Such is life in the urban tropics

In 2015, the National Research Institute of Colombia “Alexander von Humboldt” (commonly known as Instituto Humboldt), promoted Urban Nature: Platform of Experiences, a book project giving voice to diverse sets of knowledge that come into play when addressing and managing biodiversity and ecosystem services in Colombian cities. Over 80 authors presented 40 case studies across 11 cities. In 2016, the first edition (Spanish) was launched in Bogotá, Colombia and the second edition (English) has just been published. This post is based on my experience as editor of Urban Nature, but it is also an invitation to the readers of Situated UPE to learn more about Colombia and our cities.

It’s a well-worn phrase—but Colombia is diverse. Accounting for 14% of the Earth’s biodiversity, it is listed as one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries. It stretches from a Caribbean coastline to the deep forests of the Amazon basin, and from there to high mountains and a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. You also find over 1100 municipalities (municipios), including five large cities with one to eight million people, a wide group of mid-size cities (100,000-500,000 people), and rapidly growing smaller towns (<50.000 people). The Constitution of Colombia recognizes over 700 indigenous groups, called Resguardos indígenas, and roughly 200 black community organisations, referred to as Consejos comunitarios de comunidades negras

In terms of environmental justice, legal uncertainties attached to natural areas in the urban-rural fringe have been the source of significant environmental conflicts in Colombia’s major cities. Local, regional and national environmental authorities are trapped in legal discussions, while citizens demand their right to areas where social and ecological functions can be properly balanced. Some examples are the Reserva Forestal Protectora Productora ‘Thomas van der Hammen’ in Bogotá (2006), the Reserva Forestal Protectora Bosque Oriental de BogotáRFPBOB (2013), the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona in Santa Marta (2013) and the Plan de salvamiento del río Bogotá (2014). The underlying pattern here is the narrow understanding on the urban phenomena and its relationship with natural and semi-natural areas; this is a dichotomy that is strongly reinforced by our legal system. Looking deeper into the RFPBOB, after 28 years of legal ambiguity that dates back to its declaration, in 2005 the then Ministry of Environment, Housing and Land Development stated the 7% of the Reserve would now be used for different purposes, including housing development. After this decision, a citizen claimed the National Court (Corte Nacional) should ensure the public interest. In 2014, in response, the Consejo de Estado ordered three environmental authorities to develop a management plan within certain conditions and time frame. To sum up, the good news is that civic claims (acciones populares) have proved to work, the sad news is that it has taken the intervention of the national supreme tribunal on administrative affairs, Consejo de Estado, to set up coordination strategies when it comes to the urban environment and its regional scope. Environmental authorities seemed incapable of cooperating towards opportunities that other cities, in different latitudes, would certainly consider themselves fortunate to have.

The book Urban Nature became a venue for some of this extraordinary diversity, an artefact to start grasping the interaction between humans and nonhuman life across different logics, knowledges, and innovations, and across the rural-to-urban gradient.

Urban Nature visits the city of Medellín, Colombia (2016). © Valentina Velásquez

Three dynamics the book illustrates:

Biodiversity and urban development are disconnected (in planning)—but intertwined (in reality).

Cities and urban areas in Colombia are as diverse as the ecological landscapes that support them. Urban biodiversity hinges on complex biophysical processes that are now highly influenced by urban and human-dominated processes. Still they are treated as separate things.

Protected areas management is a perfect example. Despite ecological degradation processes along its coast, the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona in Santa Marta city still a miracle in our Caribbean plains, the most transformed region in Colombia. It relies on tropical dry forest, a seriously threatened ecosystem and represents an entertainment opportunity, especially for inhabitants of Santa Marta who do not have quality natural public spaces within the urban area. The park is currently witnessing deep ecological changes, mainly because management strategies have not acknowledged urban dynamics. New questions need to arise beyond where to conserve and where to transform. Finding ways of designing a buffer zone where the Sierra Nevada, the city and the Caribbean Sea could be socially and ecologically connected is one such example. 

Exploitation, urbanization and global drivers.

Colombia is a country with many small cities. These cities find themselves confronted with the promise of growth and fair distribution of wealth and their ecological context. When the former dominates and social deliberation processes are absent, the natural environment exponentially transforms. For instance, Villavicencio, Puerto Gaitán and Orocué are three cities settled on the flooded savannas in the Orinoquia, a region that experienced 683% increase in oil exploitation from 2000 to 2010. This was pushed by national interests seeking to bring Foreign Direct Investment to the country. This political economy decision implied unprecedented financial revenues for this region. In a blink of an eye, small towns, many which didn’t have local environmental authorities, became cities facing social and environmental  challenges linked to  urbanization e.g. water pollution, transport congestion, insecurity, speculation in land and housing markets, and the growth of informal settlements. 

Axes of urban expansion in Orocué, and the Meta River on the right (Colombia, 2013). © Maria A. Mejia

The urban commons defended.

