In November, on the banks of the calm, reflective waters of the Cascaloa Ciénaga, a floodplain lake extending 12,000 hectares (120 sq km) in northern Colombia, a group of traditional fishers met.
Nilton Chacon, the leader of a local group of artisanal fishermen, spoke. “We are the natural protectors of this beautiful ciénaga but we have been abandoned and threatened, our land and access to our traditional fishing grounds stolen and the connectivity to the river broken,” he said.
Cascaloa Ciénaga is a microcosm of the socio-ecological threats facing the vast 3,400 sq km interconnected Mompos Depression Wetlands, in which Cascaloa resides.
The road, illegally constructed dikes and large quantities of sediment from deforestation have cut the Magdalena River’s connectivity through five natural channels. The forests around the ciénaga have been slashed and colonised by cow pastures, which is a trick used by large landholders, or “latifundios,” to privatise public land.
The Cascaloa Ciénaga itself, traditionally a vastly productive fishery, has become nearly devoid of migratory fish species. The fishers have faced decades worth of threats from paramilitaries employed by the latifundios. They have also been forced to flee their homes, neglected their rights and were not given respect for their traditional knowledge and practices.
Fishers are not alone in confronting threats to their territories and livelihoods, as Colombia – during and after a decades-long civil war – has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a social and environmental defender. However, their situation is unique. A recent movement to unify and recognize artisanal fishing around Colombia aims help them move on.
From a multigenerational family of fishers, Omar Guarín lives in the community of Santa Fe, nestled between the Magdalena River and Cascaloa Ciénaga. Guarín has worked his way from local to regional to national leadership, organising and unifying artisanal fishers along the way.
“I’ve had countless threats and attempts on my life, as have many social and environmental leaders from this region,” Guarín told Climate Home News.
“It’s an unfortunate reality of life here, with pervasive corruption of local and regional authorities, and so much power held by the latifundios. For decades the Mompos Depression region has been an ultra-conservative stronghold with a heavy presence of paramilitaries, who on behalf of the latifundios threaten and intimidate the fishers for coming close to the land that they have incorrectly claimed as their own, as these were always traditional fishing areas,” he said.
Guarín’s half-brother Jairo de la Halle, a fisher who previously fought to protect farmland that was part of an agroecological system in the region, was violently threatened in the early 1980s by paramilitaries that were contracted by powerful land-grabbers, and fled to Venezuela between 1982 and 1984.
“Several companions were killed, and my wife lost her life at this time,” he recounted, while fighting back tears. “We continue to live in fear of the large landholders that stole our land and threaten us and started the downward spiral for this previously peaceful and productive region,” de la Halle told Climate Home. “But life goes on, and we must continue to try to recover our land, water and harmonious way of life that revolved around and was connected by the ‘atarraya’ (traditional hand-woven fishing net). If not, what else is there?”
These assassinations, threats, and violent threats are not something that is going to change. Global Witness gave Colombia the unfortunate designation of being the most dangerous country to be an environmental defender or land defender in 2019 and 2020. Global Witness records 65 assassinations in 2020 of environmental defenders, but it is possible that the total is much higher. According to INDEPAZ, 124 defenders were killed in 2021, as of September according to Colombian nonprofit..
“A more than half-century long violent civil war, a failed peace process that has left power vacuums and numerous factions vying for control over land and illicit trafficking routes, marginalised rights of local and indigenous communities, and blurred lines between ‘legal’ landholders, multinational corporations and mercenary paramilitary groups, has contributed to this complex stew of ongoing violence in Colombia,” Colombian geographer Juan Gonzalez told Climate Home.
Pragmatic community leaders do not overlook the interconnected issues that violence, ecological degradation, and socio-economic hardships. Keila Hoyos is a charismatic 31-year-old from Panseguita, a fishing village between the Magdalena River and Panseguita Ciénaga, in the Mompos Depression Wetlands. Hoyos is from a family of fishermen and has seen her family members be threatened by landholders. She left behind nothing but hopes for the best.
“We cannot just be guided by economics. We need to ask ourselves, ‘why are there no longer birds and reptiles and even manatees in our ciénaga? This is a dying ecosystem, and fishers traditionally lived in harmony with this ecosystem, fishing and small-scale farming based on the seasons, and respecting the reproductive cycles of the different fish species,” she told Climate Home.
“Those only trying to find a way to make enough money to support their families through fishing, such as with aquacultures, ignore the fundamental problems that exist, and they must realise that it will not be a long term solution for their children and grandchildren.”
Guarín is now the president of the National Confederation of Artisanal Fishers of Colombia, Comenalpac, which represents around 120,000 fishers around the country. “Unified, we are a very strong socio-political voice with the power and knowledge to make change and restore these wetlands and their fisheries, and we must be listened to,” said Guarín.
Fishers were finally officially recognised as a unique demographic in 2019 by the “Defensoria del Pueblo” (Ombudsman), and have had a seat at the table during a national strike movement that’s rocked Colombia this year. “This formal recognition was thanks to the work of Omar Guarín and Comenalpac,” a member of the Ombudsman office, who asked to remain anonymous, told Climate Home.
Juan Carlos Gutierrez, an anthropologist, is the subdirector of Colombia’s nonprofit ALMA Foundation, has consulted for the Ombudsman office since 2019, and has been instrumental in the fight to recognise the communal and cultural rights of artisanal fishers in Colombia.
“The problem is that artisanal fishers in Colombia do not have full access and guarantees to essential rights, for example to the management and use of aquatic zones where they live and work, which I refer to as ‘aquatorries,’” said Gutierrez.
