CORALINA takes legal action to block proposed oil exploration in the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve and Marine Protected Area, Colombia

The regional Colombian government agency, CORALINA, that established and manages the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve and Marine Protected Area (MPA), has submitted an “Accion Popular” against Colombia’s National Agency of Hydrocarbons (ANH) to halt leases to Reposol-YPF and Ecopetrol to begin oil exploration inside the borders of the Seaflower MPA.

An “Accion Popular” is a legal instrument granted to citizens by Colombia’s National Constitution (Art. 88) that allows them to seek protection of collective rights and interests related to their homelands, environment, public safety, health, etc. The legal action was presented to the High Tribunal by CORALINA’s general director, Elizabeth Taylor-Jay on Wednesday, February 16.

Seaflower – located in the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence, and Santa Catalina in the Southwestern Caribbean – has been a member of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 2000 and is on the tentative list of proposed World Heritage Sites.

The largest MPA in the Caribbean and among the largest in the world, it spreads over 65,000 square kilometers (6.5 million hectares) and encompasses 76 percent of Colombia’s coral reefs and the most extensive open ocean reef systems in the Caribbean; more than 2,000 km2 of productive coral reef ecosystems with atolls, barrier reefs, fringing reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, and lagoons.

The MPA is known to be exceptionally rich in marine biodiversity for the region — to date more than 407 species of fish, 48 hard corals, 54 soft corals, 130 sponges, 157 birds, and many other significant species have been identified, along with 192 IUCN red-listed species including sea turtles, marine mammals, hydrocorals, and others. The archipelago was declared a Significant Bird Area by BirdLife International in 2004 and is part of the western Caribbean biodiversity “hotspot.”

Besides its unique environment, San Andres also has a long social history distinct from that of Colombia. The descendants of the original inhabitants, now called raizales, are recognized as an indigenous people internationally and protected as an ethnic minority nationally. The Seaflower MPA was established in 2005, with support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and resulted from a uniquely participatory process between CORALINA and the local community. This innovative MPA protects the livelihoods and tenure of the indigenous people, integrating conservation with sustainable fishing, harvesting, and locally run tourism.

CORALINA’s work in establishing Seaflower was recognized in 2008 by IUCN as one of the 60 most significant approaches to conservation that will influence the environment in the coming century. Last October the Seaflower MPA took top honors as the initiative that best realized the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan, beating out more than 1,100 other organizations around the world, both governmental and non-governmental, for its ground-breaking efforts in sustainability.

In addition to conserving marine biodiversity and ecosystems, “the intention is to open an umbrella of possibilities of livelihoods, including low-impact aquaculture, and some alternatives on land such as iguana farming which is done by the fishers in some places, and also creating interpretation trails [for tourism],” Taylor-Jay, told the BBC at COP 10 after the award was announced.

The Popular Action claims that the oil leases violate the Convention on Biological Diversity, which the Colombian Congress ratified in the National Law 165 of 1994, as well as the rights of the indigenous people of the archipelago, whose rights are protected by the National Constitution (Art. 310) and by international instruments including ILO Convention 169 that protects tribal and indigenous people, ratified by Colombia in National Law 21 of 1991, and the recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved by Colombia in April 2009. The participatory process to establish the Seaflower MPA was presented by invitation last year at the UN Ninth Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York City.

Most residents of the islands are strongly opposed to the oil exploration, along with local and national non-governmental organizations that have publicly rejected the leases.

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