Mr. Abril-Howard explains that diving, if sustainably managed, can also have an impact on the ecosystem. It can also help to raise awareness about restoration efforts and at the same time give back to the reef.The corals within the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve have been declining since the 70s, fueled by the rise in the temperature and acidification of the water, caused by excessive carbon emissions and consequent climate change.
Both Ms. Maya and Ms. Gnecco can attest to this.
A community protecting the ocean
All these are destroying infrastructure and reducing the island’s beautiful beach cover. In some areas, locals say that before they could play a football game in places where only a meter of beach is now seen.
Meanwhile, the rest of us put on scuba gear and walked toward the shore in the (still) pouring rain.
Known as ‘the island in the Sea of the Seven Colors’, San Andres is the biggest island in the Seaflower, containing part of one of the richest coral reefs in the world
The ecosystems Blue Indigo works to restore are essential to protect the community during extreme weather events.
In fact, women represent just 38 per cent of all ocean scientists and further, there is very little data or in-depth research on the issue of women’s representation in the field
“I have learned how to fragment corals, to put them in the ropes. We also go out to make the transplants. And those little pieces are now becoming so big and beautiful, when I see them, I feel so proud of it. I feel like a superhero”.
“We need a change in the way we do our tourism. Restoring our reefs is important, but we also need to make visitors aware that it is there, and that it is not a rock, It is a living being and that they shouldn’t step on it. These are small things that can benefit the future coral cover. We also need to show people that there is more to this island than coming to party and get drunk, so they can learn something,” he says.
Mr. Leche says that he hopes that world leaders can put their ‘hands on their hearts and in their pockets’ to finance more restoration efforts such as the one undertaken by the Foundation, which he now helps.
That’s Mariana Gnecco’s message to us all.
By definition, UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are de facto centres for learning about sustainable development. They also provided an opportunity to examine up-close the changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including the management of biodiversity.
It is no coincidence that this Colombian island is a world-class scuba diving destination with crystal clear waters, and a tourist hub visited by over a million people each year.
Saving the coral reefs
“We have been able to harmonize the work between women and men partners, recognizing, valuing and empowering the feminine forces, as well as what men have to offer,” Ms. Maya stresses.
“The local community – the Raizal people, that have been living here for generations – have learned how to relate to these ecosystems in a healthy and sustainable way. This is our way of living for both Raizal and other residents. We depend completely on this ecosystem and on its biodiversity, that’s why it’s important and special”, the biologist adds.
“The women that are involved in this are paving the path for all the women that are coming behind. Indeed, the future is problematic, and we are swimming against the current, but I think anything that we can do is better than doing nothing.”
San Andres itself is a coral island, meaning it was geologically built by organic material derived from skeletons of corals and numerous other animals and plants associated with these colonial organisms. These types of islands are low land, being mostly only a few metres above sea level, surrounded by coconut palms and white coral sand beaches.
She says she decided to create the foundation because she believes that the local community must lead the protection of its own resources.
They speak San Andrés-Providencia Creole, one of many English Creoles used in the Caribbean. 20 years ago, the Raizal represented over half of the island’s population. Today, the general population is nearly 80,000, but the Raizal make up about 40 per cent, due to a high migration influx from the mainland.
Blue Indigo Foundation works closely with diving schools on the island, and they contribute to their restoration efforts. The NGO also teaches specialized courses in restoration for international divers several times a year.
“Our opinions, our expertise, and our knowledge have been overlooked for so many years that being able to lead a project like this now means a lot. It symbolizes a [a great deal] in terms of equality and inclusion. Although we still have a long way to go because women in science are still undermined a lot of the time, I think we are on the right path to tackle that problem for good,” echoes Ms. Gnecco.
“Those are the global threats, but we also have some local threats that are harming the reef, for example, overfishing, bad tourism practices, boat collisions, pollution, and sewage disposal,” underscores Ms. Gnecco.
“What we need is a functional ecosystem. We are trying to at least give it a helping hand so it can adapt to climate change. The ecosystem is going to change, that’s going to happen, but if we help it will happen at least in a way that is not going to die completely”, she says.
Ms. Maya works alongside scientific coordinator Mariana Gnecco, who is her partner in the foundation.
“Tourism keeps growing and most economic activities revolve around it. So, we need more fish because there are more tourists, so now we catch fish of any size affecting the ecosystem”, he says, emphasizing that better tourism management could generate better economic opportunities for locals while letting the reef flourish at the same time.
Raizal people’s efforts and sustainable tourism
Ms. Gnecco has been freediving since she was just 10 years old, and, like Ms. Maya, got her scuba certification before the age of 14 and later graduated from university as a biologist. She is now also pursuing her PhD.
That morning, we thought it might be impossible to report this story because the rain had turned the island’s streets into rivers, and some of the areas we needed to reach had been turned into mud pits.
I am an islander. I formed a relationship with the ocean before I was even born.
“People come over to see our project and learn and they get engaged easier because then they ask us for the coral. ‘Oh, how’s my coral doing? The one we planted on the reef, how’s it doing?’,” Mariana Gnecco explains, adding that when people see the organisms thriving, it helps to raise general awareness.
“Before I could see beautiful giant corals around here and it was so easy to find lobster and big fish, now we have to go further and further to find them”, he adds.“Men are the ones usually leading marine science and when there are women in charge they are always doubted. Somehow, it’s good to have them as assistants, or in the laboratory, but when women lead the projects, I have always felt there is some kind of pushback. When a woman speaks with passion ‘she is getting hysterical’; when a woman makes unconventional decisions, ‘she is crazy’, but when a man does it, it is because ‘he’s a leader’”, denounces Ms. Maya.