In this contribution to Bulletin 27, former ISRF Fellow Hanne Cottyn and her co-authors reflect on the way Paramunos, an interactive online portal about the Colombian páramos, came about.
Hanne Cottyn, Lina Cortés, Santiago Martínez, María Santos, Nancy Bonilla, Rodolfo Hernández, Carlos Cuellar, and Crisálida Bermúdez
Original image by Hanne Cottyn et al.
In the face of planetary-wide environmental crises, scholars, practitioners and activists alike have been observing how conventional conservation schemes tend to underrepresent rural communities’ concerns and diverse forms of knowledge. By seeking to protect nature by separating it from humans, conventional conservation schemes tend to exclude or simplify other (e.g. indigenous, peasant) modes and practices of relating to nature. Efforts towards environmental justice and ‘convivial’ conservation require a more inclusive dialogue across disciplines and forms of knowledge. In Colombia, this challenge is felt acutely in the ‘páramos’, the moorlands situated in the highest zones of the northern Andes, above the permanent forest line and below the snowline. The word ‘páramo’ was imported by the first European colonizers from the Iberian peninsula where it refers to barren plains. Historically, far from a scientifically sanctioned term, páramo was a common signifier for uncivilized and unproductive areas, a treeless wasteland. In more recent times, this notion has started to shift. In Colombia—a country that contains a considerable portion of the world’s páramo areas—páramo became known as an ‘ecosystem’ of ‘strategic’ importance. Scientific research and (inter)national environmental policies underscore the páramos’ vital role in capturing CO2 and providing drinking water to urban areas.
Because of this strategic value, the páramos have become subject to new legislation, defining them in terms of exclusionary, state-controlled conservation areas. However, as the notion of the páramo as a strategic ecosystem gained hegemony, other versions of páramo that exceed its framing as ‘(to-be-protected) nature’ tend to be sidelined, and at times discredited. This friction merges in particular in relation to how campesinos (rural working class communities) have been putting into practice and protecting the páramo, as one campesino told us, not as ‘nature’ but as home. The páramos have indeed been inhabited for centuries by campesino communities for whom these high and challenging environments have offered refuge from armed conflict and a deeply unequal agrarian system. Campesinos have been denouncing new páramo regulations as restrictive top-down impositions that risk displacing them and stripping them of their livelihoods in the name of nature conservation. As one female campesina leader expresses, ‘before, the war removed us [from the páramo], now the Law of the Páramo does’.
Over the last years, they have responded through political actions, research initiatives, and artistic performance to reject the perception that the protection of the páramos requires ‘empty’ landscapes. Inspired by their own daily activities and historical memory, these initiatives seek to demonstrate how campesino practices can contribute to fostering and reimagining convivial páramos.
[Figure 1: Campesino life in the páramo of Sumapaz. Credit: Hanne Cottyn, 2019]
This article interrogates the role of digital spaces and practices in the articulation of convivial páramo futures through the conceptual and practical trajectory of the online platform Paramunos (see paramunos.com). The platform is the outcome of a longer, ongoing collaboration that brings together researchers, teachers, designers, farmers, activists, artists, and community leaders from Bogotá and the surrounding páramos of Sumapaz and Chingaza, and that has resulted in the publication of ‘agroecological’ almanacs, art festivals, workshops, research papers, a music album, and a documentary. This collaborative digital space is also nurtured by a conceptual interrogation of the discursive and material production and contestation of the páramo, in dialogue with debates in historical political ecology and political ontology. Informed by the collaborative challenges and technological opportunities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, Paramunos unfolded as a digital space and strategy for the consultation, creation, exchange, and dissemination of knowledge and experiences about, by, and for the páramos, which is why the paramuno adjective became the platform’s name. In what follows, we chart the methodological, epistemological, and technological considerations that guided the development of this digital, co-creational strategy. We close by weighing up the potential and the limits of this concrete tool to facilitate more inclusive knowledge production and exchange around rural life in the páramo, and the resonance it generates within a wider field of environmental digital humanities.
