Most Influential Projects 2022

26 One Million Corals for Colombia

Government | Latin America
One Million Corals for Colombia

One Million Corals for Colombia| PMI's 2022 Most Influential Projects | #MIP2022

The One Million Corals for Colombia project seeks to nurse one million fragments of coral reef in 12 areas of the country and start the restoration process of 200 hectares of coral. Coral goes beyond providing shelter to ocean inhabitants. It is key to adaption to climate change, livelihood conditions of coastal communities, tourism activities, food security, and more.

For planting seeds of hope in the Caribbean reef with the help of local stakeholders

Visitors to the UNESCO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve off the coast of Colombia are met with the quintessential image of a Caribbean paradise: calm waters in every shade of blue, a horizon dotted with islands, and a landscape of white-sand beaches and lush forests. 

But the oceanic archipelago is as vulnerable as it is beautiful: Hurricanes, global warming, pollution, overfishing and coastal development are all taking their toll on native coral species. The result? Nearly 80 percent of coral reefs in the Caribbean region have been lost in recent years, according to the U.N. 

That loss, in turn, threatens the surrounding ecosystems. Often called “the rainforests of the ocean,” coral reefs are home to roughly one-quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity. They’re also responsible for much of the planet’s oxygen and can help slow the waves and winds kicked up by major weather events, sheltering coastal communities from the most devastating impacts. It’s estimated that half a billion people worldwide depend directly on reefs to protect their coastlines, support local fish populations and attract tourists. In Colombia, the million-plus visitors who scuba dive and snorkel at the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve each year are a vital part of the local economy. 

With so much at stake, Colombia is taking action. In late 2021, the government launched One Million Corals for Colombia, a project to restore 200 hectares (494 acres) of reefs by March 2023, in part by growing coral fragments in dedicated nurseries and then transplanting them. Led by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, it’s the largest coral restoration project in the Americas—uniquely suited to a country that’s home to more than 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) of coral reef and boasts one of the richest ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea.

“In this way, we will give more life to our seas, essential for mitigating the effects of climate change, the social and economic life of many communities, and the habitat of so many species that enrich our immense biodiversity,” said Carlos Eduardo Correa, former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development. 

Turning that bold vision into underwater reality demands a “complex structure of project partners” that spans environmental and regional authorities as well as nonprofits and environmental experts with deep experience in this arena, says Juan Pablo Caldas, a coral researcher at Conservation International Colombia, one of those project partners. “For this project to be successful, local stakeholders and communities had to be empowered and included.”

That means coordination not just between the ministry and the parks agency, National Natural Parks of Colombia, but also environmental organizations, diving schools and centers, local nonprofits and fishers. And that coordination has to extend across 12 different sites. 

“We’ve had to innovate to overcome that challenge—adapting the techniques to the geographic particularities of each site,” he says. “Creating an optimal environment for growth conditions required adapting the project, from the types and dimensions of coral nurseries to the species chosen.”

Growth is no small issue when it comes to coral. Many people mistakenly believe coral to be a marine rock, but each piece of coral is actually made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny individual animals called polyps. As they go through their life cycle, they secrete a hard outer shell that, over centuries and many generations, creates the large coral formations. This notoriously slow growth has plagued coral’s ability to regenerate at pace with its destruction. But a novel technique, developed by famed marine biologist David Vaughan in 2006, has upended how teams now approach restoration projects.

Called microfragmentation, the process involves attaching small coral fragments to a substrate in a nursery, which scientists carefully situate in algae-free waters that maximize sunlight while limiting competition for resources. The nurseries encourage growth up to 40 times greater than the usual speed, and the coral is then transplanted to permanent locations on the reef. 

Though the technique had been used in Colombia before, meeting the project target of 1 million coral fragments means dramatically increasing the number of nurseries, as well as upskilling locals on microfragmentation. Jeiher Brock, a fisherman who underwent the training to participate in the project, likens the process to raising kids. 

“When planting, you don’t want to touch it or manipulate it, because you don’t want it to leave the place where you planted it,” he says. “But as time goes by … when it reaches a suitable size, one is ready to let it continue on its own, just like children.”

In late May, project leaders hosted an intensive two-week sprint that cultivated 100,000 corals. Appropriately enough, the event ended on 8 June, World Oceans Day, and brought the project’s running total to 275,183 coral fragments, with 10,706 transplanted.

That puts the initiative on track to reach its overall target, though Pablo Caldas is quick to point out the project “is only the beginning.” The ultimate goal is to inspire other countries to double down on protecting and restoring their precious reefs, too.