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Tackling climate change in one of Colombia’s largest wetlands

Catherine Toro

Catherine Toro, President of the Asociación Agroambiental Perú Contigo, holds some of the seedlings growing in the nursery that, together with her community, they have created in the village of Perú, Ayapel, Córdoba. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

  • La Mojana, a complex network of more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of different types of wetlands, has drastically deteriorated in recent decades.
  • Thousands of farmers are working to restore their livelihoods, and the swamps, marshes and streams they inhabit.
  • By doing so, they hope that floods and droughts, which are becoming more unpredictable and more severe than ever due to climate change, will affect them less.

The time it takes to cross the Ayapel swamp, the largest swamp in the department of Córdoba, northern Colombia, is a good measurement of how much this landscape has changed in recent decades. The journey, which used to take several hours, can now be done in less than one. Gone are the streams that forced the boatmen to slow down and the large clumps of floating plants that made it difficult to move through the wetlands.

Before, it was full of mangroves, recalls Ana María Rivera. “Today, what do you see? Sky and water, because there’s no beautiful mangrove creek left,” says the young woman, who lives in the village of Perú, a rural area at the southern end of the swamp.

The problems plaguing the swamp are as complex as the landscape in which it is located. Ayapel and ten other municipalities in the departments of Sucre, Bolívar, Córdoba, and Antioquia make up La Mojana, where three of the country’s most important rivers converge: the San Jorge, the Cauca, and the Magdalena. The Magdalena reaches the region through the Loba branch, one of the two branches parting the river’s course as it passes through the El Banco municipality in the department of Magdalena.

This wetland system, one of the largest in the world, is essential for regulating and buffering the major flows of these three river arteries. According to research carried out by the Humboldt Institute, 37% of its total area consists of temporary wetland zones, and another 21% comprises permanent wetlands.

Channels like the one in the photo, as well as the streams and marshes found throughout La Mojana, are key to the area’s water regulation.
Channels like the one in the photo, as well as the streams and marshes found throughout La Mojana, are key to the area’s water regulation. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Despite its status as a megadiverse area with great archaeological value, thanks to the Indigenous Zenú people who inhabited these territories from around 1,000 BCE, “the population’s socioeconomic situation does not reflect this natural wealth,” concluded the National Council for Economic and Social Policy (CONPES) in an assessment published in May 2022.

Proof of this is that, on average, La Mojana’s 11 municipalities have a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of 61.53%, 42% higher than the national MPI. This index, used by Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), “allows for the analysis of multiple dimensions of poverty experienced simultaneously by households.”

Like those in the village of Perú, communities living within this complex network, which covers more than 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) and comprises wetlands of various forms such as marshes, swamps and channels, recognize that their region has deteriorated. César Manuel Rivera, another member of Ana María Rivera’s community, says that the indiscriminate deforestation he and his ancestors carried out decades ago at least partly explains the absence of plants, birds such as the black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) and the blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), and fish like “la viuda” (the widow).

In Ventanillas, a hamlet in Majagual, Sucre, 72-year-old César Julio Barrios, who has lived there all his life, recalls that until around 40 years ago his community could still fish in the streams near the village. “Fishing decreased due to the closure of the channel that supplied the Mojana stream,” says Barrios, “now we have to buy the fish that we used to catch and even sell.”

La Mojana map
La Mojana is located in the Colombian Caribbean. The wetland complex encompasses the shaded municipalities of the departments of Sucre, Córdoba, Bolívar and Antioquia.

Ronald Ayazo, a researcher at the Humboldt Institute, cites a couple of problems on top of those reported by the inhabitants of Perú and Ventanillas. As well as the degradation of ecosystems due to flooding and the excessive exploitation of natural resources, Ayazo also refers to “the degradation of the amphibian culture”, a concept coined by sociologist Orlando Fals Borda that encompasses the set of behaviors, beliefs and practices developed by the inhabitants of this region, who move between the water and the land.

Ayazo explains that, for more than 2,000 years, the Indigenous Zenú who inhabited La Mojana built hundreds of canals, ditches and embankments. This turned the region into one of the largest hydraulic complexes in the Americas, as Juana Camacho, a researcher at the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), explained in a 2015 article. Now, little remains of these Indigenous works and, notes Ayazo, jarillones (a form of dam) have been built, flooding areas where water should not naturally reach, affecting the lives of thousands of inhabitants.

