Heritage Colombia

In the northern corner of South America, a coalition launches an enduring plan to protect the country's environment—and its people

Twilight eases toward dusk as Everildys Córdoba and four beach monitors walk along a stretch of sand looking for sea turtles. It’s May and they are in the municipality of Acandí, amid an isolated stretch of mountains and marshes in northwestern Colombia, just five miles from the border with Panama.

It’s a beautiful beach, soft and expansive. But despite Acandí’s relative remoteness, the outside world is always present: Pressures as diverse as climate change, the migrant crisis, and plastic pollution are all leaving a mark. As Córdoba and the others thread a path along the high-tide line, picking their way over plastic bottles, food containers, and a high-heeled shoe, their eyes remain peeled for signs of marine life.

Córdoba, who represents the Cocomasur community council—one of Acandí’s three local governance bodies—is here to observe the incredible creatures at the heart of the beach monitors’ work. As they walk, a dark form takes shape in the sea, growing larger each time a wave breaks.

“It’s a leatherback,” says a monitor. It’s the first sea turtle of the night.

As the sun sets, a mature leatherback prepares her nest while Everildys Córdoba, a leader of the Cocomasur Community Council in Acandí, looks on.

Turtle Haven

The group watches attentively as the female leatherback makes landfall and slowly, laboriously, moves up the beach. A short distance from the water’s edge, she begins to dig, flinging loose sand with her flippers as she burrows down, hollows out a nest, and deposits her eggs.

The monitors, all from local communities, begin their work. Wearing headlamps with red, turtle-safe lights, they carefully extract the eggs, placing the glossy white orbs into a black plastic garbage bag. They record the date, time, and number of eggs and measure the turtle. When they have removed all the eggs from the nest cavity, they carry them to a purpose-built enclosure a short distance away, where a predator-proof fence will protect them until they hatch.

Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtles in the world, measuring up to nine feet in length and weighing up to 1,500 pounds. Listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, their numbers are decreasing worldwide.

A person wearing a red headlamp holds up a turtle hatchling

Acersio Calderon, a member of the turtle monitoring group in Playona, prepares to release a leatherback hatchling.

Together, this beach—Playona—and two others nearby called Acandí and Playón, host the second-largest colony of nesting leatherbacks in the western Atlantic (as well as a significant number of hawksbills). Every year between February and June, hundreds of female leatherbacks emerge from the sea, each depositing an average of 130 eggs into a freshly dug nest.

After Cocomasur and two other Afro-Colombian communities, Cocomaseco and Cocomanorte, advocated to have Acandí declared a protected area, the Colombian government proclaimed the 7.5 miles of Acandí, Playón, and Playona beaches and the surrounding seas a turtle sanctuary in 2013. The protected area is now jointly managed by Colombia’s National Natural Parks (PNNC, for the official Spanish name Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia) and the three community councils. Together, they work to protect the region’s natural and cultural values, as well as conserve the collective territories of Black Caribbean communities and their traditional practices.

The Colombian government, WWF, and a coalition of global partners and donors are also working with the people of Acandí to increase the sanctuary from about 64,000 acres to almost 250,000, encompassing the entire municipality. The expanded protected area heralds updated goals for species and ecosystems as well as a plan for new economic, social, and cultural benefits for the people here.

Local is Global

The work in Acandí is part of an initiative called Heritage Colombia (also known as HECO or Herencia Colombia). In June 2022, WWF supported the Government of Colombia and a broad coalition of partners to launch the initiative, which secured $245 million to permanently protect 79 million acres of Colombia’s landscapes and seascapes.

HECO deploys the now well-established Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) model—an approach that secures necessary policy changes and funding and binds them together in a single agreement that ties the disbursement of funds to tangible, measurable social and environmental goals.

In Colombia, WWF and other HECO partners worked with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and PNNC to define these goals in line with the country’s policies on protected areas as well as their commitment to Target 3 of the Global Biodiversity Framework, a shared goal to protect 30% of Earth’s landscapes and seascapes by 2030. This includes improved management systems for Colombia’s existing protected areas—and a commitment to expand their number and size.