“These aquatorries, such as lakes and ciénagas, rivers, oceans, as well as adjacent coastlines, riverbanks and flood forests, are defined in the Colombian constitution as public use. The reality is that these traditionally peaceful fishers end up in the middle of land-use conflicts with no rights, influence or protection for themselves or their aquatorries. In many cases this leads to the loss of their livelihoods as well as threats and displacement.”
The injustice is illustrated by an example from the Upper Magdalena. “Artisanal fishers were completely left out of the social and environmental impact assessments for impacted communities of El Quimbo hydroelectric dam, and this is because historically they had no formal recognition,” said South Colombian university professor and social-environmental rights defender Miller Dussan. “We had to form a popular action in 2019 to at least get compensation for impacted fishing communities, and we are still waiting for a ruling.”
The pervasive interconnected issues facing Cascaloa Ciénaga, which include cumulative impacts from agroindustry, mining, urban waste, climate change and hydroelectric dams like El Quimbo, have put much of the Magdalena river basin in a state of degradation, with a particularly high level of risk to the Mompos Depression Wetlands.
Colombia’s largest wetland ecosystem, and one of the largest in South America, it lies within a 32,000 square km tectonic basin, between the confluence of four major rivers – the San Jorge, Cesar, Cauca and Magdalena – with the latter two forming a “macro-basin” and Colombia’s main bread-basket, where more than 75% of the population lives. The 1,540 km-long Magdalena River, which is South America’s most sediment-rich river, is also deposited in the Mompos Wetlands.
Climate change is expected to bring more extremes of rainfall like the devastating “La Niña” flooding event in 2010-2011.
“Historically the Mompos Depression Wetlands have suffered through periods of both drought [El Niño]Extreme flooding [La Niña] events. Our modelling [based on scenarios by Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental studies] showed that periods of drought will become more intense and extended, and extreme flooding events will also become worse,” said ecologist Juantia Gonzalez, who leads the climate change adaptation team at The Nature Conservancy in Colombia.
Gonzalez explained that the wetlands act as a buffer for downstream communities, and the large industrial town of Barranquilla. Disconnected cienagas and degraded soils could lead to more runoff during extreme weather events, which could potentially cause flooding in millions of downstream communities.
“Restoring the riparian forests around the ciénagas and channels is critical for climate change adaptation and resilience in the Mompos, as it is for reducing wetlands sedimentation and recovering fish habitats,” said Gonzalez. The protection of wetlands is an important strategy to mitigate climate change. Bogs and forests store large amounts carbon. Colombia has committed to restoring and protecting certain wetland ecosystems as part of its 2030 climate plan.
Connectivity, both along the rivers – which is cut for example by dams – and between the rivers and ciénagas – which is cut for example by excessive sedimentation or roads – is essential to the survival and productivity of the wetlands. “You need many things for an ecologically functional floodplain. You need connectivity to the basin, you need large-scale processes functioning at the correct scale, and you need the hydrological variability naturally expressed in these systems, otherwise they will just turn into permanent water bodies or terrestrial systems,” said Hector Angarita, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University, and former lead of the water group at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Latin America.
Experts say it is essential to better understand complex basin-scale hydrodynamics and to seek decentralised clean energy options to hydroelectric dams.
“[SEI-Latin America] aims to incorporate further complex dynamics into our models for the Magdalena River Basin, such as climate change, land use and issues of connectivity, as well as local needs, knowledge and perspectives, including those of fishers and vulnerable fishing communities,” said Tania Santos, Angarita’s successor as lead of the water group.
In September, SEI-Latin America signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Colombian government to collaborate on integrated plans for water management.
Conserving and restoring the ciénagas of the middle and lower Magdalena river basin are important from a biodiversity perspective. “The calm waters of the ciénagas and surrounding flood-forests, and their connection to the rivers, is essential for the reproduction and migration of many fish species,” said Silvia López-Casas, a freshwater ecologist from Antioquia University. There are more than 220 species of native fish in the river basin alone, with over 50% of them being endemic. The wetlands are an important stopover point for migratory birds species.
TNC-Colombia, ALMA Foundation and TNC-Colombia are developing plans to restore and protect 15 cienagas.
In pre-Colombian times the Zenu kingdom learned to live in equilibrium with the flood-plains and ciénagas of the Mompos Depression Wetlands. “The ZenuThe sediments were used to build agricultural terraces and houses. They also created intricate networks of channels to keep the ecosystem’s vital connectivity. Much can be learned by studying their ancient practices,” said Gutierrez. “Artisanal fishers have for centuries since carried on the tradition of living in harmony with the ciénagas and floodplains.”
ALMA and Gutierrez have been working since 2016 to recognize the cultural rights of artisanal fishermen in Colombia. “From our analysis and through identifiable common characteristics and practices, we have shown that artisanal fishing deserves to be declared an official cultural heritage of Colombia,” he said. Plans are being made to preserve traditional fishing practices and aquatorries. They will be presented to the Ministry of Culture for approval in 2022.
“One central component that we are presenting in these plans is the interwoven socio-ecological aspect; that without healthy ecosystems – without connectivity between rivers and cienegas, or without riverine and flood forests – artisanal fishing cannot exist,” Gutierrez said.
“And without artisanal fishers, there is also no way to realistically protect these vital ecosystems.”
Main image by Daniel Henryk Rasolt: An artisanal fisher casts his fishing net into Cascaloa Ciénaga in northern Colombia. This article is part of a climate justice reporting programme supported by the Climate Justice Resilience Fund.
Source: Climate Change News