Farmers, Herders, and Floods: Social-ecological changes in Colombia’s Bogota Plateau during the 18th and 19th centuries

"Bogotá y la Serrezuela", 1771. Archivo General de la Nación (Colombia), Sección Mapas y Planos, Mapoteca 4, 34A

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series showing the work of the Sustainable Farms Systems Project.SFS logo

The most populated areas around the world are located in lowlands, such valleys of large rivers and along coasts. In those places, people are attracted by the advantages of altitude, weather, water, trade and communication. However, sometimes people chose high mountains, with low temperatures and located a long distance from the sea. This was the case in the Bogota Plateau, one of the most populated areas in Colombia. What have the biophysical challenges been for the people? Before urbanization, how did farmers and herders cope with the hydric and climatic challenges of producing food and raw materials? This research provides some answers to those questions focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, a period when the mestizos comprised the majority of the population, and the commons disappeared gradually. Those social changes were linked with a new relationship between people and environmental conditions, such as altitude and water. [i]

Figure 1. Bogota Plateau. Source: the author and geographer Simbaqueba in Fronteras de la Historia, vol.20(1), p.16.
Figure 1. Bogota Plateau. Source: the author and geographer Simbaqueba in Fronteras de la Historia, vol.20(1), p.16.

The Bogota Plateau is located in the Eastern Andes of Colombia, 2600 metres above sea level, and more than 1000 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (Figure 1). Its annual average temperature is 14°C and precipitation oscillates between 900 and 2000 millimetres per year.[ii] The two rainy seasons (March to May and September to November) and two dry seasons (December to February and June to August) are hydric, not thermal – linked with precipitation not solar radiation.[iii]  The lagoons, swamps, and the Bogota River and its basin have been protagonists of floods, especially when precipitation increased during the rainy seasons and when La Niña visited the country. Since the end of the 19th century, when crops and urban areas replaced grasses and swamps, floods have been perceived as “disasters.” In contrast, until the mid-19th century, different land tenure and land uses meant the floods were an advantage, almost a blessing.

My doctoral research[iv] examines the strategies applied by the rural population for coping with the periodic and sudden floods, and considers the ways they took advantage of an apparent obstacle. The strategies employed by farmers and herders to coexist with water in the 18th century included an adapted crop calendar, the preference for livestock over crops as the main activity, and the management of complementary land parcels located in different altitudes and microclimates. Aligning the crop calendar with annual climate variability in the Bogota Plateau reduced the risk of frost and guaranteed a constant water supply essential to rural activities. By sowing crops throughout the year, farmers configured an agricultural mosaic landscape with benefits, such as protection from the damages caused by meteorological phenomena and plagues, access to a variety of resources and raw materials, and the existence of corridors and habitats for non-agricultural species.[v]

In any case, the climate and soils of the floodplains of Bogota Plateau were not the best places for commercial crops like wheat. Partly for this reason, agriculture in the region was a subsistence activity or was concentrated in higher and drier areas. Indigenous raised fields, a strategy for cultivating in floodplains, disappeared before the Conquest in the 16th century, and the knowledge about sowing in this context gradually disappeared.[vi]  The overflow of the Bogota River and the multiplicity of wetlands in the region, stimulated herding and ranching throughout the region: haciendas of Spaniard and creole owners, lands of religious orders (especially Jesuits), and Indigenous resguardos (reservations) were dedicated to livestock.   Flood waters deposited silt which replenished pasture fertility for grazing animals and guaranteed a source of water for animals in times of drought.

Figure 2. Management of altitudes and microclimates by the people of Bogota Plateau, 18th and 19th centuries. Source: the author and designer Andrés Segura (sketch).
Figure 2. Management of altitudes and microclimates by the people of Bogota Plateau, 18th and 19th centuries. Source: the author and designer Andrés Segura (sketch).

