Territorial context and activities

The UPD’s mission is to foster the reconciliation between the territorial development needs and the proper management of its habitats and natural resources in order to achieve sustainable development in the face of local environmental threats, such as over-exploitation, or global, such as climate change. That is why the intervention in the environmental issues of the UPD is focused on activities of ecosystem recovery caused by anthropogenic means, the safeguarding of biodiversity strategical territories and the development of adaptation strategies and resilience to climate change.

Colombia and the Caribbean RegionSierra Nevada of Santa MartaActivitiesArticles

Colombia and the Caribbean are home to some of the world’s most pristine and diverse ecosystems and rely heavily on natural resources to generate economic growth.

Because of their location in the torrid zone, the countries of the Greater Caribbean have a great diversity of terrestrial, marine and marine-coastal ecosystems. These include some of the most biodiverse systems on the planet, such as tropical forests, coral reefs and mangroves, among others. All of them are also of high biological productivity and of great importance to local economies, but they are threatened as a result of the environmental impacts resulting from the decisions and policies of development and occupation of the territory. The Colombian Caribbean Region has a wide range of natural resources that can be grouped into three major ecosystem sets: terrestrial, marine aquatic and continental aquatic. Within this framework, the Regional System of Protected Areas of the Caribbean (siRap-Caribbean) identifies more than 20 types of ecosystems that account for the great biological diversity of this part of the national territory.

This diversity reveals the great ecosystemic importance of the Caribbean Region which, despite environmental impacts and transformations, retains much of its natural potential. In this context of high potential the territory not only faces the environmental deterioration, but also climate change.

The forecasted changes are likely to severely affect many ecosystems and sectors by decreasing plant and animal species diversity, reducing water availability and hydropower generation, as well as diminishing resources and economic activities in coastal zones.

This situation pushes to structure articulated policies for the protection, conservation and recovery of strategic areas for biodiversity and the safeguarding of coasts. Therefore, it is important to consider both the ecosystems’ conservation and the goods and services generated by them, which depend on the physical and functional connectivity between different types of environments and ecosystems, at local and regional level.


Natural hazards

Colombia has the third highest rate of natural disasters among Latin American countries; The Colombian Caribbean is especially vulnerable to these disasters. It was perhaps the region most affected by the winter of 2010, when it registered 1.6 million people affected and 308 thousand homes impacted.

Climate change

Colombia contributes to 0.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so that its decisions regarding the control of greenhouse gases do not have much impact on the global balance. However, it has been ranked as the third country most vulnerable to climate change impacts: increased temperature, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, loss of ecosystems and extreme weather events. The Caribbean region is threatened by high vulnerability to natural phenomena such as droughts, floods, windstorms and hurricanes. According to the future scenarios projected by IDEAM, the Caribbean region will have drastic temperature increases due to a strong decrease in rainfall

Regional problems

1. Solid waste: the inadequate management of household waste is one of the main environmental problems of the Colombian Caribbean. This situation is particularly serious in rural areas where waste is usually burned or disposed of in uninhabited areas or bodies of water, causing significant environmental impacts and promoting the proliferation of vectors of diseases that endanger the health of the more vulnerable communities .

2. Erosion: In the Caribbean Region, natural and man-made factors contribute to erosion and consequent degradation of soils. Natural phenomena include geological erosion, landslides, and climatic changes and, in terms of human activities, expansion of the agricultural frontier, urban expansion, mining, road construction, tree felling and inadequate management of watersheds. Important erosive processes are identified occurring both at the coastline level and the territory in general. Almost 30% of the 233 km2 of beaches in the Colombian Caribbean are affected by this phenomenon.

3. Air Quality: Air quality is one of the most widespread and serious problems facing large urban centers. However, in Colombian Caribbean cities the levels of air pollution are moderate and the critical points of this pollutant are generally focused on industrial areas.

4. Water Pollution: Colombia is the sixth country with the largest water supply in the world. However, approximately 50% of these resources have quality problems. According to InveMaR, municipal, industrial, agricultural and oily waste from maritime, port and oil activities are the main general sources of pollution of Caribbean waters.

