A visit to the authentic water world of Colombia’s Venice

Founded in 1847, the town of Nueva Venecia, located inside the largest lagoon complex in Colombia, has no roads, preserves cultural practices from past centuries and faces many challenges: local violence, anthropization and the climate crisis.

On Google Maps, the town of Nueva Venecia appears to be located on an island in the middle of a large lagoon. In fact, though, there is no island as there is no land there at all. With a current population of 3,000 people, Nueva Venecia consists of 400 houses clustered together seemingly “floating” above water (in fact, they are propped up on thick wooden stakes sunk deep into the bed of the shallow lagoon). 

Nueva Venecia, established in 1847, is located inside La Cienaga Grande, part of the Valley of a Hundred Waters, the largest laguna complex in Colombia. Consisting of over 500 square miles of water, La Ciénaga Grande is fed by the mighty Rio Magdalena and by crystalline rivers flowing down from Sierra Nevada Mountain range in Santa Marta, and by the Caribbean Sea. In turn, the ciénaga sustains 12 acres of coastal wetland and mangrove forests, home to monkeys, manatees, tigers, nutrias, fox, bats, boas, iguanas and 190 species of birds. With the lagoon itself, there are 150 species of fish, 100 species of sea creatures, as well as a few thousand human beings.

In Nueva Venecia, there are no street names or street addresses because there are no streets. It is impossible to even take more than a few steps from one’s doorstep without plunging into the lagoon.
Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

Indigenous communities thrived on the edge of the ciénaga for thousands of years, and during the Spanish conquest and colony they were given the right to fish in the lagoon. The establishment of large cattle ranches and industrial farmland, however, forced families off of their land and into the water from which they obtained their livelihood. An initial cluster of rustic, aquatic shacks that local fishermen built in order to be able to spend the night while fishing in the middle of the lagoon eventually took root, multiplied and became a town. Since then, and for over 150 years, generation after generation of families in Nueva Venecia have been born and raised and lived their whole lives surrounded by water. 

A very special community

Such a tightly-knit community, based mostly on close family ties of the original indigenous inhabitants and existing in such a unique, isolated environment, helps people in this town conserve cultural practices from past centuries. Few locals escape from the town to live on dry land, and many of those who do eventually return, unable to adapt to life on land. 

Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

In Nueva Venecia, there are no street names or street addresses because there are no streets. It is impossible to even take more than a few steps from one’s doorstep without plunging into the lagoon. There are no parks and no greenery except for mangrove trees which, like the residents in the town, can survive above shallow water. The only solid land in town where townspeople can congregate is the small concrete patio in front of the town’s only Catholic church. Next to the Catholic church is a new full-sized indoor soccer field with artificial turf and electric lights (fueled by the police station’s generator). 

Few locals escape from the town to live on dry land, and many of those who do eventually return, unable to adapt to life on land.

Without streets, plaza or parks, people in town rarely ever walk. To get around town, people ride in small wooden canoes or motor boats. Except for the poorest families, who create their own flotation devices by recycling metal, plastic drums or other waste materials, most residents own at least one canoe to get around town. Instead of oars to row the boats, people walk the length of the canoe pushing the canoe forward with long wooden poles, much like Italian gondoliers in Venice (from where the town gets its name). 

Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

The traditional wooden canoe made from mangrove forest timber, which has been used by locals for centuries, is now being displaced by fiberglass canoes, which although somewhat more expensive, tend to last longer. A workshop in which fiberglass canoes are built is located on the outskirts of town, as the fumes of the resins and other chemicals are toxic. There is a single medical clinic in town, staffed with a full-time nurse and a doctor who comes into town two days a week to attend to the sick. If anyone gets seriously ill or injured, they have to be whisked to the closest town in a speedboat ambulance. There is no cemetery in town so people must transport their dearly departed to be buried in towns on dry land. Funeral processions made up of long lines of boats accompany the corpse with music and singing to a cemetery across the lagoon.

The threats: invasions, highways, forests dying

In November 2000, Nueva Venecia was attacked by six lanchas carrying 70 paramilitaries dressed in Colombian military uniforms. Just outside of the town, 15 townsmen who were fishing in canoes were executed with knives and bayonets so as to not alarm the people in town with gunshots. Once in town, the paramilitaries rounded up everyone and executed 15 more men in the patio of the church (dozens of other residents were killed in their homes or attempting to flee). After the massacre, Nueva Venecia was abandoned by its inhabitants, but two years later, having found it extremely difficult to adapt to life on land and to earn a living from anything other than fishing, most everyone returned. A police station was installed in town, manned by six officers, to prevent another massacre. 

In Colombia, most of the violence and forced displacement is related to illegal land grabs and land invasions. In Nueva Venecia, being there is no land, the town should be free from the massacres occurring elsewhere in the country but unfortunately this has not been the case. 

Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

Violence, however, is not the only nor even the greatest threat, to Nueva Venecia. In 1956, El Troncal, a two-lane coastal highway which runs alongside the cienaga for miles, was built to join the cities of Santa Marta and Baranquilla. El Troncal connected tiny islands between the ciénaga and the Caribbean, displacing the campesinos and indigenous communities living there, and transformed the tropical islands into dusty, concrete roadside villages.

El Troncal also effectively cut off the Caribbean Sea from La ciénaga grande, which depended upon the flow of saltwater from the sea to maintain its salinity, thus severely disrupting its delicate equilibrium. As a result, 3 million square feet of mangrove forest withered and died, creating not just one of Colombia’s greatest environmental disasters but also a major economic disaster for local fishing communities, including Nueva Venecia. 

Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

Years later, the mangrove was partially restored by opening up small passageways underneath the highway that allowed for the flow of water between the ocean and the lagoon (although these tunnels often get clogged by garbage), and also by cutting a wide swath through the mangroves to allow the water from Rio Magdalena to flow into the lagoon. Nevertheless, the mangrove forests never fully regained their biodiversity and their health is still delicate.

Ciénaga Grande has long been threatened by the works of man on all sides. Land invaders, cattle ranchers and industrial palm oil, rice and banana farmers have all deforested large tracts of land within the mangrove forest, redirected the flow of rivers for their own use (thus affecting water and salt levels in the lagoon), and have dumped huge quantities of human and man-made waste, including toxic fertilizers and pesticides, into the lagoon’s water. These are the same people who order paramilitaries to intimidate or execute locals when they complain about such environmental disasters.

Nueva Venecia. Photo Kurt Hollander

Nueva Venecia and global warming

In addition to the negative impact of local landowners and criminal organizations, global warming represents a very real threat to the mangrove forests and the ciénaga, and to Nueva Venecia, as well. Climate change will increasingly affect temperatures, sea levels and rainfall, all of which can in turn affect the precarious equilibrium that sustains the mangroves and the ciénaga. Changes in salinity within the lagoon have already led to several instances of massive fish deaths over the past few decades. Due to the shallowness of the lagoon, rising temperatures could lead to drought and to the drying out of the ciénaga, which would spell the end of life there, both animal and human. 

Despite the disastrous effects that El Troncal has had on the region, plans are currently in the works for expanding it into a four-lane freeway. It is doubtful that the enlarged roadway will help alleviate the daily traffic jams between Baranquilla and Santa Marta but, without a doubt, the massive quantity of concrete and asphalt added and the increased traffic flow will not only add to the pollution, garbage, and noise in the ciénaga, but will also lead to higher temperatures in the area. Scrapping the old highway and building an elevated one would allow the sea and the lagoon to naturally nourish each other and thus ensure the survival of the mangrove forests, but the government is unwilling to spend what it would take, even though environmental damages will surely be greater.

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