Heritage Colombia also marks the first PFP to close under the aegis of Enduring Earth, a collaboration among The Nature Conservancy, The Pew Charitable Trusts, WWF, and ZOMALAB. Working together with nations, communities, and philanthropic partners around the globe, Enduring Earth aims to bridge the gap between ambition and funding, and to launch multiple PFP initiatives in the coming years.

All of this makes Heritage Colombia a perfect example of Enduring Earth’s promise: To deliver on its global commitments, Colombia is enshrining conservation in its long-term planning, both for the global good and as a catalyst for prosperity in communities like those in Acandí.

HECO at work

Heritage Colombia has enormous benefits for Colombia and for the world. Among other benefits, the initiative will:

  • Sustain the evolution of Colombia’s national protected area system and ensure key ecosystems are secured while contributing to the economic development and social inclusion of its people
  • Contribute toward improving the quality of life for rural communities via sustainable development
  • Demonstrate Colombia’s leadership, in Latin America and around the globe, in productively integrating conservation and sustainable development
  • Enable Colombia to meet its environmental commitments and lead on mitigating global climate change by protecting more than 2.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2eq) and preventing emissions of more than 2.1 million tons of CO2eq annually
  • Help people and ecosystems adapt to climate change through the restoration and rehabilitation of protected areas and buffer zones; support water provision and regulation as well as flood and landslide hazard mitigation
  • Catalyze the development of innovative finance mechanisms that will benefit areas beyond Heritage Colombia sites and serve as a model for other countries

Passing the Torch

A man smiles from the doorway of a shop

Marlon Pérez, who coordinates ethnic cultural activities for the Cocomaseco Community Council, gives a thumbs-up from outside the community center in Acandí.

As evidence of conservation’s power to spur economic growth, Córdoba points out that the Cocomasur community council now employs 19 turtle monitors. Another positive development: The majority of PNNC staff and consultants in Acandí are members of the community as well.

Creating opportunities for meaningful employment and fostering a sense of agency and purpose—especially for disenfranchised young people and women—are hallmarks of the HECO-funded work. So, too, is helping to make sure local leadership and communities, in collaboration with environmental authorities, have the resources they need to effectively manage protected areas.

In Acandí, for example, WWF helped communities navigate the complicated process and paperwork for expanding the turtle sanctuary, translating documents, and otherwise ensuring communities fully understand technical requirements.

Not so long ago, Córdoba notes, researchers and other scientists would arrive on the shores of Acandí without consulting or cooperating with local communities, many of whom felt exploited and didn’t see the benefits of the work. But things are different now. Today, all fieldwork in Acandí requires the permission of the communities, who manage the protected area with PNNC and work hand in hand with educational and scientific institutions to share research and knowledge. Community members bring their ancestral and cultural knowledge to bear and gain access to outside technical expertise, she adds.

“The young people are the torchbearers of our legacy.”

A bird flies across the surface of water

A pelican glides over the waters of the Acandí, Playón, and Playona Wildlife Sanctuary.

Efraín Ballesteros, who represents the Cocomaseco community council, reflects on the sea change in perspective that such collaboration represents: “In the past we didn’t care about conservation, and we even ate the hawksbill turtle and the eggs,” he says. “Over time we realized that these species are on the verge of extinction and that instead of consuming them, we should take care of them.”

Ballesteros now takes pride in successfully instilling in young minds the significance of preserving natural resources—of “protecting what we have against predation,” he says.

Today young people in Acandí pursue studies in ecology, biology, and forestry, and the Cocomaseco community envisions transforming their offices into a laboratory and a library where children can delve into environmental education.

“We leave them a municipality that is fully protected,” says Ballesteros. “The young people are the torchbearers of our legacy.”