Specialization did not imply a lack of food. On the contrary, people took advantage of the altitude and topographical differences around the region (Figure 2).  The access in one or two working days to different micro-climates, associated with the slopes and altitudes (see figure 2), was a guarantee of the varied diet and permanent supply of food and raw materials. The transhumance and the control of lands at different altitudes and ecologies were ways to avoid shortages caused by hail, frost, drought, floods, or plagues. In the Bogota Plateau, since pre-Hispanic times until the mid-19th century, when the resguardos disappeared, Indigenous peoples maintained lands at high and low altitudes. If the crops were damaged by frosts, more frequent above 2000 metres, the harvest obtained at lower altitudes was a kind of insurance. The same protection worked when a tropical insect or fungus harmed the crops in warmer lands, because the low temperatures of highlands acted as shields. During the colonial era, mestizo and white landowners realized those benefits and adopted this form of land management. The exchange not only occurred between the Plateau and hotter lands but also with paramo zones.[vii] Sometimes, the area of the same hacienda covered a wide range of altitudes. In other cases, a family or religious community controlled two or more properties, each one at a different altitude. There were also agreements between owners, or owners and traders, for fattening cattle born in lower lands located 300 km from Bogota Plateau. Whatever the strategy, the altitude guaranteed access to other soils, vegetation, and weather.

These adaptive strategies changed in the mid-19th century. Rather than adapting to recurrent floods, farmers and herders began a process of transforming the landscape, which included the drainage of the wetlands, and the canalization of the Bogota River. The most relevant drivers of this transformation were the diffusion of the European model of land valuation (i.e. dry lands more valuable than wetlands), land privatisation that constrained livestock mobility, and the international demand for tropical products that stimulated crops over livestock. The transformation of the landscape increased exposure to risk, because the infrastructure and the drainage works were inadequate to protect crops, less flexible and mobile than livestock when the river flooded.

This research has relevance to understand today’s vulnerability to floods, which persists in a growing urbanized and intensively farmed landscape. It shows that agrarian societies had practical knowledge about the biophysical limits and advantages of the flood plains they occupied. Instead of venturing into a battle against the water, people lived with it and took advantage of the complex Andean ecology.



[i] An extended version of this text was presented in the workshop “Transformations of the Earth,” organised by the Renmin University of China and the Rachel Carson Center in Beijing, May 2016.

[ii] IGAC, Diccionario Geográfico de Colombia, vol. 4 (Bogotá: Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi, 1996), 1950.

[iii] Ernesto Guhl, La Sabana de Bogotá, sus alrededores y su vegetación (Bogotá: Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis, 1981), 58, 59.

[iv] This project is based on a large spectrum of documentary sources, that include governmental documents from colonial and republican periods; private correspondence; accounts of indigenous confraternities; books and letters of foreign travellers; and newspapers, mainly those dedicated to agriculture topics. The sources were analysed and compared to find descriptions about the main elements of the landscape and farming practices; data of crop areas, production, and kind and number of animals; infrastructure; and the discourse about floods according to the main economic activity and social relations. This kind of information has been useful to reconstruct not only the material relationship between the flood area and farmers and herders but also the knowledge of the space and the cultural constructions.

[v] Hilda Araujo, «Estrategias de adaptación ante el cambio climático en las comunidades campesinas de la parte alta de la cuenca del río Suches», Tecnología y Sociedad 16, n.o 8 (2009): 69, 70; Erik Gómez-Baggethun et al., «Traditional ecological knowledge and community resilience to environmental extremes: A case study in Doñana, SW Spain», Global Environmental Change 22 (2012): 643, 645, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.02.005; C Thenail et al., «The contribution of crop-rotation organization in farms to crop-mosaic patterning at local landscape scales», Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 131 (2009): 208, doi:10.1016/j.agee.2009.01.015.

[vi] Ana María Boada, Patrones de asentamiento regional y sistemas de agricultura intensiva en Cota y Suba, Sabana de Bogotá (Colombia) (Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, Banco de la República, 2006).

[vii] Ecosystem over the 3000 meters and a temperature below 10°C.

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Katherinne Mora is MSc. in Environment and Development and Ph.D candidate in the History Department at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Her dissertation examines the adaptation strategies employed by farmers and herders of the Bogota Plateau (Colombia) to coexist with climate variability during the 18th and 19th centuries. Her research interests are the Climate History of pre-instrumental periods and the Agrarian History of Colombia from an environmental perspective. She is a member of the Sustainable Farming Systems Project.