In the southwest of the Caribbean, there is a small protected area that has been included by UNESCO in the list of the World Heritage of Humanity: the Seaflower biosphere reserve. This magnificent landscape, characterised by an immeasurable wealth of species, is extremely endangered. Like all the world’s seas, it is suffering from climate change and human activities. Therefore, Fondation Franz Weber officially launched its campaign to save the world’s third largest coral reef on 12 October 2020.
According to the UN organisation IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), the Southwest Caribbean is one of the regions with the greatest marine biodiversity in the world. The warm waters and tropical climate have led to a explosion of life and biodiversity on land and in the sea. It is mainly thanks to the warm waters of this area being transported northwards that life exists in Scandinavia today. The global importance of this region is enormous, but this is little known. The severe environmental destruction that the area is currently suffering could have a massive impact on the rest of the world. Therefore, this coral ecosystem must be saved at all costs.
At the same time, this is an opportunity to set an eco-political precedent for multilateral cooperation on biodiversity conservation! Part of the region was declared a biosphere reserve in 2000 and included by UNESCO in the list of the World Heritage of Humanity: The Seaflower protected area. Currently, it is considered part of Colombian territory and is governed by Colombia, which inevitably leads to territorial disputes between the various neighbouring states. Multilateral cooperation involving not only the six countries concerned (Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Panama) but also indigenous peoples and the scientific community is therefore urgently needed to restore, preserve and even expand the reserve. This is the only way to ensure the protection of the entire ecosystem. On 12 October 2020, Fondation Franz Weber officially launched its campaign “Gran Seaflower” that we have been working on for several years.
Eco-geo-politics: uniting what should never have been separated
The ecosystems linked by ocean currents that make up the Caribbean are ecologically interdependent systems in which each haven of biodiversity depends on the others for its continued existence. Caribbean ecosystems function like a giant string of pearls connected by a thread formed by ocean currents. For this reason, a turtle that lays its eggs in the Laguna de Caratasca in Honduras can swim to the island of Uvita in Costa Rica or to the Cayos Miskitos archipelago in Nicaragua and breed there. Just like the other marine species, turtles know no political borders.
And so conservation efforts cannot end at national borders: Intensive cooperation between neighbouring countries is crucial. But so far, such a dialogue has not come about. An area has been politically divided that is ecologically indivisible. The Gran Seaflower campaign aims to overcome these political boundaries, and its campaign logo – a flower whose six petals represent the six neighbouring countries concerned – symbolises this goal perfectly.
Political, scientific and community cooperation
The first objective of the campaign is to facilitate the conclusion of a multilateral agreement between Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Panama, thus enabling the cooperation that is essential for the effective protection of the existing SeaFlower biosphere reserve. At the same time, this conservation effort will be extended to the entire coral ecosystem of the region.
Secondly, Gran Seaflower aims to strengthen the involvement and empowerment of local communities and provide them with a platform: Here they will be able to present both local projects for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and the change of human activities, as well as community and cultural initiatives. This increased visibility, especially on the campaign website, will make it easier for local participants to obtain funding for their projects.
Thirdly, the campaign aims to promote scientific research programmes in the region, especially by identifying solutions for funding from the international community. The resulting scientific database will provide a better understanding of the real needs of this ecosystem.
These local initiatives are crucial for the conservation of the area. Because real progress can only be made if the population feels involved in the measures to protect their environment. The local communities and organisations we have been meeting with for several years are already doing so much on the ground: they just need a little help as a catalyst!
From the protection of species to the protection of habitats
The recommendation of the Gran Seaflower campaign is not to focus solely on the protection of species as such, as this model very quickly reaches its limits. FFW is convinced that the protection of species must inevitably go hand in hand with the conservation of their habitats. How can we succeed in protecting animals and plants if they have no place to live?
With this in mind, we advocate for a paradigm shift in international conventions and institutions and hope that the six countries involved in the protection of the Gran Seaflower will join us in pursuing this goal.
Protection alone is not enough – the destroyed ecosystems must be allowed to recover
As things stand, it is not enough to take measures to reduce the impact of tourism or to develop less environmentally harmful industries: All human activities must have a positive impact on the environment. In fact, the ecosystems in the Caribbean are already so degraded that it is no longer enough to protect them from further damage. They need to be able to recover. For example, we are in contact with PADI, the commercial professional association of diving instructors, which we recommend to include coral reef restoration in its training programmes. In particular, just as one would plant a tree, a coral should be planted on every dive.
Involving indigenous peoples – the only way to ensure effectiveness
Protecting an entire region without involving the people who live there – this neo-colonialist attitude, which is regrettably still common in the field of nature conservation – seems doomed to failure in the long run. FFW is convinced that no one will take better care of an ecosystem than the communities that inhabit it and want to continue living there. Therefore, the Gran Seaflower campaign aims to strengthen indigenous communities in their efforts to protect their environment. Although FFW designed the campaign, we by no means have sole authority over it: We encourage dialogue, but the campaign and its implementation is in the hands of the communities living along the southwest Caribbean coasts. It is in this spirit that the campaign was launched on 12 October, the day the European world reached Caribbean waters under the command of Christopher Columbus, and the horrific history of slavery and the destruction of the natural resources of the Americas began.
The next stages of the campaign
In order for an intergovernmental cooperation agreement to be concluded, the environment ministers of the six countries concerned must meet in the near future. This will enable them to assess the possibilities and modalities of cooperation and then conclude a so-called “preliminary agreement”, which will allow them to start effectively drafting the agreement. FFW will act as a facilitator of the dialogue and can provide technical assistance if necessary. FFW recommends that at least the following elements be included in the agreement:
- An agreement between the six countries concerned to manage and protect the Gran Seaflower region mutually and in close cooperation.
- A declaration addressed to UNESCO, announcing the creation of a cross-border protected area divided into six parts.
- An exhortation to implement the existing Cartagena Agreement (convention for the protection and development of the marine environment in the Caribbean)
- A request to the Association of Caribbean States to adopt a specific and fast-acting policy strategy for the protection of the coral reefs of the Gran Seaflower
- A request to the intergovernmental bodies (UNEP, FAO and their partners) to accompany this process and to exhort the parliaments of the six states concerned to adopt specific legislation to protect the region.
After the conclusion and signing of the agreement by the governments of the six states, the most delicate phase will come: the implementation of the international agreement on the ground. For this, FFW recommends the creation of a Caribbean Environmental Policy Training Centre, which will offer training courses for those public administration officials who have to implement the policy measures agreed in the agreement. The aim of this strategy is to shorten the time span between the political decision and the practical implementation of environmental policy.
In parallel to these “institutional” approaches, we will continue the dialogue with local communities and scientists and facilitate the realisation of their community or research projects, the financing of which will be facilitated by public or private entities from around the world.
The Caribbean is counting on you!
The owner of a small hotel specialising in diving in Bocas del Toro, Panama, once told us that in his opinion the Caribbean is “the most popular sea in the world”. For him, there are only two types of people in the world: those who have already been to the Caribbean, and those who would like to experience the Caribbean one day. After several years of meeting the governments and inhabitants of this region, we can only agree: The rhythms of calypso and reggae, the coconut rice, the underwater labyrinths of the coral reefs, the smiles of the Creole children, the sun, the warmth, the colours, the warm waters – this is a region you carry in your heart forever. All these ecological, natural, cultural and historical treasures, these landscapes, this beauty are infinitely precious.