How do you bury your dead?” asked a bewildered journalist as the canoe wedged between algae-covered stumps supporting the wooden floorboards of a floating house. “We take them to the other side” said Roselio after navigating us through this tropical River Styx. But we are in a lagoon – although at times – the vast expanse of water makes its seem like the Caribbean, never far away, and never seen.
The Ciénaga Grande is one of Colombia’s most surreal places as the inhabitants of this large inland wetland live in a town built on stilts – Nueva Venecia. But ‘New Venice’ is not palatial, rather a menagerie of palafitic wooden huts where the only way locals can reach the most essential of services is by canoe. “We live and die by water,” remarked our captain, whose logboat serves as the village hearse.
One of Colombia’s great natural wonders is also a favorite set for filming movies and television commercials. Yet for the locals, there’s no “attraction” to a place where the air is thick with sulphur.
Extending from the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (also home to a world first: the highest coastal mountain range in the world), the Ciénaga Grande forms part of the Magdalena River Delta Estuary System and its wetlands include the Isla de Salamanca sanctuary near Barranquilla. The convergence of fresh water from the Magdalena and smaller tributaries flowing down from the Sierra Nevada, merging with Caribbean salt water, created one of this country’s most biologically diverse environments to flourish. The marshes also support a variety of fish species, mollusks, shrimps and crabs and the largest mangrove forest on the Colombian Caribbean. It is also an important breeding site for migratory and resident birds.
The estuary system of the lower Magdalena has actively contributed to the economic, social and environmental health of the country, as wetlands, critical for water filtration, act like a natural sponge by absorbing contaminants and filtering sediments. Millions of litres of water, purified by the natural elements are stored and released slowly, helping the oxygenation of the lagoon that provides sustenance for local fishermen and clean water necessary for farming. The Ciénaga lies at the heart of this nation’s banana-growing region.
Only a decade ago, the Ciénaga Grande, seen from the window of an air- plane was almost indiscernible from the sea. Today, with its surface level shrinking a fragile ecosystem is disappearing at an alarming rate. For Sandra Vilardy, a scientist who has devoted much of her professional life to researching the mechanics of this environment, adverse conditions, mostly man-made, are deteriorating the entire wetlands system with its distinct ecosystems: mangrove forests, coastal plains, floodplains, and lagoons. “Historically, national and regional development policies have been implemented unaware of the natural basis of this ecosystem,” said Vilardy.
Two of the biggest environmental catastrophes of the Ciénaga Grande are the massive mortality of the mangrove forest and the significant decline in fishery resources. The major factor responsible for these is the disruption of the
natural movements of water between the Magdalena River, Ciénaga Grande, and the Caribbean. The disruption began more than a century ago when farmers needing water to irrigate their crops, began to re-direct and block the natural flow of small tributaries, and the Magdalena entering the Ciénaga Grande – unintentionally modifying the rivers’ original shape and reducing the flow of fresh water into the lagoons.
Ignorance to this change in the water system complicated an already critical situation when the Vía de la Prosperidad (Road of Prosperity) connecting the towns on the western fringes of Ciénaga Grande (Salamina, Sitionuevo), was built and which obstructed the natural flow of the Magdalena River entering the lagoon. The construction of dikes that facilitated the extraction of mangroves and allowed easy passage for canoes also stopped water from reaching the forest, resulting in an additional loss of mangrove vegetation. According to Professor Vilardy, over 60% of the mangrove forest was lost from 1956 and 1995.
In addition to a broad oversight that singular events affect the wetland’s complex system in its entirety, the coastal highway uniting the port city of Bar- ranquilla with Ciénaga, built between
1956 and 1960, has had disastrous ramifications on the marine biodiversity within Ciénaga Grande as it blocks the entrance of diverse sea life. According to the research institute Invemar, 27,000 tons of fish, mollusks and crabs were captured in 1967, compared to the average of 6,255 tons caught in 2000.
Along with the environmental disaster, the deterioration of wetlands has impacted the livelihoods of 14 municipalities that rely on the Ciénaga Grande for resources. In July, during the Social and Environmental Challenges of the Ciénaga Grande Forum, representatives from the communities stressed how the “Ciénaga is slowly dying” and access to clean and safe drinking water is now critical. “There needs to be a collective and coordinated action to recuperate the ecosystems of the entire lagoon system,” believes Luz Elvira Angarita of Colombia’s national parks entity – Parques Nacionales Naturales.
Horst Salzwedel of the Pro-Ciénaga Foundation, a German NGO that has been working in defense of the Ciénaga for decades, believes there are solutions, such as regenerating natural forests, working closely with communities, and most importantly, improving the interchange of sea water with the lagoon. Regarding a proposed expansion of the Barranquilla to Ciénaga highway, Salzwedel is emphatic: “We cannot commit the same errors again.”
So while politicians decide on the future of a 4-G super highway that will cross the coastal plain from Cartagena to Santa Marta, the fishermen of Nueva Venecia must continue to take their canoes to the edge of the iconic Road of Prosperity in order to sell their catch. And if we don’t fight for the survival of this liquid Macondo – one that inspired Colombia’s literary giant Gabriel García Márquez – the Ciénaga Grande will be reduced to a figment of our imagination, like Roselio’s floating hearse.