The dark sky and strong winds announced it. On Monday, November 16th of 2020, Hurricane Iota would pass through the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, one of the 32 departments, with Bogotá DC, that makes up part of Colombia. Its capital is San Andres.
Shaira Montenegro, guide and ticket seller at the Old Point National Park, the department's largest mangrove-protected area (covering 247.56 hectares), recalls that she and her partner went up to the third floor of their house to await Iota’s arrival. It was midnight when the drops stopped being drops to become spears that hit the windows, threatening to destroy everything. The house, like a container, was filled with water. Everything, from towels to some cement structures, was used by both of them to slow down the impact of the wind that messed up the archipelago.
“Horrible”, says the 21-year-old, remembering the event. She explains that the category 5 cyclone was not only devastating to the island's infrastructure but also to the mangrove. This ecosystem acts as a barrier against extreme climatic events in this portion of land located within the Caribbean hurricane belt.
That location makes the island vulnerable to the impact of extreme hydrometeorological events, as happened again on October 8th, 2022. On that date, another cyclone from central America called Julia (classified as category 1), passed through the island. According to the Attorney General's Office, this resulted in five houses destroyed and another 150 with "structural damages". It also increased the environmental impacts caused by Iota, turning the situation into a new challenge for the Government of President Gustavo Petro, which began in August of 2022.
The damage of Hurricane Iota on a forgotten island
Although fortunately, after Iota, both Shaira and her family, residents of San Andrés (26 km2), emerged unharmed, this was not the case for many inhabitants of the two other islands of the only Colombian insular department: Providencia (17 km2) and Santa Catalina (1 km2). According to El Espectador, the National Unit for Risk and Disaster Management announced that the hurricane arrived at a speed of 250 km/h, leaving more than 6,000 inhabitants affected, 4 dead, and 98% of the infrastructure destroyed.
According to the National Department of Statistics (DANE) in 2018, 43% of the island population had multidimensional poverty, 41% above the national average. For example, only 28.8% of the population belongs to a household where the average education of its members over 15 years of age is greater than 9 years of school, compared to 44.0% of the national total. Regarding housing conditions, 8.3% of the population presents problems of critical overcrowding: more than three people per room live in a dwelling. Likewise, 65% of the population lacks access to drinking water.
On the other hand, according to the Ombudsman's Office, which published an early warning related to security in 2018, there is a great security risk for the people of San Andres due to the presence of illegal armed groups that seek to exercise territorial control of the river area for trafficking weapons, contraband, and drugs.
How to save the mangrove?
The problematic social situations described got worse with the passage of Hurricane Iota in 2020. However, the environmental impacts did not get much attention from the media. Degraded mangroves leave people and associated ecosystems defenseless, as they are supposed to protect coastal communities from storms and hurricanes while at the same time, maintain an ecological balance in the area where they grow.
According to María Fernanda Maya, founder of Blue Indigo, a non-governmental organization dedicated to the sustainable development of the island, all the ecosystems of the archipelago, such as freshwater, coral reefs, seagrass, soft bottoms, mangroves, beaches, cliffs, the tropical dry forest, and wetlands work together. The mangrove, in particular, she says, is responsible for filtering and retaining all the contribution of organic matter that reaches the sea from the coast. "The mangroves serve as a filter so that all the organic matter and runoff that comes from the island does not reach the reefs," she details.
Gloria Murcia, a biologist with 15 years of experience at the Corporación Ambiental Coralina, a public entity that manages, among other things, the Old Point National Park, says the mangroves are the "cradle rooms" of the fish because in juvenile stages they arrive there to feed and protect themselves from others of their kind. "These animals are of ecological and commercial value, so fishing is also affected if the mangrove is affected," she adds.
In climate regulation, these ecosystems store carbon dioxide, explains the biologist. “They capture more carbon than forests, not only with their leaves but branches, trunks and from the ground, which helps reduce the impact of climate change”. She also says that for this reason when we get into a mangrove, we experience a colder climate, even when outside it is very hot.
Gloria also details that the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) was the most affected species, unlike others also present on the island such as the black mangrove (Avicennia germinans), the white (Laguncularia racemosa) and the button (Conocarpus erectus).
