradation.

The region's cities have a growing need for food, as Northern Andean urbanites depend on the steady supply of foods farmed by others. The large-scale farming operations that supply the region's growing population are heavily reliant on chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. This contaminates rivers and streams and enters food webs in neighboring and distant ecosystems.

Livestock production poses further threats to biodiversity. Also associated with soil erosion, pasturelands have replaced moist forests and paramos, helping to isolate forest remnants. The movement of species between the small forest patches becomes limited. 27% of Colombia's Andean forests have been affected by livestock grazing.

With headwaters of over 70 rivers and 300 streams located within the NAEC, governments regard the rivers as an important energy resource. While the dams might produce electricity at lower costs than other energy sources, they threaten mountain and riverside forests with flooding, effectively eliminating the native habitats that once lined river corridors.

Though their impacts are fairly localized, extractive industries such as mining and petroleum drilling are quickening the pace of biodiversity loss in NAEC. Pollution has long been recognized as a potential side effect of poorly managed extractive operations. Less well known is the role that the roads surrounding drilling and mining sites play in the loss of biodiversity.

Built to deliver supplies and workers to and from the work sites, the new roads can destroy and fragment native habitats as well as open up previously inaccessible areas to settlement. With serious government interest in expanding petroleum and mining operations in Colombia, Ecuador, and Perú, the future of biodiversity in these areas is uncertain.

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