Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a landscape of biological juxtapositions. Palms, cacti and tropical dry forest fringe the park’s northern border along the Caribbean coast, while tropical rain forests, treeless plains, and snow-capped peaks are found in the interior.
The world’s tallest coastal mountain, the Sierra Nevada is an 18,942-foot (5,775-meter) massif separated from the Andes chain by plains and semiarid regions and it harbors numerous self-contained tropical and alpine ecosystems in a relatively small area. The mountain’s isolation has allowed for many plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth.
The Sierra Nevada is also sacred to several indigenous communities who still practice centuries-old traditions. These native peoples believe that the Sierra Nevada is the center of the universe and that the mountain’s health controls the entire Earth’s health.
Beyond the mountain itself, roughly 1.2 million people are dependent upon a fresh water supply that drains down from the Sierra Nevada’s 35 river basins.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is located in northern Colombia on the Caribbean coast.
Giant anteaters, white-bellied spider monkeys, white-lipped peccaries, red crested tree rats, and red howler monkeys are among the 120 species of mammals that roam the Sierra Nevada, along with elusive cats such as the jaguar, puma and little spotted cat. The Sierra Nevada also harbors 46 species of amphibians and reptiles; those that live above 9,900 feet (3,000 meters) are found nowhere else on the planet, having evolved in complete isolation.
An amazing 628 bird species have been recorded in Sierra Nevada — about the number that can be found in the United States and Canada combined. Some species, such as the Santa Marta Antpitta, Rusty-headed Spinetail, Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, and White-lored Warbler, cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Other spectacular birds found in the Sierra Nevada are the Andean condor, Blue-knobbed Curassow, Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird, and black-solitary eagle, which are endangered species. At least 71 species of migratory birds that travel between Colombia and North America have been recorded.
More than 3,000 species of vascular plants are found in the area.
Why the Conservancy Works Here
Human settlement, an advancing agricultural frontier and the cultivation of illegal crops have contributed to the destruction of 72 percent of the area’s original forests. Streams and rivers are also being choked by erosion caused by deforestation.
What the Conservancy Is Doing
The Conservancy has been working in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for more than 10 years. The first project was with the Colombian National Parks Agency to develop and implement an ecological assessment to determine where the most important places to conserve were located in both the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park and indigenous territories located both within and surrounding the park.
Next, in association with partner organization Fundación ProSierra, the Conservancy purchased nearly 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares) of ancestral lands that overlapped with conservation targets determined by the ecological assessment. The lands were then returned to the ownership of the Gonawindua-Tayrona Organization, one of the local indigenous groups, The traditional lifestyles and agricultural practices of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada do not have a destructive effect on the mountain’s ecosystems and thus promote conservation of the mountain’s unique ecosystems. Currently, the Conservancy is working directly with an association of indigenous groups to acquire another 25,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada to return to indigenous ownership.
The Conservancy has also been supporting an innovative program that supports health and environmental issues in local communities in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The program is improving health through eradication of factors that produce diseases as yellow fever or malaria that are linked to deforestation.