Fortunately, here in the only peninsular department of Colombia, there are projects focused on restoring several affected mangrove areas after the passage of Hurricane Iota. These aim to make a difference, despite the slow recovery of the ecosystem.
The first one was regional and was financed thanks to agreement 004 of 2021 signed between Coralina, which hired Más Bosques, a non-profit organization, to execute it with a budget of 4 billion pesos, approximately 823 thousand dollars. Like all projects in Coralina, this one was financed by submitting a project proposal to the Ministry of the Environment, the entity in charge of approving it, and then giving the order to another corporation to provide the resources. In this case, the Environmental Compensation Fund, a public sector funding, granted it. Thus, the initiative was implemented in Providencia in an approximate area of 65 hectares distributed in different areas such as Manzanillo, Old Jan Bay, and Old Town.
The second initiative took place at the Luis Amigo school and was financed independently by the young men who proposed it: Jacobo Howard and Giuseppe Barraza, both 16 years old. With an approximate budget of 100.000 pesos, about 20 dollars, the students built a nursery with brackish water in Jacobo's house, located in the Four Corner area, between Pepper Hill and Tom Bunker roads, south of San Andrés. They have already planted 298 propagules and plan to plant them in an area of 10 square meters next year.
Before explaining these initiatives, it is necessary to understand what it means to restore mangroves. According to Gloria, there are many definitions in this regard, but the most pertinent, she says, is that "the ecosystem returns to its original ecological condition or a similar one after a disturbance and that it can have the same species that were there before and that these can have the same functions.”
The biologist also explains that restoration can be passive or active. In its passive form, she adds, what must be controlled and eliminated is the disturbance factor. For example, if there are cattle regularly passing through a mangrove area and stepping over the mangrove, they should be prevented from doing so, in order for a natural restoration to take place. This type of restoration takes place when there is only one disturbance factor, she points out.
On the other hand, active restoration, she adds, is performed when natural regeneration does not occur after removing various tensions. This process is determined through a series of 13 rigorous steps proposed by Orlando Vargas, a professor from the Department of Biology of the National University, who, according to Gloria, is one of the most respected academics in mangrove restoration in Colombia.
In this way, in the first initiative mentioned, the regional one, Más Bosques transported around 7,000 propagules of this mangrove species, from the Old Point Park in San Andrés to Providencia to be planted with the help of various residents.
The agreement's purpose was to carry out adaptation actions against extreme weather events in areas with ecosystems of ecological importance, and the adaptation of planting areas to restore water flows in prioritized mangrove areas, among other things. This last action is key because mangroves need fresh and saltwater to survive and, since Iota caused many trees to fall, the water streams that reached them were obstructed, making the restoration a difficult process.
The biologist explains that this initiative was created to assist the mangrove in becoming more resilient. According to the expert, resilience is "the ability of ecosystems to cushion and resist changes in species, water, and water flows that occur after disturbances that may be of natural origins such as hurricanes, a storm or even a seaquake; or anthropogenic factors, such as burning or logging”.
“After Hurricane Iota’s passage in Providencia, the mangroves were significantly more affected than the tropical dry forest itself. Since the forest is more diverse than mangroves, it is more resilient to impacts,” explains Gloria. According to her, after the hurricane, 107 woody species have been registered by Humbolt Institute in the forest, among trees and some lianas, while only four species of mangroves have been registered. Before Iota, says the expert, the most recent study (2009) by Jorge Ruiz Linares and María Claudia Fandiño reveals that there were 113 woody species in Providencia.
However, Gloria says that the restoration mangrove process has been quite slow. The ecosystem has not been restored in Providencia, she explains, since streams have not been recovered due to a delay in administrative issues of Más Bosques, which hasn't delivered some important documents of the project. This is worrying for everyone, but especially for the people who live there and are unprotected from another possible extreme weather event, such as Hurricane Julia which hit the island in October 2002.
For its part, the second initiative, led by Jacobo Howard and Giuseppe Barraza, still in the planning stages, was initially raised as a social project by the high school graduates, and its initial objective was to restore the mangrove ecosystem in Santa Catalina.
