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Public Values and Management Complexity in the Protection of a Tropical National Park

We are in the midst of a global ecological crisis. Habitats are declining across the planet at an unprecedented rate that is, by most measures, nonetheless speeding up. The average abundance of native species in land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since the start of the 20th century (IPBES, 2019). Close to half of all amphibian species and a third of reef-forming corals and marine mammals are now threatened. Only about 10% of wetlands present in the 1700s remained by the start of the 21st century, with recent losses of those ecosystems increasing in speed (IPBES, 2019). At the same time, average  global temperatures have risen by about 1°C (between 0.8°C and 1.2°C) compared to pre-industrial levels, with warming greater than the global annual average occurring in many land regions across the planet (IPCC, 2018). In the face of these worsening negative trends, governments have designated approximately one-sixth of the global terrestrial surface as protected areas (PAs), reflecting the essential status of that strategy for the conservation of nature. In tropical regions, in which more than two thirds of the world's biodiversity is located, PAs reduce deforestation and loss of carbon through rainforest photosynthesis. As a result, they play a critical role in combating climate change and safeguarding not only biodiversity, but also, ecosystem services vital to societal wellbeing.

Colombia has one such protected area, Salamanca Island Road Park (VIPIS, for its acronym in Spanish), that has sought to protect biodiversity, combat climate change and ensure a range of ecosystem services arising from within its bounds. VIPIS is located within the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, one of the largest coastal wetlands in Latin America, part of the Magdalena River delta. Established in 1964 in tandem with the neighboring Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Tayrona National Parks, VIPIS is one of the oldest parks within Colombia's National Protected Area System.

Throughout its history, the Park’s ecology and its personnel’s options to respond to changing conditions, have been shaped by a number of public values that have, at times, conflicted. That is, they have often required trade-offs among them, although neither relevant governments nor the general public have consistently acknowledged that reality. VIPIS provides a lens through which to study the evolution of public values relating to environmental conservation in one nation and to examine how public values have evolved within conservation practice across time.

On Value(s) and Public Value(s)

To begin, it is useful to define value(s) and public value(s), as the terms can be used interchangeably. Within public administration, public value often refers to collective assessments of the benefits created and provided by a public entity or enterprise (Moore, 1995; Nabatchi, 2018). On the other hand, following Bozeman, values are understood in public administration scholarship as individual conceptions of an issue, informed by feelings and understandings, while public values (not public value) are conceived,

as those providing normative consensus about (a) the rights, benefits, and prerogatives to which citizens should (and should not) be entitled; (b) the obligations of citizens to society, the state, and one another; and (c) the principles on which governments and policies should be based (2007, p. 13).

Values have garnered substantial interest during the past few years within the practice of conservation, as evidenced by the multiple ways that the value of nature has been understood. Nature’s value can be seen as intrinsic, inherently worthy regardless of human activities or interventions; instrumental, valued as a means to an end; and/or relational, based on the perceived meaningfulness of relationships between nature and people and people within nature (Martín-López, 2021). These disparate understandings of nature are commonly adopted by individuals and are difficult to differentiate and delineate clearly in practice. This article adopts Witesman's conception of the relationship between public value and public values as, “indelibly linked: public value sees the fruition of the seeds sown by public values, and evaluates those fruits based on the criteria established by public values” (2016, p. 25).

Applied analyses, such as this reflection, can support broader discussion around the multiple valuations of nature and biodiversity conservation and hopefully lead to the development of useful strategies for Protected Area professionals to integrate public values into their daily efforts.  

Evolving Values and Interests in Environmental Conservation

The dominant values that led to the establishment of Colombia’s National Park System originated in the international arena at the start of the 20th century, during a period in which there was increasing concern to protect nature. Pressed through a predominantly instrumental lens, these efforts, led by countries such as the United States (which had established its own National Park Service in 1916 during its Progressive Era), exported such conservation models into countries that had not yet developed protected areas.

Regional conservation efforts further to this impetus across the Americas led to the Pan American Union’s (later the Organization of American States) 1940 Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, commonly known as the Washington Convention, as it was declared in Washington, D.C. Colombia signed the Washington Convention in 1941. The pact sought to “protect and preserve scenery of extraordinary beauty, unusual and striking geologic formations, regions and natural objects of aesthetic, historic or scientific value” by establishing the enabling conditions necessary for development of national legislation to create a domestic park service within the country (Washington Convention, 1940). Aesthetic, historic and scientific values can be regarded as instrumental, because their values depend on and derive from the responses they produce in humans (e.g., pleasure and knowledge) (Justus et al., 2009).

