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miércoles, 15 de agosto 2018
15/08/2018
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Ciénaga de Ayapel, on international conservation list

Main photo by Álvaro Wills, professor of the Environmental School, and secondary photo by Tatiana Puerta, environmental engineer, Universidad de Antioquia: Ciénaga de Ayapel

By Lina Marcela Gallo Benítez - Academic Environmental Corporation

 

Ayapel was known as the swamp that produced the most fish in the Madgalena river basin. Today, the catch “is just a bit; sometimes, we are not able to earn a penny,” points out Jesús María Viloria Mesa, 87-year-old fisherman from the municipality of Ayapel, Córdoba, who defines himself as “son of this town, devoted to fishing since I was 12.”

In seven decades of relationship with the swamp, Olaya—as he is known in Ayapel—has been witness of its transformations and, now, of its decay: “It’s very unlikely to go back to how it was. We’re experiencing a disaster; the nets are wiping out the fish. Back in my day, net fishing wasn’t allowed because it finishes off bocachico and catfish and, what’s more, with the mercury, as a consequence of mining, we’re betraying fish.” To live in Ayapel is to be surrounded by water because, besides the swamp, the town is bathed by the San Jorge River.

Researchers from Universidad de Antioquia celebrate the Ramsar declaration but also raise awareness about the socioenvironmental issues of this territory that has been object of study for over 15 years.

Although Ciénaga de Ayapel—one of the largest and most complex wetlands of the country—is now the tenth wetland system of Colombia to be included in the Ramsar Convention, researchers from Universidad de Antioquia and the local communities are concerned about the threats this ecosystem faces.

Besides the lack of fish due to overfishing, the swamp is also affected by the water pollution as a result of the mining projects that, according to studies from Universidad de Córdoba, spill their toxic waste in it; the breeding of buffalos as foreign species; the increased number of inhabitants of Ayapel; and the absence of treatment of domestic waste discharged directly in the swamp.

Climate events, such as floods, make also their contribution. In 2010, floods generated the loss of fauna and flora species, as told by locals and stated by studies of Universidad de Antioquia.

Fabio Vélez, coordinator of the GeoLimna research group, explains that “the swamp has major problems in its natural operation, such as mining exploitation, extensive stockbreeding, overfishing, and floods, and between 2010 and 2013, the ecosystem was unstable when a dam that contained the Cauca river waters broke.”

To face these threats, the Faculty of Education of the university has worked for the last years with the inhabitants of the area, especially with the young people, to integrate the conservation of this water body into the subjects of local schools.

A Ramsar site after 10 years of research 

Ramsar is an intergovernmental treaty, present in over 90% of the member states of the UN, to promote the wise and sustainable use of wetlands.

Universidad de Antioquia has worked in Ayapel for around 15 years. The first studies, in the 1990s, focused on the impacts of mining on the area. In 2004, the GAIA research group submitted to Colciencias the project “Analysis of the river-swamp relationship and its effect on the fishing production in the Ayapel swamp system” with which the university established its interest on the area. Then, in 2012, professors of the Environmental School promoted the creation of the environmental management plan of the swamp.

Around 40 people with different profiles participated in these studies with the logistic support of CorpoAyapel. For that year, around 100 undergraduate and graduate degree projects had been conducted in engineering, biology, and other fields. 

“In Ayapel, water governance, research, and the local groups collaborate, and the proof is the fact that a system so big and so complex had made it to the list,” states Esnedy Hernández, professor at the Environmental School.

Yarín Tatiana Puerta, environmental engineer and member of GeoLimna, collected information to propose the swamp as a Ramsar site. Aware of the role of inhabitants in the protection of the ecosystem, she engaged the local community and, during each visit since 2013, analyzed with it the meaning of a possible declaration.

The results of the research studies, the work of Yarín Puerta, the support of the Ministry of Environment to define the limits of the protected area, and the support of CorpoAyapel led to the Ramsar declaration, which is now useful to apply for international resources to conduct research studies for the recovery of the natural system.

The declaration identifies this swamp as an important habitat for aquatic birds and limits the awarding of new mining titles within or close to the protected area. This means that initiatives of good mining practices must be implemented; sustainable, productive and tourist projects must be developed; and studies for the restoration of the natural conditions must be conducted.

Being Ramsar is also an alert

Following this declaration, the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Valle del Sinú and Valle del San Jorge must design an environmental management plan adjusted to the new conservation conditions that respond to the concerns of fishermen such as Jesús María: “We want to repopulate the swamp, reforest the mangroves.”

Ciénaga de Ayapel is strategic, since it is the opening area of the Momposina Depression and La Mojana region and is located in the southern vertex of that mouth’s delta. It is a mandatory crossing of bird migration, and over 60 types of fish have been found in it, thanks to studies conducted by the university.

“Probably, the weakest spot in the swamp management is the incompetence of institutions to engage, agree with, and offer fishermen, stockbreeders, and inhabitants possibilities for the use of the ecosystem without damaging it,” adds Professor Fabio Vélez, who believes biodiversity will recover gradually and new species will come. Therefore, social work on sustainable production is fundamental, because “people must live by something, so we have to harmonize economic development with environmental sustainability.”

Luz Fernanda Jiménez, PhD in biology and specialist in fresh water fish, agrees on that. She highlights that, besides the importance of this water body for the biota and the cushioning of floods from the Cauca and San Jorge rivers, the swamp provides the local population with protein and revitalizes its economy thanks to the sale of fish in markets of different cities of the country.

“I see this as an opportunity for the rebirth of the swamp. However, the presence of the government—which has not been very efficient in the protection of continental wetlands—is required. You cannot expect that this ecosystem recovers within one year; you have to think of long-term plans. Decades of constant work will come to achieve a sustainable offer of fish for the fishermen and other services the swamp provides to its people. It is clear that what we humans do to aquatic ecosystems in one year can take decades to reverse,” concludes Luz Fernanda Jiménez.

 

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