However, as Hurricane Julia reached the archipelago in October 2022, their plans changed and the project will be carried out in San Andrés. The interest in the restoration of both young men was born thanks to Jacobo's mother, María Fernanda Maya, founder of Blue Indigo: she has seen up close the slow recovery of the ecosystem and when talking with her son about this situation, she conveyed her wishes for contributing for its recovery.
The student commented that they have already done theoretical research on the resilience of the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) and fieldwork in Santa Catalina.
“To make a mangrove nursery you must go to the trees with germinated seeds, collect the ones that are ready to sow, which are the ones that fall from the tree. Then, you must get the bags where the germination will take place, coconut substrate, and soil, make a mixture between both and put two propagules per bag. Afterward, water them with fresh water every two days and salt water at least once a week and make sure that no snails come to eat their stems,” explains Jacobo.
His idea is to transplant the propagules with a budget of 50.000 thousand pesos, approximately 10 dollars, very near to his house in the south of San Andrés. This will take place at the beginning of next year, working closely with the people who live in the area, so that they can be the ones who continue caring for them. “It is key that people understand the importance of this ecosystem. We hope they can maintain it, because after all, it is a value for them, for the island and the entire planet,” says the student.
When referring to "the entire planet", Jacobo reminds us that mangroves, in addition to being a barrier against extreme weather events, are also important to the environmental balance of the entire world. According to the United Nations, there is a 50% probability that global warming will exceed 1.5ºC in the next five years, which is why it is essential to continue betting on the care of this ecosystem, to reverse the negative effects of climate change, since mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics.
This is also key because climate inequality is a reality in Colombia and those who suffer poverty in multiple dimensions, as occurs in the archipelago, are the ones who suffer its effects the most.
The Old Point story
The largest area of mangrove forests in the three islands is what is now known as Old Point National Park, an area that was declared protected after 1988, says Gloria. That year, she recalls, there was a successful restoration process after a fire at a power plant located in San Andres north, an event that destroyed a large part of the ecosystem. This action was key for the mangrove ecosystem to resist years later, an event like Iota, explains the expert.
Thus, with a 1.42-kilometer trail, the Old Point National Park, according to infographics made between Coralina and Jorge Tadeo Lozano University, is the habitat of crustaceans such as the fiddler crab (Uca major) and the black crab (Gecarcinus lateralis); of mollusks such as common oysters (Isogomon alatus) and Littorina (Littorina aguifera); and reptiles such as iguanas (Iguana iguana rhinolopha) and blue lizards (Cnemidophorus lemniscatus).
As Shaira walks through Old Point National Park on a sunny day, in mid-July 2022, she comments: “A lot of trees were devastated all along the trail after Hurricane Iota, but they protected us and they have been recovering, especially in this protected area.”
According to the Humboldt Institute, which studied the most affected areas after Iota with satellite images, the mangrove areas reduced the cyclone's impact on homes in Providencia. According to José Manuel Ochoa, coordinator of the biodiversity evaluation program at the institute, this showed that affected mangroves should be prioritized for their recovery, "since they provide greater protection, in ecosystem terms, to the population," he said.
Johana Aguado, the founder of Ecoculture, a non-profit organization that offers tourists sustainable experiences such as bird watching, affirms that several visitors come to the park to watch resident species such as the Oldman bird (Coccyzus minor abbotti) or the Mockingbird of San Andres (Mimus gilvus magnirostris). Also, migratory birds such as the Northern Azulillo (Passerina cyanea) or the Golden Warbler (Dendroica petechia) and of course, the endemic bird of the island: the chincherry (Vireo caribaeus).
The park has 20 park rangers and charges 12.000 pesos (USD3,00) for admission per person, money that is used for its preservation. “On Saturdays, 25 visitors can arrive. When many tickets are sold, it can be up to 40,” Shaira details.
The opening hours to the public, she points out, are from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., although at 3:00 p.m. the guards no longer let people in, "because it gets dangerous and people come from behind to assault," says the young woman, pointing out that pieces of wood and banners have already been stolen from the paths, and visitors have been robbed.
