Afro-Caribbean community protects pristine oceans with new protected area

  • The new Isla Ají Marine Protected Area covers a total of 24,600 hectares (60,800 acres) of coastal, terrestrial and marine ecosystems on the Pacific coast of Colombia.
  • The Naya River Delta, where the protected area is located, is home to a variety of diverse ecosystems, from rainforests to beaches, from mudflats to mangrove forests.
  • The new marine protected area contributes to Colombia’s goal of conserving 30% of its surface by 2030, as part of a broader global commitment by around 70 countries to promote biodiversity through the creation of protected areas. protected.
  • Many communities near Isla Ají hope to switch to ecotourism to meet their conservation goals, but the investment is still in its infancy.

An Afro-Caribbean community on Colombia’s southwest coast has helped establish a new marine protected area that will create more sustainable fishing and hunting practices while ensuring that one of the country’s least disturbed ecosystems will endure for a long time. external threats of deforestation and pollution.

The Isla Ají Marine Protected Area, which covers 9,425 hectares (23,289 acres) of coastal and terrestrial ecosystems and 15,174 hectares (37,495 acres) of marine ecosystems, is the result of more than two decades of work regional officials and the Naya River Council. , which represents 19 Afro-Colombian communities concerned with protecting the ecosystems of the region.

“The local communities of the Naya River understood the need to protect a site which they considered to be of great cultural and environmental importance,” said Jorge Parra, chief protected areas coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). in Colombia, which helped designate the marine protected area. “Through the creation and implementation of community projects, residents can improve their harmonious coexistence with their environment.

Some residents cut down the mangroves for firewood which degraded the fish nurseries. Photo via WCS Colombia

The Naya River Delta is home to a variety of diverse ecosystems, from rainforests to beaches, from mudflats to mangrove forests. These ecosystems are home to many critically endangered species, including the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). There are also humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the largetooth sawfish (pristis pristis).

Many of these species use the Pacific coast of Colombia as a food stopover during a much longer migration that may stretch from Alaska to Chile. As many as 17 species of migrating shorebirds stop in the area, according to WCS.

“[The communities] established this project to maintain all their culture but also the biodiversity,” Parra said. “Their culture is linked to their environmental values. They want to ensure long-term sustainable use. With a protected area, they can achieve this.

To create Isla Aji

The department of Cauca, where the ecosystems are located, is plagued by deforestation caused by lumberjacks, minors and coca plantations, among others. And although the delta area has remained relatively free from these threats over the years, community members have wanted to establish the protected area so that it will remain so long into the future.

They also wanted to protect him from themselves.

“The desire to make it a protected area was born from the increase in population over the last 300 years of the history of the community council”, explains Katy Garcés, resident and coordinator of the project. “Because there are more and more families and there is more and more pressure on the natural resource both in its use and at the agricultural level.”

As the population of the communities has increased, an increasing number of residents have to cut down the surrounding forest for firewood and construction timber, among other things. Communities were interested in logging restrictions, as well as how to more sustainably manage the amount of waste they were creating.

They identified many fishing and hunting practices that were found to be unsustainable and needed to be systemically changed. They wanted to develop a management plan for a protected area that could be discussed and negotiated among all community members.

Some fishermen used nets with very small holes, which made it easier to catch juvenile fish, preventing them from reaching breeding age. Other residents cut down the mangroves for firewood which degraded the fish nurseries.

Isla Ají covers 9,425 hectares (23,289 acres) of coastal and terrestrial ecosystems and 15,174 hectares (37,495 acres) of marine ecosystems. Photo via WCS.

In addition, the locals were destroying the mouthless crab caves (Cardisome crassum), as well as overhunting them and targeting juveniles. They also hunted them with local herbs which wiped out entire colonies.

“They put [a native herb] in the cave and this grass is a poison that disorients them,” Garcés said. “Some of the crabs are picked up but all of them die in the cave. That includes the little ones. So what does that mean? That it affects the entire population of the species.

Nevertheless, during technical studies of the biodiversity of the area, WCS and other authorities have found that the mangroves, mudflats and other coastal ecosystems are in very good condition, especially compared to other parts of the region. Colombian coast. The idea was to keep them that way.

A tradition of stewardship

Long before the marine protected area became a reality, local communities around the Naya River Delta were aware of the need to protect their natural resources.

Due to the high biodiversity of the area, it was popular with biologists, who often traveled there to conduct research. Sofonías Orozco, a member of the Nayera community, opened her house to researchers and encouraged her neighbors to take care of the environment.

“Sofonías has always taken great care of the area,” said Fredy Mosquera Valencia, of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Cauca (CVC), which helped designate the protected area. “He did not allow any cutting of wood or drawing of water without his approval.”

In 1994, several of the communities in the Naya River Delta registered for protections under the CVC’s regional action plan to increase conservation. But the initiative was set aside for other projects. It will take until 2018 for the process to resume.

The Naya River Delta is home to a variety of diverse ecosystems, from rainforests to beaches, from mudflats to mangrove forests. Photo via WCS

The new marine protected area contributes to Colombia’s goal of protecting 30% of its area by 2030, as part of a broader global commitment by around 70 countries to promote biodiversity through the creation of protected areas. protected.

The so-called 30 by 30 target has been criticized for emphasizing conservation measures that risk pushing indigenous and local communities off their lands. The Isla Ají Marine Protected Area, however, shows that they can be included in conservation efforts – and are often the ones who know what action to take.

“All their social and cultural relationships are closely linked to marine, coastal and forest ecosystems,” said Parra of WCS, adding, “To create a protected area, you have to rely on them too.”

A shift towards ecotourism

To conform to more sustainable community practices, the communities hope to make ecotourism an economic staple of Isla Ají. However, it will still be a long time before tourism becomes a viable part of life.

“The idea is not for a fisherman to stop being a fisherman,” Garcés said, “but for tourism to become an economic alternative.”

She added: “There are people who go fishing all week but others who only fish during the day… He can say: ‘Monday and Tuesday I go fishing. But from Wednesday to Saturday, I’ll do my tourist work.'”

Due to the high biodiversity of the area, the Naya River Delta has always been popular with biologists, who often travel there to conduct research. Photo via WCS

At the national level, Colombia has double on his ecotourism industry, providing grants for new green projects, organizing sustainable tourism summits and seeking new areas of investment.

So far there are no cabins or hotels in Isla Ají. But community leaders hope some of that investment in sustainable tourism infrastructure will flow into the region in the years to come. Although the department of Cauca suffers from relative insecurity, Isla Ají is safe and easily accessible from major urban centers such as Cali, Medellín and Bogotá.

“[There is an] invitation to public and private organizations, national or international, who would like to work together on this initiative and be able to participate or strengthen what we have planned,” said Garcés. “We have a vision, we have a desire. But we need strategic allies to achieve our goals.

Banner image: A resident fisherman takes his boat out to the Naya River delta. Photo via WCS.

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Animals, Conservation, Deforestation, Endangered Species, Environment, Governance, Hunting, Indigenous Peoples, Marine Protected Areas, Overhunting, Protected Areas, Wildlife Conservation

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