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(Tropical) Andes: CPD Site SA25


Location:  North coast near Caribbean Sea, between latitudes 10°10'-11°20'N and longitudes 72°30'-74°15'W.
12,232 km².
0-5776 m.
Along 500-4300 m transect: premontane forest in lower tropical area; montane to dwarf forests in middle area; fields and thickets in páramo.
c. 1800 recorded species of vascular plants; high endemism.
Useful plants: 
Diverse medicinals, foods, and for ceremonies, dyes, construction, fuelwood.
Other values: 
Endemic fauna, watershed protection, Amerindian lands, archaeological sites, glacial landscapes, tourism.
Cattle-ranching, erosion, logging, accelerated land-clearing, illegal crops, guerrilla settlements, pollution; insufficient measures to preserve areas with high biodiversity.
Tayrona Natural National Park (150 km²), Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta NNP (3830 km²) partially overlapping two Amerindian reserves: Resguardo Indígena Kogi-Malayo (Arsario) (c. 3618 km²), RI Arhuaco (1959 km²).

Map 61: CPD Site SA25


The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is on Colombia's Caribbean coast in the departments Magdalena, La Guajira and Cesar, between the cities Barranquilla and Maracaibo (Map 61). Diverse thermic regimes (or life zones) exist on the massif in a gradient ranging from low and warm tropical or equatorial areas through temperate regimes up to cold to frigid areas of the páramo, culminating in perpetual snow and ice (Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta 1991; van der Hammen and Ruiz-C. 1984).

The isolated massif was formed between the Early Miocene and Late Pleistocene. Very different rocky outcroppings are presented: granite batholiths, diorite and quartzomonzonite of the Mesozoic and Tertiary; rhyolitic and ignimbritic volcanic rocks, along with a varied sequence of sediments limestones, sandstones and siltstones (Bartels 1984).

Along the altitudinal transect of this mountain system, different soils occur as do varied temperatures and precipitation (Sevink 1984; van der Hammen 1984a, 1984b). The thermal gradient changes 0.56°C per 100 m in elevation, from somewhat over 27°C at sea-level to 0°C at c. 4850 m. Between 500 m and 1300-1500 m, the soils are classified as dystropepts, with pH over 5; the median annual temperature (stable soil temperature) is 19.5°C and the precipitation reaches over 4000 mm (at 1400 m elevation). From 1500-2500 m, the soils belong to the humitropept group, with pH below 5; the temperature averages 14.5°C, the precipitation 3500 mm. From 2500-3300 m, the soils are tropaquepts, also with pH below 5; the temperature averages 9°C, the precipitation 2200 mm. From 2700-2900 m is the zone of greatest condensation. From 3300-4100 m, cryaquept and placaquept soils are found, with pH over 5; the temperature averages 7°C, the precipitation 1300 mm.

The average monthly temperature varies through the year by less than 2.5°C. In the lower part of the transect area there is a water deficit during three or four months (December-March).

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The massif intercepts trade winds from the north-east, creating a differential distribution of vegetation belts and ecological segregation. In general, the seaward northern slope has conditions of greater moisture than the inland southern slope.

Along a transect from 4300 m to 500 m on the massif, the vegetation ranges through fields and thickets of the páramos, dwarf to montane forests in the middle elevations, and premontane forests in the lower equatorial region.

The syntaxonomic arrangement of the vegetation on the northern slope is as follows (Rangel-Ch. 1991; Cleef and Rangel-Ch. 1984; Cleef et al. 1984):

1. "Páramo" (4500-3300 m)
Bunchgrass fields, thickets (cf. Sturm and Rangel-Ch. 1985).

