The Center for Global Development and Sustainability

Seaflower Biosphere Reserve: The Raizal People

GDS Center researcher and Professor Emerita Marion Howard, MA SID’04, has focused her practice and research in Colombia’s San Andres Archipelago in the western Caribbean for decades and worked with the Colombian government as an advisor to the National Environment System from 1996 to 2014. Much of her work has been in collaboration with CORALINA, the Colombian government’s environmental management agency and authority for the San Andres Archipelago.

Professor Howard led and later advised CORALINA’s work to establish the UNESCO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, which includes the inhabited islands and surrounding seas of the San Andres Archipelago, making it one of the largest marine biosphere reserves in the world. In 2012, CORALINA’s executive director, Elizabeth Taylor, was awarded the Michel Batisse Award for Biosphere Reserve Management for their innovative work linking watershed management with coral reef conservation in a project planned and advised by Ms. Howard.

Professor Howard also coordinated development of the Caribbean’s largest marine protected area (MPA), the Seaflower. The Seaflower MPA project emerged from work with local stakeholders, especially artisanal fishers and other traditional users, carried out by a local team led by Professor Howard.

Seaflower MPA, Colombia

The fishers were concerned with the decline of the region’s fisheries, loss of marine biodiversity, destruction of their livelihoods, and difficulty accessing their traditional fishing grounds. The approach designed by Howard and her project team to improve conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine resources was to integrate best available science with indigenous knowledge, train and share knowledge freely with the community to build capacity, and then allow local stakeholders to take the lead in identifying MPA objectives, multiple-use zones, regulations, and management strategies.

Seaflower MPA, Colombia

This approach was met first with skepticism by many in the marine science community, who expressed doubt that local users would opt for conservation over exploitation. However, taking a well planned, empowering community-based approach that gave the local people full ownership over the process resulted in extremely high levels of conservation - 53% of the MPA’s coral reefs, 100% of its mangroves, and 61% of its seagrass beds were closed to extractive uses by community consensus. Entire tropical marine ecosystems were zoned for management levels ranging from strict preservation to controlled commercial fishing. To legitimize the Seaflower MPA’s innovative approach, which balanced science with local knowledge and was rooted in a deep acceptance that the indigenous people of San Andres have the capability, understanding, and caring to save and manage their own territory, a new type of protected area was created for the country - a nationally declared MPA that is part of Colombia’s national system of protected areas but is locally managed.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified this work as one of the most significant approaches to conservation for the 21st Century. See “Shaping the Future: Sixty issues, approaches and initiatives that will shape conservation in the coming years,” Caribbean Dream, p. 29

To further legitimize CORALINA’s creative approach to conservation, the Seaflower MPA was awarded the top prize at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, being globally recognized as the project in the world that best achieved the 2010 biodiversity commitments called for by the Convention on Biological Diversity. Professor Howard was honored to coordinate the planning and implementation of this project, and then to serve for many years as MPA advisor. At the awards ceremony in Nagoya, IUCN’s Deputy-Director General, Bill Jackson, said, "CORALINA's work to meet their biodiversity commitment is outstanding. Their actions will inspire future commitments to protect and invest in biodiversity."  

A number of articles that followed this award stated that this effort proved that conservation and sustainable economic opportunities could go hand-in-hand. Working in collaboration with the local community, CORALINA created a multiple-use MPA that protects nearly 200 endangered species while providing sustainable jobs for local people. Spreading over 65,000 square kilometers, Seaflower MPA is home to over 100 coral species, 400 fish, and some 150 birds. Some zones of the MPA are reserved for artisanal fishing only, allowing local fishers to make a sustainable living. CORALINA is also working on developing other sustainable livelihoods including low-impact aquaculture, organic farming, and community-based tourism. 