Designing a virtual páramo knowledge exchange
Paramunos.com materialises from a convergence of different research and pedagogic agendas. In the first place, this platform builds on the organisational potential of the rural communities of Sumapaz and Chingaza, the rural mountainous regions situated respectively south-east and north-east of the city of Bogotá. School teachers, artists (musicians, poets, etc.), and community leaders—roles often performed by one and the same person—are protagonists in communal knowledge production and transmission, and have been experimenting with new media in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Secondly, the platform constitutes an extension of the innovative community work done by the research and art collective Almanaques Agroecológicos, led by Bogotá-based geographer and historian Lina Cortés Gutierrez. To date, the collective has published seven almanacs, six of which are dedicated to ‘rural Bogotá’, the rural localidades (districts) and veredas (villages) that administratively belong to Colombia’s capital. Following the typical format of an almanac, each publication is developed around the district’s agrarian and civil calendar, while also integrating contributions about social and environmental aspects of the region by academics as well as community members, life stories, hand-drawn maps, local knowledge about plants and traditions, poetry, and culinary recipes. Thirdly, the platform was realised in the context of an interdisciplinary research project led by the University of York in collaboration with researchers from the Colombian biodiversity research centre Instituto Humboldt.
From the synergy between these different initiatives emerged a collaboration around the shared interest in addressing current tensions around the protection of the páramos by providing greater insight into the historical, environmental, and cultural dynamics of rural life in the páramos. Since the early 2000s, natural and social sciences research on páramos has expanded enormously. But also outside academic circles, Sumapaz and Chingaza have witnessed a proliferation of new research, productive, social, and artistic initiatives led by locals or organisations based or operating in páramo communities. Yet existing resources, knowledge, and projects suffer from material fragmentation across public institutions, personal archives, and social networks, and from asymmetries between academic and other forms of knowledge production.
In a response to this fragmentation and asymmetry, we started to envision a space that can facilitate and promote a more horizontal dialogue among these diverse páramo knowledges and practices. Constrained as well as inspired by the methodological implications of collaborating in times of lockdowns and videocalls, we envisaged this space as a virtual and interactive environment. Rather than a classic project website that collects and disseminates all output of concluded research, Paramunos was designed as an interactive space to generate greater democratic participation of páramo communities within processes of scientific and cultural knowledge production about the Colombian páramos. The process of translating this conceptual space into a concrete, user-friendly tool was led by the Colombian design network RIZOMA. This was coordinated as a co-creational process to design a technically feasible user experience that was relevant to our shared agenda and in line with the needs and expectations of the platform’s target audience. A detailed stakeholder analysis was followed by online surveys and one-on-one interviews with actors in the protection of, and knowledge production about, the páramo. This resulted in an outline of three user profiles, representing the target groups the platform expected to attract and interact with—‘campesinos of the páramo’, ‘catalysts’, and ‘visitors’.
From the start, the design process was oriented towards a prioritisation of páramo communities, among whom we distinguished ‘inspiring women leaders’, ‘enthusiast farmers’ and ‘active youth’ as profiles with an outspoken interest in engaging with the envisioned platform. Additionally, these local campesinos all shared a strong dedication to artistic practice—in particular music and poetry—as a form of situated páramo knowledge production and transmission within their communities. With ‘catalysts’ we tried to capture the work of activists, agroecological entrepreneurs, and engaged teachers and researchers operating in páramo communities. They saw in the platform a concrete tool to strengthen, interweave, and extend community networks. A last, less prioritised group were the urban ‘visitors’ for whom the platform could provide a guide towards respectful relations with the páramos and away from mass tourism.
Aided by chat groups, Zoom calls, and online whiteboard tools, this stakeholder consultation materialised in the proposal for an accessible, co-creational space. A space for knowledge co-creation that strengthens the visibility and recognition of rural Andean communities as ‘guardians’ of the páramo and their history, and that promotes processes of change towards convivial páramos. This objective translated into a kind of living library that allows users not only to consult but also to actively contribute music, research, testimonies, poetry, cooking recipes, and photography, amongst other content. The platform also integrates a timeline to provide context about historical processes that have shaped rural life in the páramo, and a calendar where all kind of events can be announced. The need for an accessible space in a region marked by weak communication infrastructures translated into a low-key website available at https://paramunos.com/ and supported by an internet bot. The virtual assistant Paramuno, with which you interact via WhatsApp, allows users with no (or no stable) internet connection—which paradoxically includes the rural inhabitants of Colombia’s capital—to participate equally in the co-creation of the platform.
