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Photo ©: Meridith Kohut/WWF-US

Colombia is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.

As the country’s continued peace and economic growth fuel rapid development, its natural heritage is at stake. The pristine Bita River is on its way to a uniquely protected status, spotlighting the nation’s commitment to securing its natural capital.

The Bita River begins as a small, spring-fed stream in the middle of the llanos, a network of grasslands and seasonally flooded plains. The river meanders freely through this important and unique ecosystem, creating deep lagoons and beautiful beaches, until it reaches the Orinoco River.

Along its path, the Bita supports rich biodiversity: freshwater fish, turtles and crocodiles, river dolphins, jaguars, tapirs, and many other mammals, reptiles and birds. 

© Days Edge Productions / WWF-US

Despite Colombia’s wealth in natural assets, the countries governance and protections of nature demand improvement. Colombia does not meet the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) basic environmental protection standards. Research has revealed that the llanos are one of the most under-protected ecosystems in the country. The country’s ecosystems are increasingly under pressure from extractive industries, livestock grazing, urbanization and increased demands. In the Bita, there is hope.

The Bita River is poised to be a model of conservation in the country. 

It is in process to be designated as a Ramsar site, and work is underway to develop and implement a conservation policy that is replicable for other rivers in Colombia. Once achieved, the Bita River will become a model for conservationists to protect rivers around the world. 

According to the 2016 Bita River Report Card, the basin’s health scored an overall B grade. Its pristine landscapes provided excellent marks for water supply and demand, natural land cover, and terrestrial connectivity. The report card found that the “richness of this river confirms that a conservation framework is not only warranted but necessary to improve planning decisions in the future.”

© Meridith Kohut/WWF-US

Alliance for the Bita River

Led by The Alexander von Humboldt Research Institute for Biological Resources, Colombia announced its plan for the country’s first protected rivers in 2014. With this declaration came the launch of the Alliance for Bita River in collaboration with several local organizations, including Vichada Government Corporinoquia, National Parks the Omacha Foundation, National Army, the Palmarito Foundation, Foundation Orinoco, La Pedregosa Association and WWF. 

Today, the Alliance is a coalition of fisherman, tourism representatives, Colombian Naval command, social and environmental organizations, scientists, and locals all working toward the same goal of protecting the Bita River. Together, they are working with organizations to understand the various options for legal protection and identify the best past forward—for the Bita, and for all of Colombia. 

“The Alliance for the Bita River is a joint effort that will allow us to work towards its declaration as a protected river, a new environmental figure. This is so innovative that it has never been done in the history of the planet.”

Briggite Baptiste, director of The Alexander von Humboldt Institute

Legal Mechanisms Supported By Science

To advance conversations about legally protected the Bita, WWF and the Bita Alliance, a group of advocates and non-governmental organizations, hosted a series of workshops with local stakeholders to understand the connections between various activities (such as agriculture and tourism) and protection. After better understanding the causal-effect relationships of these multi-sector activities, the group began developing a decision-making framework—or Causal Loop Diagram—that uses quantitative data to demonstrate the impacts of certain actions. This framework helped the government, institutions of the Bita Alliance, and other partners choose the best protections for the Bita River to meet the needs of all stakeholders. On June 23, 2018, the Bita River was added to the List of Wetlands of International Importance of the Ramsar Convention. It is the largest Ramsar site in Colombia and the first Ramsar site to protect an entire basin.

  "[The Bita's] ecological health has set the standard that Colombian rivers should aim for, since they have suffered serious pollution and loss of biodiversity problems.”

Mary Lou Higgins, Director, WWF-Colombia