1.1. Zonal vegetation
Class Espeletio-Calamagrostietea. Order Calamagrostietalia effusae. Alliance 1: Drabo cheiranthoidis-Calamagrostion effusae (= Luzulo racemosae-Calamagrostion effusae). Association Drabo cheranthoidis-Calamogrostietum effusae, with other important species such as Carex sanctae-marthae (Cyperaceae) and Diplostephium anactinotum and Oligandra chrysocoma (Asteraceae). Alliance 2: Hyperico-Calamagrostion effusae. Two Associations: Perissocoelo-Calamagrostietum effusae and Spirantho-Pernettyetum prostratae, with species such as Perissocoeleum purdiei (Apiaceae) and Gnaphalium graveolens (Asteraceae).

On the southern flank (the dry zone), "pajonales" and thickets are described by the two Associations Stevio lucidae-Calamagrostietum effusae and Valeriano karstenii-Libanothamnetum glossophylli.

1.2. Azonal vegetation
Aquatic and marshy communities. Order Oritrophio-Wernerietalia. Alliance 3: Wernerion crassae-pygmaeae. Association Oritrophio-Wernerietum pygmaeae.

2. Andean region (3300-2500 m)
The middle zone of the gradient, with low (58 m) forests, and montane forests (15-20 m high) that usually have three storeys.

Alliance 4: Myrciantho ternifoliae-Weinmannion pinnatae. Two Associations: Chaetolepido santamartensis-Myrcianthetum ternifoliae, with the Subassociation Libanothamnetosum glossophylli at the treeline, and Clusio multiflorae- Weinmannietum pinnatae.

3. Sub-Andean region (2500-1150 m)
Alliance 5: Gustavio speciosae-Tovomition weddellianae. Two Associations: Cavendishio callistae-Tovomitetum weddellianae (2500-1600 m), with the two Subassociations Stylogynetosum and Graffenriedetosum santamartensis, and Calatolo costaricensis-Dictyocaryetum schultzei (1600-1150 m).

4. Tropical or equatorial region (1100-500 m)
The lower zone, with premontane forests to 20-35 m high.

Alliance 6: Zygio longifoliae-Virolion sebiferae. Two Associations: Dictyocaryo scultzei-Zygietum longifoliae (1150-800 m) and Poulsenio armatae-Perseetum americanae (800-400 m).

5. Below 500 m
Tropical mesic forest, tropical deciduous dry forest, and succulent and thorny matorral occur.

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Although no exhaustive inventory of the flora exists for the entire massif, preliminary figures have reported 1800 vascular plant species (Rangel-Ch., Cleef and Salamanca-V. 1996). Table 60 presents the families and genera with the greatest numbers of species along the transect and the dominant families in each of the four life zones (Cuatrecasas 1958).

In the zone of the páramo exist species whose areas of distribution show endemism, such as in the genera Berberis (Berberidaceae); Draba (Brassicaceae); Symplocos (Symplocaceae); Perissocoeleum, Micropleura, Cotopaxia (Apiaceae); Satureja (Lamiaceae); Aragoa (Scrophulariaceae); Senecio, Oligandra, Diplostephium, Hinterhubera (Asteraceae); and Carex (Cyperaceae). Moreover, there are also endemic genera, such as Cabreriella, Castanedia and Raouliopsis (Asteraceae). In the Andean and sub-Andean regions, endemics are represented particularly by Melastomataceae, Arecaceae, Aquifoliaceae and Myrsinaceae.

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Useful plants

Indigenous communities, especially the Kogi, use some natural resources in the following ways (Carbonó 1987):