According to Nacor Bolaños, a marine biologist and coordinator of Coralina's Protected Areas, the assaults are already being investigated by the Prosecutor's Office and although a project has already been proposed by Coralina to put surveillance cameras inside, they are still looking for financing. This occurs because being led by a sustainable development corporation, the park cannot receive money from the government, or from any other entity. They can only apply to specific funding opportunities.
“A lot of support has also been requested from the National Police and they constantly come to do surveillance, but unfortunately they do not have a permanent presence here. We are considering what other measures we can take, but it is difficult without financing,” adds Bolaños.
Bolaños explains that the Old Point is financed with the entrance fee, the application to specific projects, and with resources from another regional natural park: the islet of Johnny Cay. This is also managed by Coralina and hundreds of tourists arrive there every year and are charged an entrance fee of 8,000 pesos per person (USD1,63).
The park requires approximately one billion pesos (USD200 million) for its maintenance, but this figure is not even close to what they receive, says Bolaños, who is not clear on an exact figure of the income. Also, he worries that currently, the money they receive is not even enough to support all the staff, much less to maintain the trail or to carry out works that improve the service such as bathrooms, bird-watching towers, and projects that can improve control and surveillance.
This is different, for example, from the budget that founded the Coralina-Más Bosques project, because the Ministry of the Environment thought that the restoration of the Providencia mangrove was an urgent matter to be resolved. Meanwhile, none of these projects that have been proposed for the improvement of Old Point have been considered by the entity as a priority, this is how Bolaños explains it.
“For the Old Point, important resources related to infrastructure and maintenance of the trail are spent and, in general, money is allocated to control and surveillance matters, staff for ticket sales, and guides who do the tours with the visitors, but there are several things that remain to be done and to tell the truth, we are weak. For example, we need bathrooms for visitors and staff and cameras to keep them safe, but we have not obtained resources,” the biologist says.
The uncertain fate of mangroves in the archipelago
After Cyclone Julia passed through the archipelago, many questions remain about the mangrove's future, especially managed by a government that promises change, and social and economic reforms linked to decarbonization, adaptation to climate change, reforestation, and energy transition.
According to Gloria, the main threats facing this ecosystem are not only hurricanes and tropical storms but also the garbage that people throw into the ecosystem and logging, although this has already been gradually controlled by Coralina.
After this new event, the Minister of the Environment, Susana Muhammad, affirmed that it was necessary to act on the already existing impacts on the ecosystems. “One of the first actions that must be taken focuses on research institutes in the environment sector. This will include the diagnosis of affectation in the island ecosystems, such as mangroves, coral reefs, seagrasses, tropical dry forests,s and bodies of water”, said the minister.
She then mentioned that it is critical to review how effective the measures taken with Hurricane Iota have been to advance climate resilience issues. However, it would also be necessary to see in the future what the measures will be to control not only extreme climate events but also garbage and logging.
Gloria explains that thanks to Resolution 1263 of 2018 where the Ministry of the Environment compels autonomous corporations to carry out mangrove management, Coralina is already doing this on the island. “Right now we are classifying in which areas there are mangroves and where certain activities cannot be carried out”.
She also says that specifically under the Subdirection of Seas and Coasts of the same corporation, they continue to carry out control and surveillance tours, periodic cleaning in mangrove areas, and manage mangrove areas, such as the Old Point National Park. There, she adds, cleaning activities and scientific studies are carried out and for this reason, this has been an important area of the ecosystem because being so well preserved it can help, as in the Coralina-Más Bosques project, to restore other mangrove areas.
It is clear that currently, the environmental challenge is greater and that only time will tell if the initiatives to restore the mangrove ecosystem, whose recovery process has been slow, could be accelerated with a commitment from a government that promises to prioritize the care of the planet. This, not only with a committed community but with strengthened public policies that mitigate damage, bets on restoration, and pushes all people, from different shores, to learn to value this "big house" that welcomes and cares for all of us, sometimes crying out for help.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Spanish in Radionica on December 15, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: After the passage of Hurricane Iota, the mangrove ecosystem in Old Point National Park has gradually recovered / Credit: María Claudia Dávila.