In addition, several rivers and towns in the region, especially on the banks of the Cauca, have high levels of mercury contamination from illegal mining or agrochemicals used in the large-scale farming of crops like rice, which is prevalent in much of La Mojana.

On top of this, says Ayazo, there is climate change, which makes phenomena like La Niña or El Niño increasingly stronger and unpredictable. This “has reduced the area’s ability to absorb water during floods and maintain water availability during droughts,” the Institute pointed out two years ago in the book Territorios anfibios en transición (Amphibious territories in transition).

This is why, for at least a decade, the Adaptation Fund, Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have been running the Mojana: Climate and Life program. The program focuses on ecosystem rehabilitation processes, establishing early warning systems, and promoting farming methods adapted to climate change, alongside other strategies. Beyond reducing the region’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, they are hoping to “contribute to raising awareness of the importance of preserving wetland ecosystems, the benefits they bring, and restoring amphibian lifestyles.”

In the village of El Perú (Ayapel), as well as in the hundreds of villages and hamlets found in La Mojana, these boats or “Johnsons”, as they are known in the region, are the primary means of transportation.
In the village of El Perú (Ayapel), as well as in the hundreds of villages and hamlets found in La Mojana, these boats or “Johnsons”, as they are known in the region, are the primary means of transportation. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

A forest of food stretching through La Mojana

In the rural areas of several Mojana municipalities, farm names are preceded by the acronym ABIF. The farm belonging to Glenis del Carmen Gonzalo — who has lived in the village of Pueblo Nuevo, Guaranda (Sucre) for 25 years — is called “ABIF Mis 4 amores” (my four loves) in honor of her three grandchildren and stepdaughter. The acronym appears again in the name of the farm belonging to her neighbor Luz Karime Santos, and in almost all others in this village that belongs to the municipality known as the golden gateway to Sucre’s La Mojana.

The concept of Agroecosistemas Biodiversos Familiares (ABIF) arrived in La Mojana’s villages a few years ago as part of an initiative driven by the Association of Fishermen, Farmers, Indigenous and Afro-descendant Community Development of the Bajo Sinu Cienaga Grande (known by its Spanish-language acronym, ASPROCIG), the Humboldt Institute, the Adaptation Fund, and the UNDP. The UNDP estimates that there are just over 4,100 agroecosystems throughout the region and that, on average, each one covers an area of 2,500 square meters (about 27,000 square feet).

This was done, explains Ayazo, as part of a series of strategies aimed at improving the inhabitants’ adaptation to climate change and the restoration of wetlands.

The ABIFs, or Mojanero farming plots, as they are also known, are part of an effort to recover the region’s ways of life that help overcome the families’ food insecurity, to restore the ecological functions of the farms, and to recover the cultural value these spaces had in the past.

At her ABIF, Santos, a 43-year-old woman, has planted ‘mano de tigre‘ tomatoes, chili pepper and cucumber plants, several papaya trees, and some soursop and lemon trees. The number of timber trees she has, as well as medicinal, ornamental, fruit and vegetable plants, is so large that even Santos finds it difficult to remember and recognize them all. In Ayazo’s words, “it’s like bringing the forest to the house.”

The entrance to Glenis del Carmen Gonzalo’s “ABIF Mis 4 amores” in the village of Pueblo Nuevo
The entrance to Glenis del Carmen Gonzalo’s “ABIF Mis 4 amores” in the village of Pueblo Nuevo, Guranda (Sucre). Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Terrace cultivation is vital to protecting these crops, which are only grown from native seeds adapted to droughts and floods. The plot belonging to Candelaria Torrente, President of the Vereda Ventanillas (Majagual) Community Action Board, is five meters (16 feet) long, one meter (3 feet) wide, and 80 centimeters (31 inches) tall. There, says the 61-year-old woman, she plants the most important varieties such as bananas, corn, eggplant, spinach, and chili peppers. Her aim is clear — to protect the crops when the waters flood the region and reach the lower lands. That way, says Torrente, neither she nor her family will be left without food and will be able to preserve the seeds to be used for new plantings.

But terracing is not the only way that the precious seeds of La Mojana’s ecosystems are protected. Through the consolidation of the ABIFs, the Mojaneros have also begun to store grains of all shapes and sizes as though they were as valuable as money.

