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Latin America and the Caribbean

EJN-Supported Story on Coastal Erosion in Colombia Catalyzes More Media Coverage and Public Engagement

development on Playa Salguero

In January 2023, journalist and EJN grantee Daniela Quintero Díaz published a special report on coastal erosion in Colombia along with her editor Sergio Silva. 

In Colombia, the only country in South America with access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, 30% of the Caribbean coastline and 27% of the Pacific are at critical risk of erosion, which could lead to the loss of more than 12,600 hectares of land in the next 17 years.

Quintero and Silva’s report, which consisted of three features, was published in El Espectador, one of Colombia’s most prominent national newspapers. It highlighted distressing data on the state of the country’s shorelines and focused on three hotspots of erosion on its Caribbean coast: Playa Salguero, Isla Tesoro, and Punta Coquitos, sites where the advance of the sea has caused great environmental and social concerns.

“Even though Colombia has advanced in preserving larger areas of its seas, factors like erosion still deteriorate ecosystems,” said Quintero. “Although these [coastal regions] are strategic spots for tourism and trade, Colombian people are not very aware of the threats they face.”

Their report reached more than 150,000 people — spurring renewed discussion in conservation circles and beyond. The series put the issue on the media agenda, leading to further coverage in national and local media outlets after it was published. As a result, it was nominated for two different journalism awards.

A Map
Maps of Cartagena (top left), Barranquilla (top right), Santa Marta (bottom left), and the Uraba Gulf (bottom right). The red spots show areas that will disappear due to erosion / Credit: El Espectador.


A person sitting in a chair with a camera pointed at another person.
Quintero interviewing a resident of Punta Coquitos / Credit: Daniela Quintero.

Playa Salguero: “The authorities of coastal states in Colombia don’t give erosion the importance that it deserves”

Playa Salguero is a well-known beach located in the south of Santa Marta, where, in the last decade, many hotels, apartment buildings, and restaurants have been built on the prospect of a wide expanse of white sand for owners and tourists to enjoy. 

The story, reported by Quintero’s editor Sergio Silva, explained that constructing buildings so close to the sea hastens erosion, because new dunes that refill and replenish the beach cannot be formed. After years of development, the sea is knocking at their doors.

Silva’s report drew attention to an illegally constructed seawall — built in 2016 to capture sediment from the nearby river and restore the beach in the northern section of Playa Salguero, it left the south at critical risk of erosion — and Santa Marta city hall’s plan to build six additional seawalls along the beach to dissipate the energy of the waves and stall erosion.

Silva’s story revealed that citizens were largely against this spur and beach fill project, which would cost $6.3 million and, which they claimed, did not have the proper environmental studies or licenses. According to Arieh Kaplan, a homeowner in the area and leader of the activist group, “Save the beaches of Santa Marta”, these seawalls could “block the river mouths that feed beaches with sand, be a risk for swimmers, and simply ruin the landscape and take the problem elsewhere”, he expressed. “The authorities of coastal states in Colombia don’t give erosion the importance that it deserves,” he added.

Kaplan was very pleased with how the article turned out. “Unlike other journalists, at a regional and national level, Sergio did not just talk to me, but he interviewed the people at INVEMAR, Colombia’s national marine research institute, visited the territory, investigated, and did his analysis. In eight years, I believe the most complete, deep, and well-researched article was this one from El Espectador,” he expressed.

When the special came out, Playa Salguero became a hot topic. 

“The story was quickly picked up by other national and regional news outlets. Many sent their journalists to do updates on the case. This gave it a lot more visibility,” said Quintero.

Read related media coverage: 

This story also led the scientists who were quoted to be invited to lead workshops on coastal erosion at Mundo Marino, one of Santa Marta’s most visited aquariums. They were approached by the National Unit for Risk Management to investigate the failure of the seawall project and to present alternatives. “Sergio's report was quite complete; it was a good help in raising awareness in the community,” commented David Morales, chief of marine and coastal research at INVEMAR. 

Despite a court ruling from November 2022, which halted the issuance of new construction licenses and ordered the Ministry of the Environment and Santa Marta’s mayor’s office to develop a master plan to check erosion at the beach, carry out oceanographic studies, and design a project of geotextile tubes (an alternative to the traditional seawalls), the seawall construction project moved forward. By September 2023, 1.5 spurs were built. Then, in October, the ANLA, Colombia’s national authority for environmental licenses, suspended the project until the appropriate license was issued. As of January, this year, Santa Marta has a new mayor. [At the time of publishing this impact story, the project remained suspended.]

None of the sources consulted for this impact story had direct evidence that linked any legal action or policy decisions on Playa Salguero to the El Espectador report.

Still, Morales asserted that the topic has become a great deal more visible in the months that followed its publication. “Now we know authorities are more alert to stop the construction of new seawalls that could affect the stability of the coast,” he said. 

Emboldened, a group of citizens in Playa Salguero requested the Attorney General's Office, through its Magdalena State representative in charge of environmental issues, to launch a disciplinary investigation against the former mayor of Santa Marta. 

A group of people standing on the coast by the sea.
Playa Salguero in 2023, Santa Marta, Colombia / Credit: Arieh Kaplan.
An excavator on top of a seawall.
The state of erosion in Playa Salguero and the construction of one of the seawalls before the suspension of the project. Credit: Arieh Kaplan.

