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Conserving the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta

Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, the largest and most productive coastal wetland in Colombia, covers 45,000 hectares. At the confluence of the Magdalena River and the Caribbean Sea, the site boasts an immense variety of flora and fauna, including mammals, birds and fish. Its southern tip is a beautiful sanctuary of mangroves, swamp and amphibious forest.

On the calm waters of the marsh stand the Ciénaga’s famous stilt villages, supported by pillars or simple wooden stakes and inhabited by local fishermen since 1800. In a place accessible only by water, many of the things we take for granted—being served a glass of water, quick access to a doctor—are considered luxuries. Residents depend on the natural world around them. Sadly, in recent years mass fish die-offs caused by the marsh’s degradation have threatened the livelihoods of 2,500 people who call the Ciénaga Grande home.

Illegal activities are destroying this vital ecosystem: intentionally set forest fires, deforestation of large tracks of land for agriculture and livestock, logging and burning of mangroves, and 27 kilometers of illegally built dikes.

This destruction not only devastates the local fishery; it also has global impact. Ciénaga Grande’s mangroves absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, aiding in the global fight against climate change.

The importance of the Ciénaga Grande has been recognized both nationally – the Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta is a national park – and internationally: UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program declared the lagoon a biosphere reserve; and the Ciénaga Grande is listed as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty for the protection of wetlands.

AIDA and our partners are advocating for the Colombian government to fulfill its national and international obligations to protect the Ciénaga Grande. After all, millions of animals, the local community, and our global climate depend on it.  

What AIDA is doing: 

  • On December 19, 2014, along with the Public Interest Litigation Group of the Universidad del Norte and the Environmental Conservation Clinic at the University of Florida, we presented a petition to the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention requesting that their experts visit the site and issue recommendations.
  • We also requested that Colombia inscribe Ciénaga Grande in the Montreux Record, a list of Ramsar sites in imminent danger, which would allow for the government to obtain priority support for the preservation of the wetland. 
  • In 2016, Ramsar experts visited the Ciénaga Grande. As a result of the visit they published a report in June 2017 that identified "strong changes" in the ecological characteristics of the site. They recommended, among other things, that the Colombian State register the Ciénaga Grande in the Montreux Record. The government accepted the recommendation and, in September 2017, officially registered the site in the Montreux Record. 

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Flor Alicia Vere, donor