Sources: Rodriguez, 2013; OECD;


Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta Region

The territory of the SNSM covers a fundamental importance for the whole country, being a protected area and recognized by Unesco as natural heritage, a tourist destination of continuous growth and at the same time place in danger of reduction of its biodiversity and with historical security problems by the presence of illegal armed groups.

The subregion is considered a strategic ecoregion at the national level with 5 conservation units of national importance: the Sierra Nevada Natural Park of Santa Marta, the Tayrona National Natural Park, the Sanctuary of Fauna and Flora Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta, the Sanctuary of Fauna and Flora the Flamencos and the Via Parque Isla de Salamanca.

Because of the heights that it reaches and the conformation of its mountains, it makes the Sierra Nevada a great orographic barrier where all the climates (thermal floors) of the tropical mountains are present. The combination of variables such as its geographic location, marine influence and continental regions surrounding the Sierra Nevada, makes it possible to find a great macroclimate that fragments when entering the mountain, forming multiple microclimates and original conditions in each subregion, according to the heights above sea level.

Water resources

The Sierra Nevada stands as a great mountainous system between the sea and the Colombian Caribbean region, which has an immense water reserve and valuable neotropical biomes. The massif is made up of three slopes, 35 basins and more than 650 micro-basins that not only provide support to about 180,000 people (30,000 indigenous and 150,000 peasants), but also constitutes the water source of at least 1,500,000 people settled in the departments of Cesar, La Guajira and Magdalena. This huge water source produces about 10 billion cubic meters of water per year, but its use is still low.

The loss of regularity of the water supply of the Sierra Nevada observed in the last decades appears caused by two factors, one anthropic and the other natural. In this sense human action has generated accelerated processes of deforestation that diminish the capacity of storage or retention of liquid in the basin. Of the 2,115,873 hectares that make up the Sierra Nevada, only 15% is considered as untouched forest or poorly intervened, while in the remaining 85% are located the human and economic activities that have caused a deterioration of their ecosystems. The second phenomenon linked to the scarcity of water regularity is related to the thawing of glaciers.

Sources: Plan de manejo PNN Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta , Economia de la Sierra Nevada


The UPD Work Plan in the environmental sector for 2017 sets the general objective of recovering and safeguarding areas of high biodiversity value, focusing on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

The territory of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta covers a fundamental importance for the whole country, being a protected area and recognized by Unesco as a natural heritage, a tourist destination of continuous growth and at the same time place in danger of reduction of its biodiversity and with historical security problems due to the presence of illegal armed groups. It is important to note that the region has 5 conservation units of national importance, out of 10 in the Caribbean region:

1. Natural Sierra Nevada National Park of Santa Marta

2. Tayrona National Natural Park

3. Sanctuary of Fauna and Flora Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta

4. Sanctuary of Fauna and Flora the Flamencos

5. Via Parque Isla de Salamanca

To achieve the objective, the UPD decided to start the activities of: (i) Identification of the context and evaluation of the environmental support network for the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, (ii) Identification of high impact actions for environmental sustainability in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and (iii) Identification of the modalities of Empowerment of local actors and NGOs.

Under these premises, it was identified the urgency to intervene to favor the environmental reintegration of the wetland of the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta, due to its importance in the field of biodiversity and because of the strong deterioration of its natural conditions.

Social context of the ecoregion Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta

Within the ecoregion system there are nine municipalities, with populations ranging from 87,355 of Ciénaga and 4,219 from the municipality of Zona Bananera.

In general, the economy of the ecoregion is characterized by the development of basic activities in the primary sector, such as fisheries, agriculture, extensive livestock and agribusiness.

The Great Ciénaga ecoregion of Santa Marta is one of the most depressed areas of the Department of Magdalena. The municipalities that comprise it, present indicators of population with Basic Unsatisfied Needs (NBI) between 43.5% and 67.27%.

Among the public services, drinking water is a critical: the coverage of the aqueduct ranges from 50.8% to 86.3%, but water caption is superficial, supplying the vast majority of the Magdalena River without any treatment for human consumption.

The Ecoregion of the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta comprises populations in conditions of extreme poverty and vulnerability, which suffer the absence or deficient presence of the State. These communities are constantly excluded, so they do not have effective participation mechanisms that allow them to be involved in decision-making related to the environmental management of the wetland.

