Editor’s note: It’s not just the U.S. government that’s pushing to drill in our oceans. Guest blogger Jaime Matera is a marine anthropologist who is working to stop potential drilling off the coast of his home country, Colombia.
In 2010 the Colombian government opened up pristine coastal ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea to oil exploration. If allowed to continue, two petroleum companies, Repsol-YPF and Ecopetrol, would be drilling for oil on the second largest reef system in the Caribbean.
The Colombian archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina lies on the southwestern Caribbean Sea, just 125 miles off the coast of Central America. It is home to an exceptional marine ecosystem and a native island population with strong connections to the resources.
The reef system surrounding the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina is the second largest in the Caribbean. It covers approximately 255 km² and includes extensive sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and patchy reefs systems. In addition, a number of uninhabited cays and atolls are found in surrounding waters.
In 2000, UNESCO declared 300,000 km² (about 10% of the Caribbean Sea) as the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. Five years later the Colombian government designated 65,000 km² of waters within this reserve as the Seaflower Marine Protected Area (MPA), the largest MPA in the Caribbean Sea. The creation of this MPA was heralded as the best conservation initiative during the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity conference. Additionally, the area has recently been proposed as a World Heritage Site.
This is an area of exceptional biological importance and significant marine biodiversity. It lies within a mayor biodiversity “hotspot”, and is home to over 100 species of soft and hard coral, 400 species of fish, 130 species of sponges, and almost 200 IUCN red-listed species, including the endangered loggerhead sea turtle and green sea turtle and the critically endangered warsaw grouper, Atlantic goliath grouper, and the largetooth sawfish.
Not only does this remarkable ecosystem merit protection for its natural wealth, but it is also an important source of livelihood for local communities. About a quarter of the population of the islands depends directly on artisanal fishing and all islanders rely on the sea for food. Additionally, coastal tourism is a major source of jobs and revenue for the islands.
All of this beckons the question: Why would the Colombian government spend so much effort in protecting sensitive marine habitat and then promote drilling within it? A handful of congressmen have pushed for requirements that exclude drilling directly on top of coral reef ecosystem. Needless to say, this would bring little relief. It ignores the fact that oil drilling, even in the absence of spills and undertaken miles away, will be environmentally costly and inevitably impact one of our planet’s richest ecosystems.
Last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates the environmental and social consequences of oil spills. The repercussions of oil exploration in the archipelago are immeasurable. It could not only destroy local marine ecosystems and livelihoods, but has the potential to cause a region-wide disaster.