This work was further recognized when Marion Howard and Heller alum Rixcie Newball, MA/SID '10, of San Andres, were invited to present these methods at the Ninth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at UN Headquarters in New York. The theme of the Ninth Session was “Indigenous Peoples: Development with Culture and Identity” and gave Professor Howard and Mr. Newball the wonderful opportunity to present their work in an event entitled “Mapping Community-Based Protected Areas: A Model for Sustainable Development and Cultural and Environmental Protection.”

Through 2014, Howard continued working with CORALINA and the InterAmerican Development Bank on a project to conserve marine biodiversity and alleviate poverty in the Southwestern Caribbean. An exciting focus of this work was identifying sustainable and alternative livelihoods with artisanal fishers and farmers, i.e., small-scale fishers and farmers who use traditional methods. Out of 40+ ideas, seven pilot projects were selected by the island communities. These included cultivating iguana, breadfruit, and seaweed, all with value-added products and associated local industries; implementing a community-run mangrove park; and training fishers in underwater photography and other enterprises that build on their knowledge of the sea.    

In the past several years, Professor Howard has also collaborated on research projects related to climate change adaptation for coastal and marine environments, small island development and heritage, and MPA governance and management, with diverse partners including Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment, University College London, University of Prince Edward Island's Institute of Island Studies, Caribbean Regional Activity Center for Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (CAR-SPAW), US National Ocean Service, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, and Forest Trends' Marine Ecosystem Services (MARES) Program.

GDS Project led by Professor Emerita Marion Howard
Colombia’s Raizal Organizations Submits a Report to the United Nations on how Climate Change is Adversely Impacting Human Rights

In an effort to draw attention to the impact of climate change on human rights, in 2022 the Raizal people of the San Andres Archipelago, Colombia, submitted a report to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). The report, which highlights the serious human rights concerns surrounding climate change for indigenous and coastal peoples, was submitted by a grassroots NGO, the Trees and Reefs Foundation, and supported by a number of other Raizal organizations. It was based on research led by GDS researcher and professor emerita Marion Howard and produced in collaboration with the Raizal people and Suffolk Law School’s Clinic for Human Rights and Indigenous People. The report was submitted in response to a UN Human Rights Council resolution asking the Secretary-General to consult Member States and other stakeholders on the adverse impacts of climate change on the human rights of vulnerable people.

As an indigenous people whose homeland is a remote archipelago in the southwest Caribbean, the Raizal already feel negative effects of climate change on their human rights; such as the rights to food, water, culture, housing, life, and self-determination. The most devastating example of climate change were Hurricanes Eta and Iota that swept through the western Caribbean late in 2020. These two powerful hurricanes hit these islands within two weeks of each other. The Raizal are still struggling to rebuild houses, recover traditional livelihoods of fishing and farming, and access sufficient food and clean water.

Even though oceanic and small island communities contribute negligible greenhouse gas emissions, they are among the most vulnerable populations to the impacts of climate change. The report to the OHCHR explains that the Raizal people especially vulnerable to damaging climate impacts because they are a native community living on small islands who rely on their customary marine territory and its natural resources to sustain themselves as a distinct people. The Raizal are already being negatively affected by sea-level rise, stronger and more frequent storms, and changing rainfall patterns. These climate change-related effects are altering ecosystems and affecting natural resources including freshwater, soil, and biodiversity that are essential to the Raizal’s independence, culture, and very survival.

The Raizal people have been relying on the region’s vast marine territory for their traditional livelihoods for over 400 years. With limited freshwater and arable land, dependence on the sea is crucial to their rights to life, food, and culture. Fishing, however, continues to decline due to overfishing and ecosystem degradation from anthropogenic sources of pollution and climate change-related destruction. Additionally, the Raizal’s resource base, space, and even access to their own territory have suffered tremendously from over-extraction and use by the massive numbers of non-Raizal Colombians who have flooded the islands in the last decades. The report pinpoints the many issues and recommends adaption measures, disaster preparedness, and response plans that must be supported by Colombia and implemented in coordination with the Raizal to reduce the anticipated impacts, inequity, and devastation of global climate change.