Can a little-known furry mammal that looks like a jumbo guinea pig help save part of Colombia's rain forest from the devastation of wood cutting and coca-leaf production?
A small group of Colombians is banking on the chiguiro (capybara) to play a starring role in the battle to preserve part of the Macarena, a climatically and biologically diverse region in central Colombia.
The idea is to encourage local campesinos (peasants) -- who otherwise look to the Macarena's internationally recognized nature reserve for wood, or increasingly for land on which to grow coca -- to raise the water-loving chiguiro for its meat and hide on already cleared land adjoining the reserve.
''The biggest challenge facing the Macarena now is the attraction to the cultivation of coca and the deforestation that entails,'' says Fernando Molano, projects director for the Macarena Defense Association, a Bogota-based group promoting preservation of the nature reserve within the 13-million-hectare (32 million acre) Macarena region. ''We were searching for some economically attractive alternative to coca, and that's when we hit upon the chiguiro.''
Dominick Devito, a biologist and development specialist with Colombia's National Parks Administration is upbeat about the idea.
''We are very interested in encouraging sustainable development with projects like the chiguiro, fish farming, or cultivation of native plants that have medicinal uses,'' Mr. Devito says. ''We are optimistic that we can find positive alternatives for up to 2,000 families in the course of this year.''
Colombia's forests and jungles, and especially its 43 national parks, face an onslaught of illegal activities that are destroying the country's biological gems at a fast rate. Devito notes, for example, that a wood ''cartel,'' something akin to the country's infamous drug mafia, operates in the Macarena, paying campesinos to log prized timber, such as cedar, from public lands. Guerrillas operating in the region are another threat to preservation efforts. Some government officials are reluctant even to discuss preservation plans for the region for fear of guerrilla reprisals.
But the biggest menace is coca production. The Colombian government estimates that for every hectare of land (2.47 acres) planted with coca -- the leaves of which are used to make cocaine -- four times as much forest is destroyed. And with latest figures showing 40,000 hectares of coca growing in Colombia, the scale of destruction is clear. Not only are the forests cut, but the land is only good for coca production for a few years, after which it is abandoned and erosion sets in.
This year the government announced a plan to redirect the 300,000 Colombian farmers thought to be involved in illicit drug cultivation to other activities. But with only about $5 million available yearly for the program, primarily from international aid, the goal of stopping coca cultivation is daunting.
This is where the chiguiro -- and to a lesser extent the borugo , a smaller, darker native of the Macarena -- could play a small but demonstrative role. The rust-pelted chiguiro is one of dozens of unusual animals that owe their obscurity to the Macarena's past.
At the last ice age, the region remained something of a temperate island, which made it a ''Noah's Ark,'' as Mr. Molano says, for wildlife. After the Spanish conquest and religious conversion of much of South America, the chiguiro enjoyed brief notoriety when locals were granted a papal dispensation to eat the creature's meat on Fridays because it spends much of its life in the water, like a fish.
That's when neighboring Venezuelans took a liking to chiguiro meat, which some still prize as a delicacy. The Macarena Association hopes that Colombians, too, can learn to make use of the chiguiro for its meat and hide.
Working with the government, the Macarena Association is developing a pilot farm in Macarena, where it is working to persuade locals to turn away from coca to consider an alternative.
''A campesino working one hectare of coca can make about three-quarters of the official minimum wage,'' says Molano. ''But we figure that a one-hectare chiguiro farm harvesting 50 animals a year could support 12 workers and with a considerably better income,'' he adds.
Whether the chiguiro can be popularized to play a significant role in the Macarena's preservation is another question. Aerial photos show growing patches of cleared land inside the 1.2 million-acre nature reserve. Most of the land surrounding it is privately owned, so campesinos look to the public land -- the reserve.
Besides that, government resources to start the farms are stretched thin, and so far, few private supporters believe in the chiguiro. The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in New York gave a grant three years ago, which is also helping the association encourage ecotourism in the Macarena. But overall, support has been scant.
Undaunted, the group has built an inn and environmental-education center near the reserve, and is training 37 local youths as guides and inn workers. ''These are kids that are without a better prospect,'' Molano says.
With the harvesting of coca in Andean countries recognized as an ecological menace, the chiguiro could still end up being to illicit drug cultivation what Smokey the Bear is to forest fires -- an unlikely poster boy .
''Educating children is one of our most important tasks,'' Devito says.
''We need to convince them they are part of the ecosystem, that it's not just there to be destroyed.''