Karina here reporting from Colombia. Before officially starting my internship next week, I visited Corales del Rosario National Park, which is only a 50-minute boat ride from the coastal city of Cartagena but feels like a world away. Cartagena, though declared by the United Nations as a World Heritage site for its stunning historic city section, is otherwise tragic. I’m not going to get much into this as to not hurt my people’s pride (I have deep roots here- there are streets named after my great great grandparents), but know this: it is an ecological and social disaster that serves as home to almost one million people. There are virtually no sidewalks, and the crumbling infrastructure sits next to enormous ultra modern buildings. Garbage and garbage smells are ubiquitous (because even trash cans get stolen here), and trees are scarce (they get chopped down so street vendors don’t post up under them). The city also has the highest income inequality rate in all of South America (except for some tiny area in Paraguay). Why it continues to have such touristic allure is beyond me. The breeze is nice and people are lively. Maybe that’s it.
It was hence a reprieve to visit the National Park archipelago, commonly known as the Rosario Islands. The park has increased in size from 18,000 hectares to 120,000 in the last forty years. However, as the protected areas continue to expand, the quality of the marine environment, which accounts for 20% of the country’s total reefs, continues to suffer. When I was growing up, we could jump off our dock (that area was still privately owned then), and swim beyond the sea grass beds into beautiful coral formations. On this trip, I could not spot one coral head from anywhere, not even from the boat. Bleaching and deterioration due to the usual suspects (increased water temperature, invasive species, sedimentation from channels, etc) has taken a serious toll.
On the bright side (pun intended), the “enchanted lagoons” that captured our imaginations as kids with their abundant bioluminescence have been meticulously preserved by park officials because of their importance in the life cycles of animals. Other ecosystems in the park which are closely monitored are mangroves, rocky littoral shores, dry tropical forests and sandy beaches. Currently, there are 167 species of fish and 60 species of birds present in the park, and dolphins are still common.
I stayed at the Oceanario Research and Education Center for two nights. This low-key yet iconic organization approaches sustainability projects from different angles. Its first mission is to educate and help people evolve culturally. They are also engaged in scientific exploration and innovative design. For example, resident biologists are spearheading a data collection initiative on the Atlantic Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara, and its reproductive cycle. Since the species has been severely overfished in this region (and worldwide where it occurs), the idea is to apply this knowledge to design low-impact offshore fish farms with the artisan fishermen of the area. This project will act as a genetic bank for the species and as a source of sustainable income for the local community. Another active project is the breeding and raising of Elkhorn coral for reintroduction into depleted reefs. What I love the most though is the low impact and humane design of the Oceanario’s facilities. For example, dolphin tanks are just ocean plots encircled by a fence so low that “Turci” and his pod are virtually free to come and go.
I’m back in Cartagena now, but feeling more hopeful than I was before this outing. Though this city is endearing with its folklore and idiosyncrasy, it feels clueless when it comes to sustainability. The question is: will its blindness and unsustainable practices spread beyond the city limits and into the islands, or will the environmental literacy and progressive leadership from the islands reach Cartagena first? As it stands, Cartagena is the dark tunnel, and the Oceanario Research and Education Center is the light at the end of the archipelago.