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Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park

Located in northern Colombia and covering close to one million acres, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park rises nearly 19,000 feet from the Caribbean Sea. It is set apart from the Andes chain that runs through Colombia and is the highest coastal mountain, only 26 miles from Caribbean beaches. The Sierra Nevada is source to 35 watersheds, making it a regional “water factory” supplying 1.5 million residents as well as nearby farming plains. 85% of the Sierra is overlapped with the indigenous communities of the Kogi-Arsario and the Arhuaco.

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As an isolated mountain, Sierra Nevada is a mecca of endemism. Thought to be a refuge for animal and plant species during the Pleistocene Era these species evolved in isolation to the present day native species of the Sierra Nevada.

Indigenous people of Santa Marta

Indigenous people of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta © Pilar Barrera/TNC

site profile

total area protected:
946,000 acres
map of site

Guajira/ Barranquilla Xeric Scrub, Santa Marta Montane Forests, Sinu Valley Dry Forests

partner organization:
Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSNSM)

Ecological Importance

Sierra Nevada’s characteristics make it one of the most unique landforms on the plant. From rainforest to snow capped mountains, Sierra contains examples of all biomes represented in Colombia, making it a fine representation of the flora and fauna of all tropical America.

Research shows that the area posses a high level of endemism, with 100% above the 3,000 ft. line for reptiles and amphibians. There are at least 600 botanical plants and over 3,000 vascular plants. 70 species of birds have been identified, including macaws, parrots, passerines, raptors, the white-tipped quetzal, which is endemic to Sierra Nevada, and a population of the endangered Andean condor. Mammals include jaguars, pumas, tapirs, jaguarundi, little spotted cat, otter, red howler monkey, and numerous endemic rodents. The northern location of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is ideal for migratory birds traveling from South America to the US and Canada.


Since the 1950s, about 85% of the forest in the region has been removed and continues to be the principal threat to Sierra Nevada. Deforestation for agriculture and grazing purposes has reduced the volume of water generated within the 35 watersheds, directly affecting the lowland Cesar Valley agriculture economy. The situation worsens as forests are clear cut for farmland, steep hills without vegetation are eroding and the soil is washing down and choking the rivers and streams with topsoil and dust.

A Strategy of Success

Due to the critical locations of Filo Cartagena and Alto de Mira stations to buffering colonization and in turn deforestation, the initial Parks in Peril (PIP) goal was to conserve the areas surrounding the stations, by increasing management. Satellite images of these areas have shown that colonization has been seriously reduced, much in part by returning land ownership from colonists to indigenous communities.

PIP also aimed at gaining more knowledge of native species to allow for better resource management and protection. Four applied research projects were conducted by Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSNSM) and have influenced other areas of the Sierra.

In 1992, PIP funded a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA), which was the first step in identifying critical conservation needs in Sierra Nevada. The results obtained showed the area as one of the most well conserved areas in the region and has contributing to a decrease in colonization threats.

Foundacion Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSNSM) has worked with the Park Service on carrying out an Intercultural Management Plan between the park and the indigenous communities. PIP has supported an Indigenous Land Acquisition Program under the Adopt-an-Acre Program to return ancestral lands to the Sierra’s indigenous people. Using the REA to identify the critical conservation areas, FPSNSM and PIP overlaid them with sacred sites, resulting in over 5,000 acres purchased. The REA served regional significance by serving as a basis for a regional Sustainable Development Plan. FPSNSM and the World Bank were developing a regional environmental trust fund to finance the Plan, which would be the first of its kind and would serve as a global model for other similar projects.

The activities accomplished by PIP, FPSNSM and the park service led to site consolidation in 1998. FPSNSM has been contacted by numerous organizations in regards to their successful management activities in Sierra Nevada. FPSNSM continues to act as a model organization internationally and practice sound conservation in Sierra Nevada.

Read more about Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta...

Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSNSM)
The Nature Conservancy in La Paya

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Colombia Partner Organizations

The Nature Conservancy in Colombia