  • Medicinal: 81 species, among which the following are significant: Oreopanax floribundus (Araliaceae); Blepharodon mucronatum (Asclepiadaceae); Achyrocline satureioides, Hypochoeris sessiliflora, Stevia lucida, Verbesina sp. (Asteraceae); Protium neglectum (Burseraceae); Clusia sp. (Clusiaceae); Weinmannia pinnata (Cunoniaceae); Pernettya prostrata, Vaccinium meridionale (Ericaceae); Satureja caerulescens (Lamiaceae); Peperomia rotundifolia, Piper arboreum (Piperaceae); Muehlenbeckia tamnifolia (Polygonaceae); and Acaena cylindrostachya, Lachemilla sp. (Rosaceae).
  • Alimentary: 32 species, including Annona muricata, "guanábana" (Annonaceae); Ananas comosus, "piña" (Bromeliaceae); Carica microcarpa, C. papaya, papaya (Caricaceae); Hirtella trianda (Chrysobalancaceae); Ipomoea batatas, "batata" (Convolvulaceae); Cucurbita moschata, "ahuyama" (Cucurbitaceae); Dioscorea alata, "ñame" (Dioscoreaceae); Manihot esculenta, "yuca" (Euphorbiaceae); Inga spp. "guama", Vigna sinensis (Leguminosae); Bunchosia spp., "ciruela" (Malpighiaceae); Pourouma aspera (Moraceae); Psidium guajava (Myrtaceae); Passiflora mollissima, "maracuya", P. vitifolia (Passifloraceae); Pouteria arguacoensium, "manzana" (Sapotaceae); and Capsicum spp., "ají" (Solanaceae).
  • For construction: 44 species, including Oreopanax diguensis; Cecropia peltata (Cecropiaceae); Clethra repanda (Clethraceae); Weinmannia pinnata; Doliocarpus dentatus (Dilleniaceae); Aniba sp. (Lauraceae); Miconia dodecandra (Melastomataceae); Rapanea dependens, R. ferruginea (Myrsinaceae); Psidium caudatum; Roupala suaveolens (Symplocaceae); and Trema micrantha (Ulmaceae).
  • Fuelwood: 6 species, among which are Oreopanax floribundus; Pithecellobium latifolium (Leguminosae); and Cupania americana (Sapindaceae).
  • Dyes: 12 species, including Bidens triplinervia (Asteraceae); Berberis sp. (Berberidaceae); Protium neglectum; Coriaria thymifolia (Coriariaceae); and Weinmannia pinnata.
  • For ceremonials: 36 species, including Oreopanax diguensis, O. floribundus; Bursera tomentosa (Burseraceae); Lagenaria siceraria (Cucurbitaceae); Erythroxylum novogranatense (Erythroxylaceae); Crotalaria micans, C. pilosa, Lupinus carrikerri (Leguminosae); Monochaetum venosum (Melastomataceae); Psychotria horizontalis (Rubiaceae); Cardiospermum microcarpum (Sapindaceae); and Anemia ferruginea (Schizaeaceae).

Some plant types in the massif are relicts for Colombia, e.g. Dictyocaryum schultzei (ivory-nut palm). Other palms have economic potential, such as Scheelea magdalenica ("palma curúa"), Astrocaryum malybo (straw palm), Copernicia tectorum ("palma zarare"), Aiphanes aculeata ("cohune" palm), and in Cyclanthaceae Carludovica palmata ("palma giraca"). The feasibility of utilizing other plant resources, such as Vanilla planifolia (vanilla) and Furcraea spp. ("pita"), is under study (Herrera de Turbay 1984).

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Social and environmental values

The massif is characterized by the cultural heterogenity of its inhabitants. In higher elevations dwell the indigenous Kogi or Kággaba, Ijka or Arhuaco, and Sánha or Wiwa (Arsario or Malayo), who together make up 10% of the region's c. 200,000 inhabitants. The Kogi (from the northern slope) are the most traditional and least in contact with modern civilization. The lower part of the massif is inhabited by colonists from different regions of the country - Antioquia, Santander, Tolima and Guajira (Fundación Pro-Sierra de Santa Marta 1991).

The zones of the páramo provide indispensible vegetative resources for survival of the indigenous cultures. Of the 187 plants utilized by the Kogi, 51 grow in the páramo - 27% of that total. Of the 77 plants utilized medicinally, 43 grow in the páramo - 56%. Of the 12 plants used for dyes or construction, 8 are from the páramo - 66% of those types of resources (Carbonó 1987).