[Figure 2: A visualisation of the co-creational design of Paramunos. Credit: RIZOMA, Colombia]
Navigating and co-creating the páramo beyond the limits of conventional conservation
Paramunos’ innovative character is not just in its openness to a wide range of different contents and its accessibility tailored to the needs and technological limitations of rural communities. The crux is in the way its conceptual and visual design propagates the páramo’s ‘pluriversal’ character; a páramo in which many páramos fit. In that sense, Paramunos anticipates an unsettling effect on hegemonic, univocal framings of the páramo. This pluriversal character is exposed through the notion of care as a practice that exceeds conventional definitions of nature conservation. By reframing the protection of the páramo in terms of ‘practices of care’ the platform seeks to defy the limits of conservation’s underlying dualisms, of nature versus society, human versus non-human worlds, expert versus ‘traditional’ knowledge. Through this notion of care, Paramunos provides a space for co-creation that recognises and strengthens rural communities as producers of vital knowledge, without disputing the scientific insights accumulated over recent decades regarding páramos.
Paramunos operationalises the concept of care by distinguishing several forms of what we have called ‘practices of care in the páramo’. Páramo communities demonstrate on a daily basis how artistic expressions, communal forms of organisation, culinary traditions, and the transmission of life stories and legends all play a vital role in caring for páramo life. Through a back-and-forth matchmaking process between this expanded notion of care and a first set of materials produced or gathered by each of the involved initiatives, we formulated six clusters of practices of care. Next to a more conventional understanding of protecting the páramo in terms of agroecology, water, or biodiversity, we also included food sovereignty, art, and decolonial pedagogies—captured by the Latin-American notion of re-existencia.
These six clusters hold the platform together, they form the spine and bring some order in the expanding ‘library’ of knowledge and experiences. Any content uploaded to the library is assigned to one of these practices. Additionally, each text, image or other material uploaded to the library is coded by tagging relevant actors (including public institutions, animals, farmers, etc.), spaces (specific páramo areas, villages or landscape elements) and temporalities (processes of migration, conflict, national history, etc.). By way of a conceptual experiment and provocation, Paramunos also provides a tag that evokes the ‘pluriverse’ ways in which the páramo is put into practice, identifying the páramo as a protected space, as an everyday space, as a living space, as a contested space.
Each cluster of practices of care can be navigated through a circular ‘map of relations’ that hint at the complexity of the páramos and their relation with their (human and non-human) inhabitants and visitors. Each circle comprises all tags assigned to the materials within this cluster. By selecting one tag, a range of possible relations with other actors, spaces, etc. are revealed, allowing the user to discover at times unexpected interconnections, linking a song about the Andean bear with scientific species distribution maps, or pictures from historical archives documenting the construction of large-scale water infrastructures in the páramo with a recent blog post about community initiatives to protect water sources. Placing photography, music compositions, and scientific output next to each other, Paramunos does not seek to replace one notion of the páramo with another, equally limited notion, but to expose, enable, and interrogate their interconnections.
[Figure 3: Navigating of the Water Defence cluster in Paramunos. Credit: paramunos.com]
The navigation of this consciously structured yet open(-to-surprises) design is supported and enriched by the visual artwork of Paramunos. Through several rounds of consultation and feedback sessions with focus groups, a suggestive visual style was developed. It integrates elements that have become classic páramo tropes such as the frailejón, the Andean bear, potatoes, or the campesino hat, but equally includes disappeared or mythical beings such as the otter or water nymphs. Balancing between representing the páramo without reproducing stereotypical or authoritative images, the visualisations hinge on the characteristic fog that tends to shroud life in the páramo in a tinge of mystery.
