Panoramic of the Urabá coastal plain (Antioquia, Colombia) near Carepa. Remnant rainforest are immersed by extensive banana croplands bathed by large meandering rivers draining the northern Andes. Photo: Juan F. Blanco L. 7°45’51.98″N; 76°40’56.14″W.
Ten years ago I flew over the Atrato River Delta from Medellín to Capurganá, a small coastal town in the vicinity to the Colombia-Panama border on the Caribbean coast. After nearly one hour of flight over the deforested mountains in the the northern Andes, the cloudy sky suddenly opened and the magnificent coastal plain of the Urabá Gulf appeared before my eyes. It was a flatland with a patchwork-like landscape where banana croplands, pasturelands, lowland rainforests, and meandering rivers intertwined while running northwards from the Andean foothills. Minutes later, the small aircraft reached the southern coast, and it was evident the proximity of the Serranía del Darién to the West, marking the limit between Colombia and Panama. As the plane flew over the U-like gulf, the bearing was slightly changed to the West. Soon after, the scene in-front of us was completely different. Tight forests extended from the hills to the coast. The view was the same as far as I could see. The Serranía del Darién turned far to the West and a extensive plain was now covered with flood-plain forests and freshwater grasslands, dissected by the various wide-courses of the Atrato River. The coastal margin was lined by a continuous forest consisting of tall mangroves with huge roots that emerged above the sea level. They seemed to me as giants standing on the coastline protecting the marshes and palm forests behind them.
Panoramic of mangroves in the Atrato River Delta (Antioquia, Colombia) back in 2009. Photo: Juan F. Blanco L.
I was enjoying a view that I had only witnessed flying over the lowland rainforests in the Pacific coast of Colombia, also known as the Chocó Biogeographic Region, one of world’s biodiversity hotspots. Suddenly, the turbulence outside reminded me that I was onboard of a 12-passenger aircraft, and that a crash on the wetlands below us was a likely. Fortunately, the calm weather returned. Nonetheless, I imagined on the possibility of crashing on such wild area and on my chances of getting out there with no signs of human settlements in kilometers around.
The Atrato River springs out in the Western Cordillera of Colombia in the State of Chocó, one of the world’s rainiest areas with average annual rate exceeding 6000 mm. Therefore, the Atrato River is a Pacific Basin river discharging its waters into the Caribbean Basin. As a consequence, the main channel diverts into various branches in the coastal plain forming a bird-foot like delta. It sustains the extensive freshwater wetlands, lagoons (locally known as «ciénagas»), and the tall mangroves. Mangroves line along nearly 100 km of coastline, and extend over 3800 hectares. Red mangrove trees dominate over other species, and they usually reach more than 10 m in height.
Tall red mangrove trees in the Atrato River Delta. Photo: Juan F. Blanco L. 7°59’42.58″N; 76°55’45.62″W.
My trips to the Atrato River Delta became frequent after that first trip. In 2009, I started mapping these mangroves using high-resolution aerial photographs as part of a multi-disciplinary biogeographic expedition along the Urabá Gulf. Afterwards, I collaborated with the environmental authority for zoning mangroves according to their conservation status. More recently, I partnered with fellow researchers from social, life and fisheries sciences, and with local fishermen to understand the role of these mangroves for folk fisheries.
The scientific knowledge, expeditions and long conversations with local fishermen have served to confirm that the Atrato River Delta mangroves are the last wild lands in the Urabá Gulf. They are not only extensive, they are huge carbon reservoirs, they are habitats for beautiful marine and terrestrial birds, sea otters, dolphins and crocs… they are nursery areas, refuge and habitat for almost one hundred species of fishes, shrimps and crabs.
Therefore, these wildlands sustain hundreds of coastal livelihoods. They are African-American descendants of emancipated slaves that escaped to the Pacific coast jungles from sugar cane states and mining enterprises stablished during the colonial period. After a couple of centuries of freedom and migration, they arrived to the coast of the Urabá Gulf down to the Atrato River. More recently, these communities expanded due to the arrival of migrants from upriver as a consequence of the armed conflict. But still these human settlements are just pin-points within the dense forest matrix. Nature rules.
El Roto, the main river mouth in the Atrato River Delta. Note the proportion of the fishing village (also named El Roto) located in the West margin of the channel. Photo: ELICE-UdeA. 8°11’23.51″N; 76°55’57.69″W.
I have traveled extensively across the Caribbean region of Colombia and a few countries of the Caribbean…but never seen mangroves such as those in the Atrato River Delta. I feel in my heart they are probably the last wild lands in the Caribbean.
DRONE panoramic of mono-specific mangrove stands in Atrato River Delta, 2016. Photo: Juan F. Blanco L. 8° 2’10.18″N; 76°52’44.86″W.