Catherine Toro, a young woman living in the village of Perú de Ayapel, reaches for a totumo fruit containing some seeds from a shelf in her kitchen. From under her mattress, she pulls out another paper bag with more grains. As she arranges the seeds on her dining table, she says that rodents have forced her to get rid of hundreds of bags that she kept in her house and that served as a community seed bank.

Although the dream of a village seed bank will have to wait a few months, or even years, while they find the most suitable land for storage, Toro speaks with pride of the Asociación Agroambiental Perú Contigo, the organization she presides over. It was created in August 2021 following the collapse of the dam containing water from the Cauca River, in the area known as Cara de Gato.

The Cauca’s waters, which flooded hundreds of thousands of hectares of La Mojana and went on to impact more than 37,000 families, according to figures from the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD), quickly reached Boca de Pinto, one of the closest villages to Perú.

Before, the entire Ciénaga de Ayapel was full of mangroves, says Ana María Rivera.
Before, the entire Ciénaga de Ayapel was full of mangroves, says Ana María Rivera. “Today, what do you see? Sky and water, because there’s no beautiful mangrove creek left,” she says. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Because of how well established the ABIFs are in the community, says Toro, Perú’s villagers agreed to donate part of their crops, as well as seedlings of different varieties, so that their neighbors could recover their crops as soon as possible. In just three days, recalls César Rivera, who is from Perú and is Toro’s romantic partner, “we filled a 14-meter [46-foot] canoe with plantain, yucca, yams, oranges, passion fruit, and chili and eggplant seedlings. There were six of us and the canoe couldn’t fit any more.”

Since then, the community of Perú has undertaken more trips to other nearby villages, not only to offer their crops, but also to deliver another crucial message for the region: the need to restore the Ayapel Swamp and, in general, La Mojana.

“Our goal is to give back to nature what it has already lost, in the hope that the rivers and streams will return to their normal course,” Rivera says of the work they are carrying out, speaking from a community nursery in the backyard of the house where he lives with Toro.

Although there is no data on the impact that climate change has had on the region, there are several studies that have addressed landscape change in La Mojana. According to the Humboldt Institute report, of the 2,609,634 hectares (over 6.4 million acres) that make up the Momposina depression, where all 11 of the Mojana municipalities are located, 51% of the land is used for agricultural activities, 30% corresponds to wetlands and bodies of water, and another 17% is natural areas.

For the Institute, “the high level of intervention in the area is evident, which has resulted in its overuse, making it necessary to propose rehabilitation strategies and more appropriate management of the Momposina depression”. As part of the program, agencies identified 361,000 hectares (890,000 acres) as high or very high priorities for rehabilitation due to their state of intervention. Thousands of these are located across La Mojana.

According to the Instituto Humboldt, one of the priorities for La Mojana’s restoration should be improving the ecosystem benefits that the communities value most but that are also the most degraded. This includes protection from floods and extreme droughts, as well as the supply of food and raw materials.

In the Ayapel swamp, there are fewer and fewer small patches of mangrove, such as the one seen in the photo.
In the Ayapel swamp, there are fewer and fewer small patches of mangrove, such as the one seen in the photo. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

In the Perú community nursery, Toro estimates that they have some 3,600 mangrove plants, one of the most important plants in the region and which, say the inhabitants of La Mojana, has become extinct. Although they have iguá, raintree, and cedar trees, among others, she says that they focus on the mangrove “because water is life, it is what gives us everything we need every day. Everything depends on water and that is the first thing we have to start working on.”

Her husband César Rivera explains it another way. “La Mojana is naked,” he says, referring to its degradation. “It doesn’t have the clothes, which are the plants,” he adds. However, he is sure that “in two or three years, we will feel the summer’s heat less. Why? Because by then the swamp will have cover, in the form of those natural plants that we are going to grow.”

In total, according to figures provided by the Mojana: Climate and Life program, there are ten nurseries in the region where hundreds of thousands of plants of more than 100 different varieties are growing. Since 2019, when these spaces began, they have helped reforest more than 12,000 hectares in Mojana’s municipalities.

The Ayapel swamp from Cecilia
The Ayapel swamp from Cecilia, at the northern end of the body of water. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Past and present weather forecasting

For Candelaria Torrente, President of the Community Action Board in Ventanillas, Majagual, the raucous call of the carrao, a bird with brown and gray feathers, heralds winter.

“It’s going to rain hard and even the streams will suddenly overflow,” she says. From her ancestors, she also learned that the song of the small bujio or the pigua, a brown and white feathered hawk, “announces the arrival of summer.”