Extensive areas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta served as home to pre-Columbian cultures, peoples who managed the environment in relative accord with nature. The preservation and in certain cases reconstruction of their cities (e.g. Pocigüeica, Bonda, Taironaca) is a contribution to the history of Colombia's culture, and as well tourist activities could be derived from them and related to implementation of centres of ecological tourism.

The massif constitutes a natural barrier, which blocks the circulation of the trade winds from the north-east and has a decisive effect on maintenance of the hydric regime of a large portion of the northern region of Colombia. The landscape of the glaciers - which are on the highest peaks of Colombia - is of great cultural value. There are various high-altitude lakes where important rivers originate, such as the Sevilla, Frío, Tucurinca and Buritaca. These constitute important sources for the provision of water to cities such as Santa Marta and Fundación.

The diversity of the upper zones is high. There are many endemic animals, such as the butterfly genera Reliquia and Paramo; the enigmatic frog genus Geobatrachus - 76% of the 21 known species of amphibians and reptiles from the páramo and cloud-forest regions are endemic; c. 70 subspecies and species of birds are endemic - including the Santa Marta conure (Pyrrhura viridicata), black-backed thornbill (Ramphomicron dorsale), Santa Marta whitestart (Myioborus flavivertex); and several mammals - e.g. a white-fronted capuchin monkey (Cebus albifrons malitiosus), rodents in Sciurus, Oryzomys, Thomasomys, Proechimys and Diplomys, a páramo brocket deer (Mazama americana carrikeri) (INDERENA 1984; Fundación Pro-Sierra de Santa Marta 1991).

The Santa Marta mountains are a discrete Endemic Bird Area (EBA B08); 15 bird species are restricted to the EBA and a further seven species shared with other EBAs. The large number of subspecies also confined to this region emphasizes the probable process of recent colonization and differentiation from species in the main Andean chain. Most of the endemics occupy wide altitudinal bands; just two species are confined to the tropical zone forest and two to the páramo and treeline scrub. One species in the EBA is considered threatened, but with recent reports on the poor state of the forests on the sierra, reassessment for the restricted-range species may be necessary.

Economic assessment

The most important economic value is related to the utilization of generated hydrological resources, which can only last if adequate areas covered by vegetation will persist. Also, timber trees are extracted.

Legal and illegal cultivation take place. Principal among the former is coffee, on the part of the massif between 700-1300 m. The indigenous peoples have cattle in the páramos, along with crops of potato, garlic and "arracacha" (Arracacia xanthorrhiza). In the mid-part of the massif, beans and maize are planted, whereas in the lower parts, sugarcane, avocado, yuca and cotton are grown. The illegal cultivation relates to the commerce of marijuana (Cannabis sativa subsp. indica) in the 1970s and more recently to "coca" (Erythroxylum coca), a crop linked to the cultural ancestors of the Amerindians (Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta 1991).

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In the páramo zone, intensive cattle-ranching by indigenous peoples and colonists has affected extensive areas, in which all original vegetation has disappeared - severe problems of erosion with loss of soil are occurring (Rangel-Ch. 1989). In the mid-parts, the areas of the Andean life zones, cultivation and cattle-ranching have affected the native forests, which also suffer from timber exploitation. The planting of illegal crops such as marijuana and coca affect the middle and lower zones of the massif. Government control campaigns on these crops use highly toxic poisons, which also disturb the biotic systems. In the lower part of the massif the colonists have notably changed the landscape - there are problems of deforestation, unprotected soil, erosion and decrease in the volume of rivers.

The amount of land in the massif covered by forests has been reduced drastically during the last 50 years. In certain cases, the reduction is considered close to 50% - some have estimated that the deterioration is even greater, reaching 70-80% of the original area (Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta 1991; Herrera de Turbay 1985).

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In the area of the massif the Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales Renovables y del Medio Ambiente (INDERENA) promoted the establishment of two National Parks: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural NP (1964, enlarged 1977) and Tayrona NNP (1969). There also are two indigenous reserves, which overlap with much of the Santa Marta NNP: Resguardo Indígena Arhuaco (1974, enlarged 1983) and RI Kogi-Malayo (Arsario) (1980, modified 1990). In 1989 INDERENA developed a park management plan, but it has not been fully implemented due to needs for financial and human resources - in 1993 there were six park rangers and a park director.

Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (a non-governmental organization) assists INDERENA in the management of Alto de Mira and Filo Cartagena ranger districts through the Parks in Peril Program of The Nature Conservancy (U.S.), which has as a principal objective conservation of biological diversity, by financial and technical support to ensure adequate on-the-ground protection. This programme provides for creation and improvement of the existing infrastructure, a permanent conservation presence, inventory and monitoring of hunting activities and extraction of natural resources, involvement of local communities in the decision-making process, environmental education activities and work opportunities for local communities.

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Map 61. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia (CPD Site SA25)


Bartels, G. (1984). Los pisos morfoclimáticos de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia). In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 99-129.

Carbonó, E. (1987). Estudio etnobotánico entre los Kogui de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. M.S. thesis in Systematics. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Museo de Historia Natural, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá. 154 pp.

Cleef, A.M. and Rangel-Ch., J.O. (1984). La vegetación del páramo del noroeste de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 203-266.

Cleef, A.M., Rangel-Ch., J.O., van der Hammen, T. and Jaramillo-M., R. (1984). La vegetación de las selvas del transecto Buritaca. In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 267-406.

Cuatrecasas, J. (1958). Aspectos de la vegetación natural de Colombia. Rev. Acad. Col. Cienc. Exactas Fís. Nat. 10(40): 221- 268.

Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (1991). Historia y geografía: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Fondo Editorial Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Bogotá. 48 pp.

Herrera de Turbay, L.F. (1984). La actividad agrícola en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): perspectiva histórica. In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 501-530.

Herrera de Turbay, L.F. (1985). Agricultura aborigen y cambios de vegetación en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Bogotá. 260 pp.

INDERENA (1984). Colombia parques nacionales. Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales Renovables y del Medio Ambiente (INDERENA), Bogotá. 263 pp.

Rangel-Ch., J.O. (1989). Características bioecológicas y problemática de manejo de la región paramuna de Colombia. Memorias del seminario sobre "Los páramos de Colombia". Suelos ecuatoriales. Revista Sociedad Colombiana Ciencia del Suelo 19(1): 11-19.

Rangel-Ch., J.O. (1991). Vegetación y ambiente en tres gradientes montañosos de Colombia. Ph.D. thesis. University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam. 349 pp.

Rangel-Ch., J.O., Cleef, A.M. and Salamanca-V., S. (1995). The equatorial interandean and subandean forests of the Parque Los Nevados transect, Cordillera Central, Colombia. In van der Hammen, T. and dos Santos, A. (eds), La Cordillera Central Colombiana: transecto Parque Los Nevados. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems / Estudios de Ecosistemas Tropandinos Vol. 4 / 5. J. Cramer, Berlin. In press.

Sevink, J. (1984). An altitudinal sequence of soils in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 131-138.

Sturm, H. and Rangel-Ch., J.O. (1985). Ecología de los páramos andinos: una visión preliminar integrada. Biblioteca J.J. Triana No. 9. Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Museo de Historia Natural, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá. 292 pp.

van der Hammen, T. (1984a). Datos eco-climatológicos del transecto Buritaca y alrededores (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta). In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 45- 66.

van der Hammen, T. (1984b). Temperaturas de suelo en el transecto Buritaca þ La Cumbre. In van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds), La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. Pp. 67-74.

van der Hammen, T. and Ruiz-C., P.M. (eds) (1984). La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia): transecto Buritaca - La Cumbre. Studies on Tropical Andean Ecosystems / Estudios de Ecosistemas Tropandinos Vol. 2. J. Cramer, Berlin. 603 pp.


This Data Sheet was written by Dr J. Orlando Rangel-Ch. and Aída Garzón-C., Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Museo de Historia Natural, Apartado Aéreo 7495, Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia).

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