Digitalising the environmental humanities, pluralising páramo futures
More than only an expression of the current tensions, gaps, and opportunities in hegemonic conservation agendas, this project aspires to re-imagine and co-produce a new agenda. Contemporary environmental concerns about the páramo, while legitimate and urgent, risk reducing páramos to a singular legitimate definition of what these landscapes can and should be. In a response, Paramunos proposes a co-creational digital strategy to pluralise the páramo, to envision multiple possible futures for the páramos. This strategy is not simply about representation, but importantly about fostering recognition and participation of particular ways of understanding and interacting with the páramo; ways that tend to be marginalised within contemporary conservation knowledge production.
Of course, digital tools are not a panacea. As versatile as they may be, digital spaces can counter but may also perpetuate and even increase the exclusion from participation for subaltern groups in processes of knowledge production. Especially in the case of Paramunos, its appropriation and interrogation among local communities requires a dynamic interaction with offline spaces. Art festivals, school workshops, a CD and documentary project, public debates with diverse stakeholders, and agroecological fairs have been providing creative and productive contexts to facilitate that interaction. These offline spaces are themselves vital spaces of knowledge production, and have contributed to the integration of new materials in the platform. Moreover, they are exemplary for the kind of (seemingly) unlikely connections the Paramunos platform wants to highlight—a CD that recounts historical peasant struggles and raises awareness about the conservation of the Andean bear, an arts festival that integrates astronomy workshops, etc. Schoolteachers have emerged as a key ally in this process of dissemination, articulation, and interconnection. By appropriating the platform as a creative pedagogical tool in the classroom and envisioning it as a kind of research incubator, they are taking the platform beyond its anticipated potential.
[Figure 4: Ritual during the 4th Campesino Festival – Páramo Memory, páramo of Sumapaz. Credit: Felipe Ottalora, 2023]
By allowing users of the platform to discover unexpected connections, but most of all, by allowing all users to submit content through the website or WhatsApp, Paramunos is more than a repository of research results but becomes eventually a strategy for new research. In that sense, it embodies new developments at the intersection of Environmental Humanities and Digital Humanities, or what is emerging as ‘digital environmental humanities.’ As Finne Arne Jørgensen notes, ‘the idea of nature is becoming very hard to separate from the digital tools and media we use to observe, interpret, and manage it’. Paramunos suggests, and responds to, pressing challenges that unite these fields by seeking the re-politicisation and inclusion of diverse and dynamic nature-society relations and related knowledge systems in ecological knowledge production and conservation practices. It draws on digital user experience designs to address and transcend the reproduction of problematic dichotomies between the human and non-human world. While accumulating multiple sources and formats of information, rather than intending to complement, correct, or refine our understanding of what the páramo is or should be, it aims at destabilising that understanding. By inviting platform users to navigate, exchange ideas, and contribute to multiple possible definitions of páramo, it produces a crack, a gap through which to imagine multiple legitimate futures for the páramo. In other words, Paramunos pushes to open possibilities instead of—what science generally aims for—closing them.
 W. San Martín, ‘Unequal Knowledge: Justice, Colonialism, and Expertise in Global Environmental Research’, Global Environment 14,no. 2 (2021): 423–430.
 B. Büscher and R. Fletcher, ‘Towards Convivial Conservation’, Conservation and Society, 7, no. 3 (2019), 283.
 D.C. Murillo-Martín, ‘De marginales a estratégicos: representación y gestión estatal de los páramos en Colombia (1959-2022)’, Encrucijadas, 22, no. 1 (2022), https://recyt.fecyt.es/index.php/encrucijadas/article/view/90201; G. Márquez Calle, Ecosistemas Estratégicos y otros Estudios de Ecología Ambiental (Bogotá 1996: Fondo FEN).
 Interview by Collective Almanaques Agroecológicos, Localidad 20 de Sumapaz, 2017.
 M. Blaser, ‘The threat of the yrmo: The political ontology of a sustainable hunting program, American Anthropologist, 111, no. 1 (2009): 10–20, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01073.x; M. Blaser, ‘Ontological Conflicts and the Stories of Peoples in Spite of Europe: Toward a Conversation on Political Ontology’, Current Anthropology, 54, no. 5 (2013): 547–568, https://doi.org/10.1086/672270; B. Duarte-Abadía and R. Boelens, ‘Disputes over territorial boundaries and diverging valuation languages: the Santurban hydrosocial highlands territory in Colombia. Water International’, 41, no. 1 (2016): 15–36, https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2016.1117271; M. de la Cadena and M. Blaser, A world of many worlds (Durham, NC 2018: Duke University Press).
