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The grey friars of the Andean Páramo


The Franciscan Friar, Antonio de Marchena played a vital role in one of history’s greatest events- the ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The Spanish Monarchy was initially skeptical of Columbus’ idea to sail west, but the Friar’s intervention was crucial in getting royal approval and he even accompanied Columbus on at least one of the voyages of discovery. Columbus’s gratitude was made clear when later he wrote “To him [de Marchena] Your Majesties owe the possession of the Indies.”

The Franciscan influence on Latin America has continued to be huge and we can still see it today, not least in the architecture the Franciscans inspired across the continent, from the Convent of San Francisco in Lima, Perú to the Convent of Cuauhtinchán in Puebla, Mexico.

I came across another more obscure manifestation of Franciscan influence in one of the least known ecosystems of the Amazon Basin – the Páramo.

Páramo occupies isolated patches of relatively flat terrain above the tree line and below the permanent snowline. Towards the lower end of its altitudinal range – around 3000 metres – it has many scattered shrubs but these increasingly give way to a cover of tussock grasses as you go higher. Throughout its range in the Northern Andes a group of plants, known to science as Espeletias, add to the páramo’s distinctive appearance.

A few days ago in the Southern Colombian Andes, I stood in páramo for the first time. I was just inside the Amazon basin close to the Pacific-Atlantic watershed. It felt very cold, very damp and a little bit eerie as the grey mists that swirled around me increased the sensation of quiet isolation. And of course the plants that most drew my attention were the Espeletias, known locally as Frailejones, or Friars.

The misty paramoThe misty (and slightly eerie) paramo. © Jamie Gordon / WWF-UK

You can see the abundant Espeletias in the picture above, upright and pale, standing out in the mist. With a little imagination (or perhaps quite a lot) they might, just about, be mistaken for humans.

Look closely at the leaves in the picture below. Not only are they grey (an unusual colour for a photosynthesizer) they are also slightly shaggy, like a rough cloth of the sort that would make the robe of a humble friar. So I like to think that these frailejones were not named after just any religious order, but after one in particular, the Grey Friars – or Franciscans.

Espeletias.The grey friars or Frailejones as they’re called locally. © Jamie Gordon / WWF-UK

Páramo does not have the high-rise architecture or constant buzz of insect life that characterise a tropical forest. What’s more, scientists will tell you that it is nowhere near as diverse as the forests lower down in the Amazon basin. However, it has its own value.

Isolation means that many of the species associated with it occur nowhere else, many of the Espeletias included. It is also a place where, if you were very lucky, you might see the Andean Bear or the Andean Condor. And somewhere in the undergrowth scamper some of the wild relatives of the Guinea Pig, a tasty delicacy in these parts. More difficult to believe in the piercing cold is that humming birds are also found here.

But there are other important values to this ecosystem. The constant misty precipitation gives them a sponge-like role in the cycling of water coming down from the Andes and feeding the great rivers of the Amazon. That’s why Amazonian conservation starts up there in the páramo. And that importance goes beyond the Amazon.

Back in Bogotá, South America’s largest Andean capital, I was informed by colleagues that we were close to the continent’s largest páramo – in the Sumapaz reserve – that protects the water catchment that supplies freshwater to this metropolis of 8 million people.

Before leaving Bogotá, I spare a thought for another trace of the Grey Friars, the Franciscan Church of San Diego. A quiet patch of colonial architecture, isolated and a little over-looked amongst the capital’s taller and noisier buildings.

Isolated and overlooked – a bit like the páramo.

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