Isla Tesoro: “The article moved in a very academic circle”

Quintero’s special report also highlighted how the climate crisis is threatening the future of Isla Tesoro, a protected island in the Islas del Rosario archipelago off the coast of Cartagena. 

The island is a sanctuary for birds and coral reefs and is a nesting spot for sea turtles, but between 1954 and 2007, it has lost half its area. The island also helps dissipate wave energy, serving as a natural barrier for other islands in the archipelago and the closest continental city, Cartagena.

Only marine biologists, the president of the republic, their guests, and authorized personnel from the National Natural Parks of Colombia (the entity that manages protected areas in the country) can enter the island. 

Due to its highly protected status, few people knew about Isla Tesoro’s importance or its rapid disappearance. Quintero’s story exposed an issue that affects the whole Islas del Rosario archipelago, that, if left unchecked, could wash away one of the most significant coralline reserves in the country, as well as a shield that protects its Caribbean coast from erosion. 

The scientific community noticed and sought to spread the word even further. 

“I noticed the reach this report had among colleagues and friends. I posted Daniela’s feature on my Instagram and received several comments from people close to me asking me questions about what is happening on the island. They realized the impact erosion has had,” said Nireth Sierra, biologist, and research professional at Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo National Natural Park.

According to her, the media attention led an international organization to reach out to the Park’s administration, offering to carry out mangrove restoration to slow down the erosion process. Sierra  didn’t name the organization as no partnership has been finalized yet.

“Mangroves are used to strengthen the ground. Making this information visible helped us attract foreign entities that want to invest in restoration on the islands,” she said.

Elvira Alvarado, marine biologist and one of the most respected coral researchers in the country, also confirms that the story led to renewed discussion among experts on the causes of the erosion phenomenon. “Thanks to this publication, my colleagues started to question if it was just a natural process, a result of changing sea currents, or if it was predominantly caused by rising sea levels. Having these spaces where we can have transdisciplinary discussions to explain phenomena is very important for us,” she stressed.

“I know the article moved in a very academic circle. Journalistic work such as this along with other outreach on science and environmental issues have been instrumental in increasing people's awareness,” she added.

Punta Coquitos: “We could highlight a problem [the community] never had the voice to amplify”

Two individuals sitting down next to a tree.
Angel Montalbo and his wife, residents of Punta Coquitos / Credit: Daniela Quintero.

The third locale that Quintero reported from is Punta Coquitos, a coastal community located on the Uraba Gulf, Colombia’s most important banana-producing region, but also one of the most affected by the country's 60-year armed conflict. In 1988 Punta Coquitos was the site of a massacre perpetrated by paramilitary illegal groups and members of state forces; in the present, the sea has slowly taken the homes, land, and crops of its inhabitants, along with their memorials of the tragedy.

In this remote spot of the Colombian northwest, communities find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they must preserve the coast to have a place to live and cultivate, and on the other, banana crops, which are their means of subsistence, accelerate erosion by deviating water from the rivers and creeks that feed beaches with sediment.

“The community said they were grateful that we could highlight a problem they never had the voice to amplify but for them, specifically in Punta Coquitos, a solution is yet to come,” she stated. 

In her report, Quintero referenced the work of Vladimir Toro, a physical oceanographer at the University of Antioquia, who is leading efforts in the Uraba Gulf to delay the advance of the sea. 

After the story on Punta Coquitos was published in El Espectador, she was contacted by Toro, who invited her to visit a coastal erosion laboratory named Pimecla in Turbo, the biggest city in the gulf. At the lab, researchers design strategies to combat erosion by nature-based solutions. “They are using wooden barriers to dissipate wave energy and hold the ground firm, and making canals to direct water away from breaking the barrier,” she explained.

“The story helped highlight Antioquia as a coastal territory with 512 kilometers of coastline, which is not a small number, and where new knowledge on erosion is being generated,” said Toro. 

For the journalist, the publication of this special report showed that her work could influence public discourse and the media agenda. 

“It has given me that satisfaction you get when doing things that are different, unique, and worth it. It took so much effort, and was so widely acknowledged. It contributed to the [national] discussion,” said Quintero.

“The EJN grant allowed us to publicize a problem that is almost unknown and does not have as much importance in Colombia, where environmental issues until now are beginning to play a leading role in the media but where resources are very limited to produce in-depth reports,” said the journalist. She was able to visit sites that are not easy to get to, “where access is limited like in Isla Tesoro or the conditions are complex like Punta Coquitos”. “We were able to investigate, make videos and photographs, and know the situation firsthand to do a robust and good job. In addition, having an external mentor who may have a different perspective and respects the editorial line of the outlet and the journalist was very valuable to us,” she added.

Looking ahead, Quintero looks forward to continuing her coverage of ocean and climate change issues. On March 30, she published a follow-up story (behind paywall) about Playa Salguero, detailing how Santa Marta’s city hall planned to build six seawalls along the beach despite environmental concerns, the suspension of the project, and how the new city government has since responded. As an experienced diver, she said the ocean is always “calling” her for new stories to be discovered. 

Banner image: Beachfront properties are eroding Playa Salguero / Credit: Sergio Silva Numa.