 L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, ‘Almanaque Agroecológico: Una herramienta de apropiación cultural para la reconstrucción histórica del paisaje a través de la memoria en cinco (5) ecosistemas de alta montaña en Colombia’, in: A. Perafán Cabrera and J.E. Elías Caro (eds.), Conflictos ambientales en ecosistemas estratégicos : América Latina y el Caribe, siglos XIX-XXI: 25–34 (Cali 2017: Programa Editorial Universidad del Valle).
 L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, Almanaque agroecológico Los Verjones: Cultivos y saberes campesinos que alimentan la tradición de Bogotá (Bogotá 2011: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá); L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, Almanaque agroecológico Usme: Despensa rural de Bogotá (Bogotá 2011: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá); L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, Almanaque Agroecológico de Pasquilla: Región ecoestratégica y agropecuaria de Bogotá (Bogotá 2013: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá); L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez and L.C. Matiz Guerra, Almanaque agroecológico Arrayanes Curubital: Recuerdos vivos: Agua de páramo, fuente de vida (Bogotá 2015: Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis); L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, Almanaque agroecológico Nazareth. El páramo de Sumapaz: paisajes de relatos campesinos en tiempos de paz (Bogotá 2016: ARFO Impresores y Editores Ltda); L.M. Cortés Gutiérrez, Almanaque agroecológico Gran Sumapaz: imagen de un paisaje sin tierra (Bogotá 2019: Secretaría de Cultura, Recreación y Deporte).
 The research project ‘Integrating ecological and cultural histories to inform sustainable and equitable futures for the Colombian páramos’ was coordinated by the University of York and executed in collaboration with several UK and Colombian institutions. The project is part of the bilateral Colombian-UK programme ColombiaBio and financed by Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) of the UK through the Newton Fund.
 M. Diazgranados, Una mirada biológica a los páramos circundantes a la Sabana de Bogotá. In: E. Guhl Nimtz, Los Páramos Circundantes a La Sabana de Bogotá. Edición Conmemorativa (Bogotá 2015: Jardín Botánico de Bogotá), 175–205.
 A. Escobar, Designs for the pluriverse : radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds (Durham, NC 2018: Duke University Press).
 A. Albán Achinte, ‘Pedagogías de la reexistencia: Artistas indígenas y colombianos’, in: C. Walsh (ed.), Pedagogías decoloniales: Prácticas insurgentes de resistir, (re)existir y (re)vivir, volume 1: 443–468 (Quito 2013: Ediciones Abya-Yala).
Biography (alphabetical order)
Carlos Cuellar is a biologist and educationalist, specialised in educational informatics, and a doctoral candidate in Education at the Universidad Distrital of Bogotá. He is a rural teacher in the department of Cundinamarca, and campesinoin the community of Hato Viejo, Fómeque, Colombia.
Crisálida Bermúdez is a plastic artist from the National University of Colombia, and an active member of the Collective Almanaques Agroecológicos, Colombia.
Hanne Cottyn is a historian, a former ‘Independent Scholar’ ISRF fellow, and postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Ghent University, Belgium.
Lina Cortés is a geographer and historian, and lecturer in social tourism at the Colegio Mayor de Cundinamarca University. She is a community manager with a focus on rural Bogotá and coordinates the Collective Almanaques Agroecológicos, Colombia.
María Santos is a strategic designer, and founder and director of the design network RIZOMA, Colombia.
Nancy Bonilla is a chemist and environmental scientist. Before becoming the headteacher of a rural school in the department of Tolima, she was a natural sciences teacher in a rural school in Sumapaz, Colombia.
Rodolfo Hernández is a historian and a social sciences teacher. Before working in rural schools in the department of Tolima, he was teaching in Bogotá and in rural schools in Sumapaz, Colombia.
Santiago Martínez is a cultural anthropologist, and a lecturer and independent researcher based in Bogotá, Colombia.