Urban commons in Colombia are now perceived as key assets for urban dwellers. This is a an important finding in the Urban Nature book project, where urban commons were viewed not only as natural resources and particular ecosystems such as forests, green spaces or wetlands. Instead, they were seen to be intertwined with their management arrangements, which included local to municipal actors and their knowledges. Urban commons have become articulated as part of the city often in response to urban development pressure when communities (together with experts) have stepped up and defended them, with some of them now being placed under co-management schemes between local knowers and city officials.

This has produced institutional changes. Before the 1990s, for instance, urban wetlands were not addressed in our legislation. Consequently they were never designated as protected areas and were hardly considered ecosystems at all. This has now changed radically. For example, currently Bogotá has a local wetland policy, in which co-management schemes are promoted as one of the implementation tools. Challenges remain, of course. These include defining who is allowed to participate, difficulties in defending co-management structures against growing land-use pressure, unbalanced management efforts towards wetlands located in urban versus those in rural areas, and enforcement. The message to keep in mind is that such institutional transition was only possible due to the commitment of certain community-based organizations over these ecosystems during the last 20 years. Some of the people involved in previous discussions on how to improve the city neighborhoods gathered together under NGOs (fundaciones), reviewed those legal frameworks potentially linked to urban wetlands, and took action.  

Infographics about Urban Nature (2017). © Instituto Humboldt

There is much more to the book Urban Nature. It gathered a wide range of thinkers and scholars and while it represents only a first step to thinking more explicitly about urban nature and its politics, I hope you will take an interest to share, discuss and challenge its findings and vision.

María Angélica Mejía – Colombian, currently studying towards an MSc. in Global Change Ecology at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.


Twitter: @okmejia

Twitter handle Instituto Humboldt: @inst_humboldt


Political Ecology of Urbanization in Latin America: A fertile ground for more situated and just urban ecologies


German Quimbayo Ruiz reports on efforts to develop a Situated UPE approach in Latin America. His co-authored research article in the journal Ecología Política is in Spanish, so  spread the message among our Spanish-speaking scholars and activists. (For a PDF copy, contact the authors. For more SUPE posts on Latin America, see here.)

Recently I published a paper with Francisco Vásquez about the requirement of a comprehensive framework to understand the political ecology of urbanization in Latin America. The paper built upon the postcolonial perspectives that Mary Lawhon, Henrik Ernstson and Jonathan Silver developed in their Antipode paper in 2014, which was based on their experiences from working in African cities. Our paper summarizes wider debates within urban political ecology, and tries to integrate the analysis of uneven development and urbanisation (see for instance David Harvey, 2012), but from a Latin American perspective.

Departing from this line of thinking we strive to develop some grounds for a political ecological research-action agenda in and through Latin American cities and urbanization. We first identify a need to better understand how unequal socio-ecological urban changes in the region can be linked to methods and knowledge production of various social movements and uprisings across Latin American cities and urban areas. We then propose ideas, in conversation with these movements, of how to re-think and promote proper democratic participation in the production and reproduction of social relations between people, and amongst people and the environment.

Photo of Southern parts of Bogotá.

Encouraged by scholars like Arturo Escobar, who recently claimed that Latin American critical though is more vibrant than ever, we feel there is fertile ground to develop a Situated UPE agenda that can help to link struggles in urban spaces with contestations of broader processes of exploitation.

Situated UPE and “neo-extractivism”

In particular we are interested in exploitation processes that have recently been called “new developmentalism” and “neo-extractivism”. These concepts, as reviewed in an article from 2014 by Hans-Jürgen Burchardt and Kristina Dietz*, refer to a set of state-led growth-oriented development paths embodied in extraction and exploitation activities. These include mining, hydrocarbon, and land grabbing for food and energy industries and has been accompanied with promises from national governments to use revenues collected from these exploitation activities to improve citizens’ living conditions.

While these polices might signal, as Burchard and Dietz writes, a “renaissance of the developmental state” (ibid., p. 468), it is crucial to understand that these processes are highly contested in Latin America as they are tied to more general patterns of uneven geographical development. This includes socio-spatial and socio-ecological contradictions, territorial transformations, and “the reordering of landscapes, and of social and labor relations” (ibid, p. 468; see also North and Grinspun 2016 for a more recent review).

We argue that there is a lack of critical reflection on how these extraction activities are related to urban socio-ecological injustices, and also how they link to rural struggles and processes. Using a Situated UPE perspective we hope to draw on historical case studies and contemporary ongoing struggles to take stock of how local and everyday settings operate as locus to ignite and develop new innovative forms of struggling for decent living conditions in urban landscapes.

For more information, please find our publication in the journal Ecología Política, issue 51, pages 43-51 which is published in Barcelona, entitled: “Hacia una ecología política de la urbanización en América Latina”.

By Germán Andrés Quimbayo Ruiz

* As noted by Buchardt and Dietz (2014) “new developmentalism” and “neo-extractivism” was first introduced by Uruguayan social scientist Eduardo Gudynas in 2009.


Germán Quimbayo
Germán Quimbayo

Germán Andrés Quimbayo Ruiz is from Bogotá, Colombia. He has a background in ecology and geography (MSc.), and has worked as a consultant with several institutions and authorities in Bogotá. He is doing a PhD in Environmental Policy at University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu Campus. His doctoral project is related with social movements, environmental concerns and urban policy in Bogotá.




Francisco Vasquez
Francisco Vasquez

Francisco Vásquez Rodríguez is Chilean based in Colombia and is working as independent researcher on Urban Political Ecology  in Latin America. He has a special interest in the socio-environmental inequalities resulting from neoliberal urbanization of nature.






Burchardt, H.-J. & Dietz, K., 2014. (Neo-)extractivism – a new challenge for development theory from Latin America. Third World Quarterly, 35(3), pp.468–486.

Gudynas, Eduardo. (2009) “Diez Tesis Urgentes sobre el Nuevo Extractivismo: Contextos y Demandas Bajo el Progresismo Sudamericano Actual.” In Extractivismo, Política y Sociedad, edited by Jürgen Schuldt, Alberto Acosta, Alberto Barandiará, Anthony Bebbington, Mauricio Folchi, CEDLA, Alejandra Alayza and Eduardo Gudynas, 187–225. Quito: CAAP/CLAES.

Harvey, David (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

Lawhon, Mary, Henrik Ernstson, and Jonathan Silver  (2014). “Provincializing Urban Political Ecology”, Antipode, 46 (2), pp. 497-516.

North, L.L. & Grinspun, R., 2016. Neo-extractivism and the new Latin American developmentalism: the missing piece of rural transformation. Third World Quarterly, 6597(April), pp.1–22.

Quimbayo Ruiz, Germán Andrés and Francisco Vásquez Rodríguez (2016). “Hacia una ecología política de la urbanización en América Latina”. Ecología Política. 51:43-51. Barcelona.



Blog post edited, moderated and uploaded by Henrik Ernstson, 7 Dec 2016.

Learning News NEWS: Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies Teaching

Guatemalan cities and urban political ecology: Report from research visit

Fernando Castillo, biologist and urban ecologist at the Centre for Conservation Studies and University of San Carlos de Guatemala, was invited to work for a week with Henrik Ernstson at Stanford University this May 2014. He here reports on his trip and how it lead to a proposal on urban political ecology in Guatemala.

I did a short Research Internship with Dr. Henrik Ernstson at Stanford University this May 2014. I knew about his work when I read some of his articles and his webpage In Rhizomia. After some emails in which I asked for advice on urban political ecology, we instead came to arrange a full week for me to visit him to exchange ideas on urban political ecology in Latin America, and how Situated Urban Political Ecologies could play a role in formulating a research project for Guatemalan cities. The longer term aim is to contribute with research from Latin America and Guatemala, and provide material to Guatemalan debates on urban ecology and environmental justice.

Guatemala City_DSC8979_1
Photo of working class and informal settlements in Guatemala City. Photo: F Castillo 2014.In preparation, I used the literature from the course Urban Ecology as Science, Culture and Power and we started my visit by discussing ideas behind political ecology and urban ecology. Authors like Swyngedouw, Heynen, Pincetl, Norgaard, Ernstson—and his papers with Silver, Lawhon and Duminy—were used as a means for reflection. A strong commitment to read an apply epistemologies from the south was one of the things we considered more relevant for urban political ecology in Africa and Latin America. (falta lo de la reunion con otros profesores)

Based on this I started to develop ideas on how to apply this knowledge in the context of Guatemalan cities, which we discussed throughout. I developed this further into a discussion document at my home institution in Guatemala that has lead towards a research framework entitled “Applying Political Ecology in the Urban Landscape: Towards Urban Environmental Justice and Urban Sustainability in Guatemalan Cities”. With other colleagues we have recently submitted a proposal based on this framework and we are hoping to gain access to funds to start this project (Lets hope we get the funds!).

Together with Henrik (and his Chilean wife Andrea), I also translated two of his papers into Spanish (Social production of ecosystem services; and Ecosystem services as technology of globalization, with S Sörlin) with the aim to publish these in Latin American journals to have more readers of this part of the world gaining an interest in critical perspectives of the urban environment and urban political ecology in particular. (Avisaremos cuando sepamos más de esto!)

Even in a short time like this, these kind of exchanges, which includes ideas, experiences, literature and commitments can shake your ways of thinking and increase your sensitivity to other contexts that could strength your own work. I think the broader research effort around Situated Ecologies and Situated Urban Political Ecologies is very much about this—to listen and (re-)translate how we understand ecology and politics in different contexts and areas. And then tie them together again in our conversations.

Guatemala City_DSC8982_2
View over high income residential areas of Guatemala City. Photo: F Castillo 2014.


I would like to thank Henrik for his patience and advice and also the funding he could provide for this exchange through the Ways of Knowing Urban Ecologies project, funded by Swedish Formas (grant number: 250-2010-1372).

I hope we can continue our situated and yet cosmopolitan efforts for trying to understand cities in the South, their complexity and their different shapes and connections to urbanization processes, while also developing practices towards environmental justice in the city.

Saludos desde Guatemala!