Can science and tradition finally help heal the region’s peoples and bring balance to its biodiversity-rich waters and mangrove forests?
When I visited the floating palafito fishing village of Nueva Venecia in early 2021, I found myself staring out across the calm, reflective expanse of the coastal lagoon complex known as the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta. Looking back at that moment, I understand why Ernesto Mancera has spent the past 35 years studying the region’s mangroves and other species: Everywhere I looked, I saw life.
More than 130 fish species call the Ciénaga Grande home, along with 200 bird species, manatees and 18 other mammals, 26 reptiles, three mangrove species and hundreds of other types of plants and trees.
Mancera, a marine biologist from the National University of Colombia, later told me, “The Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta is the most productive estuarine ecosystem in the world.”
As with any estuary, it’s the properties of the brackish water that make the difference. The Ciénaga Grande serves as a node of interconnection in a complex hydrological network, linking Colombia’s principal waterway, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, and the Caribbean Sea. For millennia this system has existed in a dynamic balance that allowed life to flourish.
But despite its internationally recognized beauty and value, a sense of awe and sadness intertwine here. No place better represents Colombia’s rich biocultural diversity and tragic history.
The Ciénaga Grande has suffered decades of degradation. Human alteration of its dynamic hydrology and the obstruction of essential points of connection have led its mangroves and aquatic species to suffer devastating mass die-offs.
At the same time, the traditional people who have long lived in harmony with the ecoregion have experienced brutality, exploitation, and the denigration of their traditional knowledge.
But today there’s hope. Experts and community leaders say rigorous and coordinated effort could lead to the recovery of this complex, resilient place.
A Vital Ecosystem
The Ciénaga Grande delta-lagoon complex encompasses around 20 interconnected ciénagas (lagoons) and hundreds of square miles of mangroves.
To the east is the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, which itself is a biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Three rivers rise in the highlands of the Sierra — the Sevilla, Fundacion and Aracataca. These rivers directly feed the Ciénaga Grande with freshwater and rich sediments.
The mountains also contain montane forests, paramos and glaciers, all located within the territories of Indigenous peoples.
Running along the west is the Magdalena River, Colombia’s longest and most important waterway. The Ciénaga Grande is part of the Magdalena Delta system, which drains into the Caribbean Sea to the north, and connects to the river through natural channels that bring sustained flows of freshwater and sediment.
The freshwater from the channels and the Sierra’s rivers is critical to the health and balance of the Ciénaga Grande, whose semi-arid hydroclimate experiences much more evaporation on average than precipitation. Climate change is expected to exacerbate this freshwater deficit.
“The interconnection between these various ecosystems, the hydroclimate, and the interchange of brackish and fresh waters created unique conditions and provided the energy for the Ciénaga’s remarkable biodiversity and productivity,” Mancera said.
“The Real Magic of the Ciénaga” – oil on canvas – © Vannessa Circe. Used with permission.
This hydrological connectivity and the Ciénaga Grande itself also have irreplaceable biocultural value for the Sierra peoples.
“The life, vital feminine energy and balance generated in the Ciénaga supports the environmental, social and spiritual equilibrium of the entire Sierra,”
according to my colleague Teyrungümü Torres Zalabata, an Arhuaco physicist and leader of the Agua Maestra collective.
That connection has suffered for nearly 100 years.
A Tragic Social and Ecological History
The decades-long deterioration of the Ciénaga Grande began as an extension of the bananero epoch of the 1920s, when multinational corporations like the United Fruit Company, in collaboration with local authorities, incentivized and exploited large banana plantations. This region along the western Sierra foothills near the Ciénaga Grande became known as the “banana zone,” and its complex history inspired the magical realism of the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
But the reality was far from magical. Powerful plantation-owners diverted and contaminated water from the rivers that feed the Ciénaga Grande and blocked the Sierra’s Indigenous peoples from making their traditional pilgrimages.
“In the late 1950s a road connected the cities of Ciénaga and Barranquilla to facilitate the export of bananas to the United States,” said Mancera. “This cut off the natural communication between the Ciénaga and the Caribbean Sea.” Towns sprang up along the road, bringing increased deforestation and human waste.
Thus began the wide-scale alteration of the hydrological and socioecological dynamics of the Ciénaga Grande.