While in the 1940s and 1950s the Colombian government established wildlife reserves, such as Macarena in the Colombian Amazon, to support some of the public values incorporated in the Washington Convention, and forest reserves, which now include Quebradas El Peñón y San Juan & Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to address more resource-use oriented values (rather than aesthetic or scientific ones), it was not until 1959 that the nation established a National Parks System through Law 2 enacted in that year. That statute aimed to protect the nation’s fauna and flora and it accorded the national government authority to expropriate lands and/or individual improvements within declared PAs, when necessary, for that purpose. The law also prohibited all activities in the parks that were not tourism-related or otherwise considered by the government as instrumental to their conservation or beautification.

As noted above, VIPIS was established as a National Natural Park in 1964. Although located within the jurisdiction of the Sitionuevo and Pueblo Viejo municipalities, its history has been tied to its neighbor on the left bank of the River, Barranquilla, Colombia’s largest Caribbean city. The construction of the Barranquilla-Ciénaga highway, which began in 1956, drastically shifted the hydrological dynamics of the Ciénaga Grande wetland system in which VIPIS is located, blocking the exchange between salt and fresh water necessary for the area’s wetland ecosystem to survive. In short, the road proved disastrous for the region’s ecosystem. Local and national authorities identified mangrove forest degradation arising from the highway’s construction in the mid-1960s, and later that decade fish and oyster mortality increased dramatically, affecting the livelihoods of local community residents who depended on those resources (Vilardy, 2009). A second highway constructed during the 1970s paralleling the Magdalena’s right bank was even more detrimental to the  ecosystem’s health, as it interrupted the flow of fresh water, increased the salinity of the ecosystem and resulted in the disappearance of vegetation on a large-scale. Ultimately, the area began to evidence desertification (Vilardy, personal communications; 2009). The national government undertook a series of efforts in the late 20th century aimed at increasing the flow of water within the Magdalena River within the VIPIS to reduce salinity levels and recover the functions of the area’s hydrological system. Thankfully, those steps had an almost immediate positive effect on the vitality of the river basin’s mangrove forest. Nonetheless, the PA today is increasingly vulnerable to intense wildfires caused by continued mangrove harvesting for charcoal, hunting and large-scale agriculture.

The following policy and legal mechanisms highlight the evolution of values in the conservation of the VIPIS. As framed under various Colombian laws and decrees, park staff are required to consider in their daily duties the values embedded in these mechanisms. In 1997, the Ciénaga Grande which includes VIPIS, was declared a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, because it evidenced five of that Convention’s nine criteria for such a designation. In 1998, the Colombian government categorized VIPIS as a Road Park, becoming the only such area within the National Park System. That same year the national government expanded the VIPIS area by 35,200 ha to its current size of 56,200 ha. In 2000, the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme included the Ciénaga Grande as a Biosphere Reserve due to the representative ecosystems comprising it and the neighboring Ciénaga Grande Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (established in 1977). In 2018, Presidential Decree 1500 formally defined the ancestral network of sacred sites of the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, known as the ‘Black Line,’ a share of which are formally located within the Park.  In 2020, Colombia’s Supreme Court declared that VIPIS possessed independent rights to protect it from encroaching deforestation and environmental degradation, such as a decline in fish stock. The ruling required several government authorities to address the situation quickly. The Court argued that “humanity is not superior to nature and, therefore, is not entitled to use it indiscriminately as an object” (Supreme Court of Colombia, 2020). The Court’s decision bestowed intrinsic value on the park’s flora and fauna by according it value independent of human uses.

Lastly, multiple territorial entities and planning mechanisms are today in place that contemplate various environmental issues and include or mention some aspects related to the ecosystem services provided by VIPIS. These include:

  • Development and Territorial Management Plans of the Sitionuevo and Pueblo Viejo municipalities;
  • Development Plans of the Magdalena and Atlántico departments;
  • Action Plans of the Regional Autonomous Corporations of Magdalena (CORPAMAG), Atlántico (CRA), and the Magdalena River basin (CORMAGDALENA);
  • Development Plan of Barranquilla

These and other local, national and international frameworks mediate interests and suggest values to VIPIS personnel to guide them in their choice-making, who then have the challenge of navigating the complex institutional and territorial environment to create public value.

