A recovery opportunity for Providencia Island in Colombia

In the seventh of a series of articles by our Youth Newsroom reporters, María Fernanda Fuentes Diaz from Colombia visits an island of hope.

Nature-based solutions, a recovery opportunity for Providencia Island in Colombia

Providencia Island, El Heraldo
Providencia Island, El Heraldo

Providencia Island, also known as Old Providence, is an island located in the Caribbean Sea. It has 17 km² of area and belongs to the Colombian department of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. This island has about 5000 inhabitants (with Afro, Anglo and Colombian roots), and is considered an international tourist reference in Colombia. It is characterized by its great biodiversity and its beauty from different ecosystems such as mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrass meadows and tropical dry forest.

Providencia Island after hurricane Iota, BBC
Providencia Island after hurricane Iota, BBC

Tourism

San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina is one of the smallest departments in Colombia, but one of the most densely populated. Its inhabitants depend mainly on tourism, that is why the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously affected the economy and the well-being of its inhabitants. That is why 2020 was not a good year for the inhabitants of Providencia. However, everything got worse when on November 16, the island was almost entirely devastated by the powerful hurricane Iota. After Iota the outlook was devastating: roofs torn off, poles and fallen trees in the streets full of debris,  and even some boats were blown up to the houses due to the strong winds.

Before and after Cayo Cangrejo, Providencia. Archipielago Press
Before and after Cayo Cangrejo, Providencia. Archipielago Press

Biodiversity

In addition to the impacts on the entire infrastructure of the island, the strong winds harmed marine and terrestrial ecosystems and the island’s biodiversity. Generating a massive loss of vegetation, changes in the dynamics of the mangroves and a possible salinization of the soils, according to the Alexander von Humboldt Research Institute.

But, all is not lost after all! In this context and thinking of preparing the island for future hurricanes, national environmental authorities alongside the community and a group of experts have begun to work on nature-based solutions for Providencia: the goal is to turn the island into a model of sustainable management of nature.

So far, three action fronts have been defined: the construction of  Biodiverse courtyards, the assurance of a suitable habitat for the black crab (an emblematic species), and the restoration of the tropical dry forest.

Providencia Island after Iota, BBC
Providencia Island after Iota, BBC

Strategy

The Biodiverse courtyards concept in Providencia corresponds to an ancestral agroforestry tradition but also to a community strategy. There are no individual courtyards, which has allowed them over the years to have medicinal plants and plants for self-consumption for entire families and even for their neighbors.

This is why one of the first strategies to recover the island's biodiversity will be to rebuild and create more of these spaces, involving native species that have been traditionally used, mainly by women.

The second strategy is to protect the black crab and its habitat. This crab is an emblematic species of Providencia. Since it is part of the diet of the islanders, about 200 families subsist from its commercialization, according to the Ministry of Environment of Colombia. Exact data about the state of the crab population after Iota are not yet known. However, considering its importance, one of the priorities is to restore its habitat and ensure its conservation.

Black crab. Ministerio de Ambiente Colombia
Black crab. Ministerio de Ambiente Colombia

Black crab

The last solution proposed is the restoration of the tropical dry forest. It is estimated that the island lost 90% of its forest, which is equivalent to 2000 hectares. That is why the authorities mentioned they will aim their efforts at rehabilitating the areas where these forests were.

Additionally, so far the authorities are contemplating integrating fast-growing plants to avoid soil erosion, as well as to find a way to manage wood residues from trees fallen by the hurricane, in such a way that they can be used to give cover and humidity to the ground.                                                            

Tropical dry forest after Iota, Ministerio de Ambiente Colombia
Tropical dry forest after Iota, Ministerio de Ambiente Colombia

Nature-based

These short and medium term nature-based solutions proposed by different national authorities and the community, represent a way to respond to some challenges that islanders currently face: climate change, disaster risk and food security. But it is necessary to continue finding solutions that allow the social, environmental and economic recovery of the island, taking into account account the context of the pandemic and the hurricane. Among them, strategic ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves must be included, because in addition to providing food, they are key in the protection of coastal areas. Without them the disaster caused could have been worse.

Providencia, its inhabitants, ecosystems and species, can find in nature-based solutions an opportunity to recover from this series of unfortunate events. But besides that, they can become a global example of how they used a crisis to become a sustainably managed island.

Challenges

These nature-based solutions in the short and medium term by the different national authorities and the community, are a way to respond to some challenges that islanders currently face such as climate change, disaster risk and food security taking into account account the context of the pandemic and the hurricane. But It is necessary to continue finding solutions that allow the social, environmental and economic recovery of the island. Among them, strategic ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves must be involved, since, in addition to providing food, they are key in the protection of coastal areas, without them the disaster caused could have been worse.

Providencia, its inhabitants, ecosystems and species, can find in nature-based solutions an opportunity to recover from this series of unfortunate events, but in addition to that, they can become an example to the world of a sustainably managed island… And all from a crisis.

María Fernanda Fuentes Diaz (Colombia)

References

  • Instituto Humboldt. Las estrategias del Humboldt para recuperar Providencia desde la biodiversidad. Bogotá: Oficina de Comunicaciones, 2020.
  • Ministerio de Ambiente Colombia. El Gobierno anunció nuevas iniciativas para la restauración ecológica de Providencia y Santa Catalina. Bogotá: MADS, 2021.