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New marine protected area Isla Ají safeguards important coastal ecosystems

The Afro-Colombian led, newly declared protected area shelters humpback whales, critically endangered largetooth sawfish, migratory shorebirds, and several species of sea turtles

For immediate release, January 21, 2022

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Ratifying its global commitments, the Government of Colombia has recently declared Isla Ají a new marine protected area (MPA). Spanning 24,600 ha (95 square miles), this important and beautiful nature reserve will serve to protect threatened wildlife and safeguard the wellbeing of local coastal communities who depend on the area for food and their livelihoods. 

Situated on the central Pacific coast of Colombia in the Delta of the Naya River, the new Regional District of Integrated Management Isla Ají, includes tropical wet forests and extensive and fully functional tidal wetland ecosystems, including beaches, mudflats, and mangrove forests; an important blue carbon ecosystem. The Isla Ají MPA provides habitat for critically endangered largetooth sawfish, humpback whales, sea turtles including the green sea turtle and the olive ridley sea turtle, at least 17 migratory shorebird species, and many other threatened species.

The area also protects habitats and populations of species with economic and cultural value for local communities. Isla Ají hosts nursery grounds for commercially important fish species like the Pacific sierra and the armed snook, Pacific blue crabs, and ecosystems like ark clam banks. These species contribute significantly to the food security, economic sustainability, and cultural heritage of Afro-Colombian communities, the main ethnic group of Colombia’s Pacific coast.

"The new MPA Isla Ají is an opportunity to promote and strengthen conservation and sustainable use of the ecosystem’s richness, as well as fauna and flora predominant in this area of the Pacific coast,” said Katy Garcés, coordinator of the MPA Isla Ají project from the Afro-community council of Naya River, which led the designation process. "This new MPA is a resounding YES from local communities to conservation proposals that are friendly and compatible with our social, economic, and cultural activities."

Because local traditional communities depend so heavily on the area’s marine and terrestrial resources, the Community Council and its partners designated the Isla Aji protected area for sustainable use of the MPA’s natural resources. The designation process was led by the local community, and included a participatory delimitation and zoning exercise, creation of a governance structure, and design of strategies to address threats facing the area, such as over-exploitation of mangrove forests, mismanagement of solid waste, proliferation of coconut palm plantations, and unsustainable coastal development.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Colombia team is grateful for the leadership of the Naya River community in this project. “This has been a wonderful and enriching process, supporting local communities in their genuine desire to achieve sustainability and good governance of their territories,” said Catalina Gutiérrez, WCS Colombia country director. “From our perspective, this has been a true exchange of knowledge and experiences for all stakeholders.”

The protected area is the culmination of several years of work between the Afro-Colombian community council of the Naya River, the Regional Environmental Authority of the Valle del Cauca department (CVC) and WCS, and contributes to Colombia´s commitment of protecting and conserving 30 percent of its surface by 2030 or before.

“The establishment of Isla Aji demonstrates the Naya River community’s perseverance and commitment to the protection of their unique biodiversity and landscapes, while ensuring the conservation of their traditional livelihoods and culture,” said Lina Valencia, Re:wild’s Andean countries coordinator. “Isla Aji, and the other protected areas in the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena hotspot, will also protect one of the world’s critical carbon sinks, which benefits the health of the planet as a whole.”

Re:wild has partnered with WCS on its MPA Fund and will work with WCS to help expand the creation of new protected areas led by local communities in Colombia.

This work was made possible by the generous support of the WCS MPA Fund, Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, and the Santo Domingo Foundation. In addition, the Bezos Earth Fund will support WCS in its efforts to advance the 30x30 agenda in Colombia.

WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City.

For more than 70 years WCS has been underwater protecting coral reefs. Today there is a global crisis for coral reefs facing pressures from climate change, pollution, unsustainable tourism, and destructive fishing. From Kenya to Belize, Mozambique to Cuba, WCS is conserving reef biodiversity hotspots and supporting communities who depend on reefs to survive. We currently work across 16 countries to protect coral reefs and ensure that they can continue to provide for the people and species that rely on them.

Visit: newsroom.wcs.org Follow: @WCSNewsroom.

In Colombia, WCS has been working for more than 25 years in close collaboration with local communities, governmental institutions, civil society organizations and the private sector to reduce the gap between conservation and development, under the same principles that guide our global strategy: discovery, protect and inspire. 

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