Implications and Operationalization of Public Values

Most of the values embedded within the international and local mechanisms outlined above support the historical public value given to the PA, that of conserving ecosystem services. For most of its history the importance of conservation and the VIPIS PA have been framed though the lens of ecosystem services, intended to communicate the value nature, in all its forms, has for societal well-being. The PA’s founding statute, Ramsar, UNESCO and the local entities, all include ecosystem services as a central public value, requiring National Park staff to center their efforts on protecting the area’s ecology in spite of additional values often assigned to the territory, such as those concerning economic or spiritual concerns.  

However, the past three or four decades have witnessed a trend around the globe to valuate nature, packaging it as an asset that can be relatively measurable, a purportedly simple vehicle for private and public actors to prioritize issues within complex systems. As a protected area that contains thousands of hectares of mangrove forests, an ecosystem whose role in climate change mitigation and adaptation are relatively well understood and that can be measured, the PA has gained the attention of the Colombian executive branch in its climate finance work. Those agencies have, in effect, put a value on VIPIS’ forests. Important private sector actors, such as Apple, have also become interested in Colombia’s mangroves, investing in their conservation as part of their carbon offset programs (Apple, 2019). While useful in some cases, the dangers of simplifying Nature and ‘assetizing’ ecosystem services abound, with implications for the public value that PA managers seek to create. As mangroves increase in prominence as a source of financial capital, it can be easy to overlook other ecosystems and species that are also within VIPIS’s public value objectives.

Alternative values, such as the one embraced by the Supreme Court’s decision according rights to Nature, adds additional competing claims to the mix confronting those managing PAs. While the rights of Nature doctrine assigns the earth and its natural systems intrinsic value, the arguments by the Supreme Court for according the park rights included air quality considerations, thus acknowledging nature’s instrumentality to public health. This element within the Supreme Court’s arguments suggests that the rights of nature doctrine itself is evolving.

It will be of interest to see how rights of nature, indigenous rights, community rights, ecosystem services, and climate finance are ultimately internalized within the PA’s management strategy, which has historically valued the area for its ecosystem services. It might be the case that ecosystem services and tourism interests conflict with the increasingly dominant climate finance approach, and that rights of Nature’s strictures conflict with the rights and livelihoods of neighboring local communities that depend on the ecosystem for resources.

Nabatchi (2018) has provided a useful model that supports the incorporation of the multiple values in play highlighted above within administration and governance, centering on political, legal, organizational and market value frames that evidence multiple content values. Content values, such as participation to ensure political voice, equity to accord with legal aspirations, organizational efficiency to ensure appropriate ecosystem services are the foundation of these frames and suggest the palette of  actions available when a practitioner identifies a primary value for a particular issue, potentially expanding the historical managerialist values and tools that have dominated PA management. In addition to the four frames, Nabatchi (2018) also highlights the role of what he calls, “itinerant values, such as citizenship and accountability, which are interpreted differently within the four frames. The values surrounding PAs continue to evolve rapidly, tensions between public servants and other interests are created by the conflicts evident among them, with very few tools for park guards to employ to mediate among these disparate claims in a concrete way. Creating more case analyses demonstrating how officials have sought to balance these multiple valuations of nature and what those decisions suggest for the effective conversation of biodiversity will help to provide useful information for further refinement of practical tools to manage the demands arising from these competing frames.  Now more than ever protected are professionals are expected to integrate a wide spectrum of values that often are in tension with each other.


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STC3872-2020, (2020) (testimony of Supreme Court of Colombia).

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UNESCO. (2017). A New roadmap for the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves - UNESCO Digital Library. United  Nations  Educational,  Scientific  and  Cultural  Organization.

Vilardy, S. P. (2009). Estructura y dinámica de la ecorregión Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta: una aproximación desde el marco conceptual de los sistemas socio-ecológicos complejos y la teoría de la resiliencia. [Universidad Autonoma de Madrid].

Witesman, E. (2016). From Public Values to Public Value and Back Again.

Isidoro Hazbun

Isidoro Hazbun is a graduate student at Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP), with a research and professional focus on tropical conservation policy and management. Isidoro serves as the Amazon Conservation Team's (ACT) Manager for Public Affairs and Programs Support, where he closely works with and supports organizational leadership in the day-to-day management of programs, specifically in activities related to the development and implementation of community conservation strategies. Since 2009, Isidoro has been supporting efforts to protect and conserve Colombia’s Salamanca Island Road Park.

Isidoro holds a Master’s from Harvard University, and a Bachelor’s from Virginia Tech.