In the coastal towns and those of palafitos (Nueva Venecia, Buenavista and Bocas de Aracataca) of the jurisdiction of the municipalities of Pueblo Viejo and Sitio Nuevo the houses do not have service of water and sewage, and only some of them have electicity. Because of this, communities lack the technical service of disposal and solid treatment, liquid and excreta residues: the majority of wastes are thrown directly to the marshes, increasing their pollution levels. Only in Buenavista garbage collection is available. These populations are those that more pressure exert in the production of waste that go directly to the lagoon system, since together they produce 975 tons of solid waste annually.

The fundamental problem seems to ensure the maintenance of the ecological characteristics of the ecosystem, in a context of sustainable development, in a situation of administrative and financial insufficiency for the management and recovery of that ecosystem.


Environmental Context of the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta

In addition to being a wetland of international importance with the declaration of the Ramsar area, the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta has other declarations that reaffirm its ecological importance: Sanctuary of Fauna and Flora of the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta (declared in 1977); Exclusive Reservation Zone Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta (1978); Declaration of UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta (2000).

A report from the Universidad del Norte, University of Florida and the Interamerican Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA) shows a significant deterioration of its ecological conditions due to different anthropogenic causes. The main problematic issue was the construction of the road infrastructure for the connection between Barranquilla and Santa Marta, which had the effect of obstructing the connection between the lagoon and the sea, reducing the oxygen supply and causing a strong decrease of the mangrove forests , which are now recovering. Salinity is one of the main causes of mangrove mortality and dryness of soils, caused by irregular precipitation and low flows – a result of the sedimentation of the canals that supply fresh water from the Magdalena River. Second, the logging and burning of mangroves, although on a small scale, affects the ecosystem.

The main degradation factors of the ecosystem derive from the agricultural activity that unfolds around the Cienaga, such as the deposits and waste of agrochemical residues and the clogging of fresh water sources for irrigation. Irrigation required by agro-industrial crops is often the cause of conflict, including armed conflict, with communities. The lack of control has led to the irregular appropriation of water sources by diversion and plugging of pipes for irrigation in an inappropriate manner. Furthermore, the lack of aqueduct, sewerage and a basic sanitation system directly affects the swamp area, receiving high amounts of waste.

Many of the municipalities located in the ecoregion depend on artisanal fishing to survive, in other words, their daily livelihood depends on the environmental conditions in which the wetland is located. Poverty, however, poses a threat to the ecosystem, as the intensive exploitation of resources resulting from the progressive increase of people dependent on fishing contributes to the loss of biodiversity.


1. Context identification and evaluation of the environmental support network for the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.

The UPD started with data collection and the development of contextual analysis to identify the major environmental problems of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, taking into account: (i) the strategic importance in terms of biodiversity, (ii) the relevance of environmental threats and hazards; (iii) the degree of political and social attention to the problems identified; and (iv) the degree of feasibility and the potential positive impact of solving the identified problems.

The activity allowed to identify in the wetland of the Great Cienaga of Santa Marta the territory more committed and with urgent needs of environmental reintegración.

2. Identification of high-impact actions for environmental sustainability in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The analysis elaborated in the first activity allowed to establish the main pollution and environmental degradation factors , allowing to concentrate the strategic studies on the following problems:

1. Waste collection and sewage collection systems, especially for coastal and palafitic communities;

2. The dumping of pesticides and fertilizers resulting from agro-industrial activities;

3. Loss of biodiversity due to over-exploitation of the fisheries sector.

The meetings with the communities began in Palmira, in the municipality of Pueblo Viejo, focusing on awareness about the waste collection system.

3. Identification of the empowerment modalities for local actors and NGOs.

Within the empowerment of development actors and local NGOs framework, it was established for 2017 to give priority to the territory of the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta within the project practices and the workshops of project design in the training courses. This will allow the involvement of professionals and development actors active in this territorial context, allowing to (i) improve the local communities’ capacity in the analysis and elaboration of projects and (ii) establishing shared strategies during project preparation workshops .

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