In the 1970s the government built another ill-conceived road parallel to the Magdalena River along the western banks of the Ciénaga Grande. “This was the critical point,” said Mancera. “This road cut off the vital connection between the Magdalena River and the Ciénaga.”
With less freshwater flowing into the system, the water and soils of the Ciénaga Grande became hypersalinated. Water levels also lowered, exacerbated by an El Niño. This led to the first mass mangrove and fish die-offs.
“Mangroves provide many important ecosystem services,” said Mancera. “They ensure water quality, prevent coastal erosion, provide refuge for many species, and capture carbon. Their degradation in the Ciénaga led to cascading negative impacts for the entire ecosystem.”
Over the decades these die-offs increased in severity and frequency, with approximately 55-60% of the mangrove forests now lost. Upwards of 70% of the fish were lost as well.
Dead mangroves along the Ciénaga-Barranquilla road. This road cut off the natural connectivity between the Caribbean Sea and the Ciénaga Grande. Photo by D.H. Rasolt
This ecological disaster caused enormous suffering for the peaceful palafito fishermen and their families, a situation exacerbated by Colombia’s prolonged civil war and notorious history of drug trafficking. In the most pronounced example of the horror inflicted on the region, paramilitaries perpetrated a brutal massacre in 2000 within and around the floating villages of Nueva Venecia and Buenavista. The assault killed at least 39 locals and displaced hundreds.
“We lived in fear for a long time, and many never returned,” said fishermen and community leader Diego Martinez from his stilted home in Nueva Venecia. (Editor’s note: Martinez’s name has been changed to conceal his identity and protect him from retaliation.)
For more than 200 years, traditional amphibious palafito communities have lived within the Ciénaga Grande in floating villages. Artisanal fishing with traditional hand-woven nets called atarrayas has been the foundation of their idyllic life and livelihood.
“We know the Ciénaga, its many species that are still here and those that are gone, and the many changes it has gone through, better than anyone because we live it, every day, every minute, and we should be listened to,” Martinez tells me, his voice filled with indignation.
Policymakers and researchers, both national and international, have drastically overlooked this traditional ecological knowledge of the palafitos in their many failed plans for the Ciénaga Grande.
For example, the opportunity to build capacity within the communities for monitoring water quality and fisheries has been largely neglected. When I visited the region in 2020 and 2021 as part of a project investigating cumulative impacts to the Lower Magdalena River wetlands and the potential for establishing water monitoring stations and decentralized clean energy technologies, I learned that nearly all previous projects neglected both the palafitos’ multi-decadal, firsthand knowledge of changes to the Ciénaga Grande, as well as their ability to participate in data collection for long-term research projects.
A young palafito fisherman arrives with his catch in the amphibious community of Nueva Venecia. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.
It is not only the palafitos’ knowledge and capacity to participate in protecting the Ciénaga Grande that is ignored. Their constitutionally guaranteed rights to life and livelihood are frequently neglected by designated government entities.
“When we call on the regional authorities to maintain the water flow, which they have promised to do and which is essential to the fisheries and our access to food and drinkable water, we are almost always ignored,” said Martinez.
The regional authority in question, CORPAMAG, has been consistently unaccountable, said environmental attorney David Vargas from the Colombian Ombudsman office, who worked for years in the Ciénaga Grande ecoregion.
“We formed popular actions and petitioned CORPAMAG in 2018 on numerous rights violations of local communities, from water concessions and illegal dike constructions of large landholders along the rivers of the Sierra that feed the Ciénaga, to water quality and waste-management issues within the Ciénaga that impact the health and livelihoods for palafito communities. These petitions were all ignored.”
Protective Status and Past Interventions
The Ciénaga Grande, while largely degraded and ignored, is not lacking in formal protective status — although they exist in part in name only.
At the national level, there are the Cienega Grande de Santa Marta Flora and Fauna Sanctuary and the Isla de Salamanca Park Way National Park.
At the international level, the Ciénaga Grande has been declared a Ramsar protected wetland, a UNESCO biosphere reserve and an AICA bird conservation area — all designations that in theory require the Colombian government to protect it.
Countless environmental protection laws exist in Colombia, including those covering wetlands and mangroves, but many of the best ideas and policies remain only on paper.
“We have the tools, the knowledge and the data, but nobody listens or pays attention to the science,” said Mancera. “It has been many years of inefficiencies, unnecessarily repeated studies and failed policies.”
