CI and Sylvia Earle Spotlight Colombia’s Conservation Efforts

Children washing clothes in the ocean near Cartagena, Colombia. (© CI/photo by Haroldo Castro)

When I think about Colombia — a country I have never visited — what usually comes to mind are the natural wonders we often spotlight at CI. The páramo ecosystems that provide fresh water for Bogotá’s 8 million people; the rainforests sheltering some of the world’s greatest diversity of birds, primates and amphibians.

So last week, when I attended an event focused on the country’s marine resources and conservation successes, I had much to learn from the main speakers, world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and sea turtle specialist and longtime CI Vice President Rod Mast.

This event — a lunch held at the residence of the ambassador of Colombia in Washington, D.C. — was organized by CI’s Women’s Conservation Forum (WCF), a group led by CI board member, educator and conservationist Ann Friedman. WCF sponsors lectures by prominent conservationists for a community of passionate women in the D.C. area who are striving to learn more about the dangers facing our planet and practical steps they can take to bring about positive change.

Before introducing the speakers, Ann Friedman recounted her experience at CI’s board meeting last month in Cartagena, a Colombian city on the Caribbean coast. She also praised Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, whom she called “a very impressive, foresighted supporter of the environment.”

Santos’ vision is critical for the future of Colombia, a megadiverse country that the U.N. has identified as a nation that is among the most vulnerable to climate change. In honor of his work fighting illegal fishing in Colombian waters — along with recent expansions to protected areas in the states of Atlántico and Bolívar — CI recently presented President Santos with the first “Global Conservation Hero” award at the board meeting in Cartagena, which he accepted in person.

When Sylvia Earle took the stage, I couldn’t help but feel a little star-struck. In a career spanning more than half a century, Sylvia’s commitment to the oceans has gone further — and deeper — than almost anyone. She holds the record for the deepest solo submarine dive by a woman, and has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater. She has also been a powerful voice for marine conservation; in 2009, Sylvia won the TED Prize and established Mission Blue, a global partnership dedicated to expanding marine protection across the globe.

Speaking to an attentive audience in the magnificent ballroom in the Colombian ambassador’s residence, Sylvia pointed out that Colombia’s coasts touch two oceans, a fact overlooked by many people unfamiliar with Colombia. She also stressed the connectivity between marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

“The ocean drives the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, the nitrogen cycle … it drives the way the world works. Even if you never touch the ocean, the ocean touches you every day. And it’s only now, as we get into the 21st century, that we’re beginning to put the blue part of the planet on the balance sheet.”

Following Sylvia’s talk, Rod Mast, who co-founded CI’s Colombia program 20 years ago, reflected on the success of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS), a collaboration between the governments of Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador that is working to protect and improve ocean health in a marine area bigger than Switzerland.

“We’ve found absolutely exceptional partners with the Colombian government,” he said. “The Ministry of Environment is extremely strong, and doing amazing things for conservation in the country.”

Rod also discussed the difficulty of figuring out which ocean areas should be priorities for protection. “A frog might live in one Andean valley, so to conserve that frog you put a park around it. But a tuna lives all over the place.” Given the wide range of many marine species, he stressed that partnerships between national governments are essential for effective conservation.

In light of growing public awareness of marine issues and ever-advancing technology, Sylvia and Rod are both optimistic about the future, provided we take action now. “I think the best news of all about our future as compared with our past is that we now know that our lives are fully, inextricably linked to the natural world,” Sylvia said. “We are armed for the first time with enough knowledge to be able to see patterns that we couldn’t see even … 10 years ago, five years ago.”

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team.

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