If the medicinal plant Chrozophora tinctoria (sometimes known as the giradol or dyer’s croton in English) grows modestly, Torrente says, “my husband believes that the summer will be long, because it won’t flower until it feels that abundant water is coming.” Similarly, local communities look to the Peruvian ragweed (Ambrosia Perúviana), another medicinal plant that grows between 50 and 100 centimeters (19 to 39 inches), which also does not grow unless rain is on the way.

Meanwhile, 72 year-old César Julio Barrios, who is a neighbor of Candelaria Torrente, says that the leaves of the guarumo, sometimes known as the trumpet-tree in English and which can grow up to 30 meters (about 98 feet), announce the coming of a storm. If the leaves of the tree turn downwards after midday, “get ready, because there is going to be a storm”. He forewarned his daughter of this at the beginning of June 2023, when he identified the omen he learned from his ancestors, which he has believed in for more than six decades.

However, Barrios recognizes that these once precise indicators, which used to help his family accurately plan crop dates throughout much of his life, have gradually become obsolete “because the environment has changed so much,” he says, referring to climate change.

“Before, we would chop, work and burn the mountains on March 19, Easter Monday, ready for sowing. And that was accurate because of the hints we had from the weather. Now we can’t think about what we are going to sow in April or March, because suddenly we get rains or a hot spell, so it prevents us from working,” Barrios says.

Candelaria Torrente, President of the Community Action Board for Ventanillas
Candelaria Torrente, President of the Community Action Board for Ventanillas, in Majagual (Sucre), acknowledges that, although she continues to pay attention to natural weather indicators, she is increasingly paying attention to the weather forecast bulletins sent to her daily via WhatsApp. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.
The Regional Forecasting and Early Warning Center for La Mojana, located in San Marcos (Sucre), sends daily bulletins on weather conditions that could occur in La Mojana’s 11 municipalities.
The Regional Forecasting and Early Warning Center for La Mojana, located in San Marcos (Sucre), sends daily bulletins on weather conditions that could occur in La Mojana’s 11 municipalities. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Although Barrios and Torrente, as well as the elders in Ventanillas, know that their natural indicators are becoming less and less accurate, they are reluctant to abandon them altogether. “There are some you still take notice of,” they tell Mongabay. Meanwhile, a new kind of information has begun to creep into the daily lives of the Mojanero farmers.

A weather forecast bulletin is now circulated daily via WhatsApp, radio stations, calls and even text messages by the Regional Center for Forecasts and Early Warnings in La Mojana, the regional arm of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). The audio bulletin, says Aarón Omaña, who works at the center from San Marcos (Sucre), covers weather conditions that could occur throughout the day in the region’s 11 municipalities.

This information, explains Omaña, who works with the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of La Mojana and San Jorge (CorpoMojana), “allows La Mojana’s inhabitants to make decisions on whether to go fishing or not depending on river levels, as well as whether they should plant a certain crop, or wait.”

The center was created in 2016, and part of the information used for monitoring comes from 32 community weather stations. Here, they have installed rain gauges to measure rainfall, as well as thermometers and flow meters in the area’s most important tributaries.

The big challenge, says Omaña, has been for both sides to learn to understand each other’s vocabulary. “We talk a lot about the ‘climate’, but they (the communities) call it ‘weather’. It sounds like a small thing, but this understanding is a great achievement that shows that they now understand the meaning of the message.”

La Mojana’s canals
La Mojana’s canals, streams and marshes are the “roads” that connect the region’s villages. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

Although there are farmers who remain reticent about using new technologies, especially the older ones like César Julio Barrios, many Mojaneros, including Candelaria Torrente, say that they wait every day, between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., for the Center’s bulletin to plan their crop or river activities.

Thanks to these alerts, families in Ventanillas were able to plan to collect water between the end of November and mid-December 2023, when the last rains of the year were expected before the El Niño phenomenon coincided with the first three months of the year, which are historically the driest in the region. With the 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of water stored in each of the tanks, which were donated by the program, Torrente and her community hope this will be enough to see them through until the rains should return.


 

Banner image: Catherine Toro, President of the Asociación Agroambiental Perú Contigo, holds some of the seedlings growing in the nursery that, together with her community, they have created in the village of Perú, Ayapel, Córdoba. Image by Begi Rojas Duarte.

This report is a journalistic alliance between Mongabay Latam and El Espectador.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 13, 2024.

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