There was a time, during the 1990s, where ambitious integrated research and planning for restoring the Ciénaga Grande was put into action. The framework was known as Procienaga.
“Much was learned over this period regarding the fisheries, water quality and mangrove forests,” said Mancera. Robust data — since organized into a publicly available database — demonstrated the importance of river-Ciénaga connectivity for maintaining hydrological balance and healthy salinity levels in the water and soils. Scientists also identified the eutrophication-inducing impacts of agrochemicals like phosphorus coming from the banana zone of the Sierra, which was beginning to host water and chemical-intensive oil palm plantations.
Fishermen in the Ciénaga Grande near the one remaining Ciénaga-Ocean connection, with the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the background. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.
Starting in 1996 five channels connecting to the Magdalena River were dredged, allowing freshwater to flow back into the Ciénaga Grande. The relatively sudden rush of freshwater — aided by a La Niña event in 1998 — shocked certain important components of the complex interdependent hydrology and ecology, such as eutrophication-controlling oysters. But at the same time, many positive signs were seen for mangrove recovery. The hypersaline soils returned to tolerable levels in certain areas.
Since the Procienaga project ended in 1999, Colombia’s Institute of Marine Investigations, INVEMAR, has continued monitoring the mangroves, water quality and fisheries, while making recommendations to authorities like CORPAMAG. But accountability and action have been few and far between. Channels frequently become blocked by sediment, while agrochemicals and diminished water flow from the Sierra keep killing fish.
New Initiatives and Governmental Change
After a damning report in 2017, the Ciénaga Grande was officially placed on the Ramsar Montreux List of wetlands at extreme risk, which brought some renewed interest and investment into the ecoregion. One example is the new “Sustainable Landscapes” project through the UN’s FAO, in collaboration with INVEMAR and other entities.
“These projects hold promise for better coordinating the different actors and including the communities in the process,” said Mario Rueda, research coordinator and fisheries scientist at INVEMAR.
While the impact of this renewed internationally backed interest remains to be seen, there has been a major governmental change within Colombia. New president Gustavo Petro — who has proclaimed support for the environment, traditional peoples and peace — may bode well for Colombia’s diverse ecosystems, including the Ciénaga Grande.
Rivers that rise in the highland territories of Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta feed the Ciénaga Grande with freshwater and rich sediments. Photo by V. Circe.
As part of the new administration, marine biologist Sandra Vilardy, a longtime proponent of the socioecological importance of the Ciénaga Grande, has been named the Viceminister of the Environmental Ministry. Vilardy recently made commitments to restoring Colombia’s wetlands during Ramsar COP14.
Petro has extended his biocultural priorities internationally by appointing Leanor Zalabata, a strong, principled female Arhuaco leader from the Sierra with a holistic worldview, as the new Colombian ambassador to the United Nations.
Integrated Solutions for Recovery
It’s a testament to the resilience of the Ciénaga Grande that this complex ecosystem remains productive at all and still has restoration potential after decades of interconnected threats.
But resilience only goes so far, and the ecosystem can still reach a critical point of no return. If the Ciénaga Grande is going to recover, it needs long-term integrated research and planning, with local community participation and even guardianship, which has a record of success in other local and Indigenous-led areas.
Most notably the region needs rigorous mangrove restoration studies to demonstrate how much soil salinity each species can resist and what outcomes are possible in terms of carbon capture and fishery recovery.
“Just planting seeds without this firm knowledge for a dynamic estuarine ecosystem, or any other forest ecosystem, has been shown not to work,” said Mancera. “Many projects in the Ciénaga have failed because they ignore basic science and integrated planning.”
This research would need to run in parallel with plans for periodically dredging the channels, based on monitoring and alerts from the palafitos, to maintain a healthy dynamic hydrological equilibrium for the Ciénaga Grande.
Ideally integrated long-term plans would also encompass projected climatic changes for the ecoregion, cumulative impacts from “development” along the Magdalena River Basin, and attention to the basin-scale integrity of the Sierra rivers that feed the Ciénaga.
“These collaborations and commitments would give time for the recovery of mangrove species and fisheries and for the Ciénaga overall,” said Mancera.
Teaser photo credit: A palafito fisherman paddles out into the open expanse of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta from Nueva Venecia. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.