Click to return to the Homepage

A Partnership of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, Brown University and Duke University

Printer friendly versionPrinter friendly version

Colombia Biosphere Reserve

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Seaflower Biosphere Reserve encompasses the entire land and marine territory of the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina, a protectorate of Colombia in the southwest Caribbean Sea. The archipelago supports diverse marine and bird life, and extensive coral reefs.

The biosphere reserve is a tool to achieve sustainable development and help alleviate many of the archipelago’s problems, which stem from rapid population growth, corresponding resource degradation and poverty.

A new agency established by Colombian law manages the biosphere reserve, which identifies priorities to address ecosystem threats, institutes monitoring programs, engages the community to improve environmental stewardship, and conducts pilot projects to improve island infrastructure. Later, after consultations with the community, a Marine Protected Area network was established.

Planning for the biosphere reserve began in 1993, using criteria established through UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. UNESCO accepted the reserve for inclusion in its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2000.

During its development and following the designation, the reserve received international funding that is crucial to accomplishing its goals in an on-island economic environment of limited resources. A government-commissioned review of its first five years was published in 2006.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Focus on multiple stressors for an ecosystem-based approach.
  • Adaptive Management: Five-year review included lessons learned to adapt management and programs to achieve biosphere reserve goals.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve is adapted from the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program, which seeks to achieve a sustainable balance between biodiversity conservation, economic development, and cultural survival.


The management plan established the following four objectives:

  • Conserve strategic areas to protect the biological and cultural diversity of the archipelago.
  • Create a model for territorial development and a site for testing methods of sustainable development.
  • Set aside areas for research, observation and building capacity of residents and visitors.
  • Apply the concepts of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • The Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina



Key Parties


Multiple Colombian government entities are partners in the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, including:

  • Environmental Ministry
  • National Park Office
  • Naval Maritime Authority
  • Coast Guard
  • National Police
  • National Fisheries Institute
  • Departmental Fishing Board
  • Departmental Government


Partners from the Colombia academic community include:

  • National University
  • SENA
  • Christian University.

Many other universities, organizations and programs have provided funding or technical assistance, including the Darwin Initiative, Heriot-Watt University of Edinburgh, Partnership for the Environment, URBAL Program of the European Union and the World Bank.


Program Structure

The Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina (CORALINA) developed the management plan for the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, initiates new programs, and manages day-to-day activities.

Board of Directors

CORALINA is guided by a board of directors, which includes elected representatives of the private sector, fisheries and farming cooperatives, local non-governmental organizations, and the native community.

Administrative Functions

CORALINA employs about 100 people in the archipelago. About 30 are permanent staff; the remainder are contractors. It maintains two coordination offices. Its operations are divided among departments handling environmental management, planning, legal affairs, and administrative functions. It also maintains a full laboratory, GIS section, and public document center and reading room.

MPA Stakeholder Advisory Committee

CORALINA established a Marine Protected Area Stakeholder Advisory Committee of invited volunteers from primary user groups, including artisanal fishers, professional divers, water sports, marinas, the tourism sector, and indigenous community. The Advisory Committee provides consultation on aspects of MPA management.

Governance Recommendation

The management plan outlined a governing structure that would create an autonomous body with its own legal identity, though it would still be associated with CORALINA. It would be created by expanding the CORALINA Board of Directors to include four additional community representatives, and forming a scientific technical committee, and community commission.

As of 2006, however, financial resources had not become available to implement such a governance structure, according to an evaluation of the first five years of the biosphere reserve commissioned by CORALINA.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Creation of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve resulted from the enactment of a framework environmental law in Colombia, Law 99 of 1993.

Along with establishing the National Environment System, the law declared the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina as a biosphere reserve. Additionally, the law created a new government agency, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina (CORALINA) to act as the environmental authority on the archipelago, implement the reserve to receive international recognition, and manage it.

Development was financed through UNESCO and the InterAmerican Development Bank. The reserve was designed to meet criteria established through UNESCO’s Man and The Biosphere Program, which developed the biosphere concept in 1974 and extensively revised it in 1995. Goals of the program include reducing biodiversity loss, improving livelihoods and enhancing social, economic and cultural conditions for environmental sustainability. Biosphere reserves also are intended to serve as learning and demonstration sites.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence, and Santa Catalina includes marine territory that accounts for about 10 percent of the Caribbean Sea, and contains coral reef ecosystems that are among the largest in the Americas.