Culture and Conservation

A man sitting outside under palm trees

Near his home in Capurgana, Cocomanorte leader Emigdio Pertuz shares his perspective on the expanded marine reserve.

Emigdio Pertuz, who represents the Cocomanorte community council, echoes the sentiment, and adds another point: HECO, he says, has served as a catalyst in aligning the three communities around a shared purpose. This enables them to coordinate efforts that result in tangible investments and a positive impact on conservation— while respecting the unique attributes and aspirations of each community.

Cocomanorte, he says, is particularly focused on sustainable development seen through the lens of ethno-tourism: The community, which, like the others in Acandí, is predominantly of Afro-Colombian descent, aspires to create a tourist circuit rooted in their cultural identity.

For example, Pertuz explains, they want tourists to accompany them on a day of fishing and then learn how to cook the fish in the traditional way—to share in the ancestral practices that for centuries have worked within the bounds of nature to provide reliable food. Tourists would learn first-hand about the local customs, gastronomy, and way of life. At the same time, the community would expand sustainable income opportunities and reaffirm the value of their own culture and connection to their ancestral home.

“Territory,” says Pertuz, “is life.”

Impact and Implications

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Protecting the beaches and coastal waters of Acandí has implications beyond the communities of Cocomanorte, Cocomaseco, and Cocomasur—and beyond the sea turtles themselves. Enlarging the sanctuary will have far-reaching benefits for myriad other marine species. And thanks to the committed group of partners and supporters who helped integrate marine areas into Heritage Colombia, the country realized its goal of protecting 30% of its marine areas by 2030—eight years ahead of schedule.

Further, HECO is at the heart of efforts to protect the Amazon. Combined with PFPs in Brazil and Peru, fully 12% of the Amazon rain forest is under long-term protection.

In fact, the PFP model is proving so effective that it is being scaled throughout the Americas and around the world, charting a course for other countries to follow. Since the first PFP was signed in 2016, initiatives like HECO have successfully employed the model to conserve nearly 300 million acres in countries as diverse as Bhutan, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru.

Enduring Earth is at the forefront of these efforts, and by 2030, the collaboration aims to protect an additional 1.2 billion acres in partnership with local communities in at least 20 nations and mobilize nearly $4 billion in new funding.

Local Legacy

A leatherback turtle moves across the sand

On the sands of Playona Beach, a leatherback turtle heads back to sea.

Back in Acandí, both Heritage Colombia and Enduring Earth touch back down in the Caribbean sand, where beach monitors check on the eggs every night. They carefully assess the precious cargo where it incubates under wooden markers that note the number of eggs, the date they were laid, and their expected hatching date.

When the hatchlings emerge, the monitors will take them back to the stretch of sand where they were found and place them six feet from the water so they can enter the sea by themselves. It’s thought, in fact, that baby sea turtles need to touch the sand with their bodies to be able to identify the beach where they were born—and to come back when it’s their turn to lay eggs.

HERITAGE COLOMBIA: Built on Partnerships

In collaboration with the government of Colombia, communities, other NGOs, and agencies, WWF and a core group of partners are supporting the future of Colombia’s sustainable development and enduring conservation goals.

WWF is grateful to those partners who have helped secure the long-term protection of 79 million acres of Colombia’s most treasured places and charted a course for other nations to follow in financing the protection of their own landscapes and seascapes.

  • Andes Amazon Fund
  • Becht Foundation
  • Bezos Earth Fund
  • Blue Nature Alliance
  • Bobolink Foundation
  • Carmen Busquets
  • Catena Foundation
  • Conservation International Foundation
  • Tammy and Bill Crown
  • Enduring Earth 
  • European Union
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (executing entity)
  • Global Environment Facility
  • Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
  • Government of Colombia
  • Inter-American Development Bank
  • Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) of the Federal Republic of Germany through KfW
  • Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Parques Naturales Nacionales de Colombia
  • Patrimonio Natural
  • Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Wildlife Conservation Society
  • World Bank
  • Wyss Foundation

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