Two barrier reefs, five atolls, and reef lagoons can be found, along with less well defined coral banks that extend 500 kilometers along the Nicaraguan rise. Extensive mangrove lagoons and swamps are present on the islands. Seagrass beds line the shores.

The archipelago has been identified as one of the world’s top 10 regions that are exceptionally rich in marine species and facing extreme threats. More than 250 species of reef fish and nearly 100 species of birds have been identified. Whales are occasionally seen in the coastal waters. Four sea turtle species use the beaches for nesting.


Two main threats stem from a high rate of population growth and unchecked increases in tourism. San Andres, located 800 kilometers northwest of Colombia and 150 kilometers east of Nicaragua, is the most densely populated oceanic island in the western hemisphere.

Other threats identified through the development of the management plan for the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve include poor solid-waste management, lack of fresh water, inadequate liquid waste management, vulnerability of human settlements, poor maintenance of soil, and degradation of strategic ecosystems.


Major Strategies

Marine Zoning

Following a period of engagement with the community, Marine Protected Areas were established in 2005. They encompass roughly 65,000 square kilometers, containing important marine habitat and coral reefs. Five levels of zoning were established:

  • General use: Containing minimal restrictions; roughly 60,500 square kilometers in size.
  • Special use: Zoned for specific uses, such as shipping lanes, large-vessel anchorage ports, and marines; 68 square kilometers.
  • Artisanal fishing: Permits fishing only by traditional methods; 2,015 square kilometers.
  • No-take: Allows only non-extractive uses; 2,214 square kilometers.
  • No-entry: Permits only research and monitoring; 116 square kilometers.

Community Outreach and Education

With every city, village and community on the archipelago within the legally-mandated area of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, the biosphere reserve facilitates numerous formal and informal outreach and education efforts. These include incorporating the biosphere reserve into school curricula, training teachers, and developing courses for interest groups on sustainable tourism, improving dive operations, greening hotels and businesses, and scuba for artisanal fishers. Education efforts often are part of a larger initiative, such as an effort to avert soil erosion, which includes training for farmers on using alternative methods of soil and land use, and composting.

Modeling and Threat-Reduction Projects

Numerous projects are underway to demonstrate sustainable behaviors or minimize specific threats to the ecosystem. They include a focus on the landfill in San Andres that has improved management, pilot recycling of some materials, rainwater harvesting, an adopt-a-beach cleaning program, and pilot projects in shantytowns to improve sanitation, waste disposal, and construction practices.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation is one of six key components for management of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, as established in its management plan.

Several monitoring programs, established using international community-based protocols, measure the health of specific components of the ecosystem to develop new scientific data, identify threats and management options, and evaluate current programs. Those include monitoring of coral reefs, marine turtles, and beaches.

Other monitoring efforts are components of specific initiatives, such as a program to improve water quality, which includes monitoring of water quality, and tracking of saline intrusion into freshwater sources.


Legal Framework and Protections

The Seaflower Biosphere Reserve provided a legal framework for managing growth on the archipelago and instituted legal protections, including the creation of two national parks that include sensitive mangrove forests, and Marine Protected Areas.

Additionally, permits are now issued for extraction from commercial wells, and businesses and hotels are fined for failure to meet acceptable wastewater standards.

The legal protections were tested in 2005 when a government agency announced the building of a paved road through the Cove Valley watershed, a sensitive area included in the core zone of the biosphere reserve. The road would have opened the area to major development. The community joined with CORALINA to prevent construction of the road.

Priority-Setting Plans

Through outreach to the community and the use of advice from external scientists, the biosphere reserve has established several consensus-based, priority-setting plans that identify threats to the ecosystem, and outline solutions. Funding, however, is not always available to implement them. Those plans include a Groundwater Management Plan for San Andres, and Water Quality Action Plan, and development of recommendations on additional policies to address population impacts in six thematic areas.

Community Presence

A five-year review of the management of the biosphere reserve found more residents are reporting environmental infractions or lodging complaints, an indication of its community presence and that residents are actively becoming greater stewards of the environment. Additionally, a survey of tourists in 2000 found 80 percent were aware of the biosphere reserve.


Website Links

CORALINA. Available in Spanish:

UNESCO description of Seaflower Biosphere Reserve: