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Integrated Governance for Managing Impacts in the Coastal Zone
Inter-institutional Coordination for Conserving Marine Ecosystems

Protecting marine ecosystems requires a comprehensive systems approach for coordinating the diverse human uses of the coastal zone, as well as managing the individual and cumulative impacts of these activities. In some locations, the aggregate effects of a variety of terrestrial- and marine-based stressors has pushed nearby ecosystems to the breaking point, created public health hazards, and threatened the livelihoods of local communities. Formal governance mechanisms for addressing the interrelationships between these factors are often referred to as Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM).1

ICZM is inherently challenging and complex, since regulatory oversight of the sectors that use or affect marine ecosystems, including terrestrail activities, has historically been carried out under a range of government agencies that have weak articulation and coordination between them.2 Agencies often have legislative mandates that circumscribe their functions and contribute to a "siloed" performance of their roles. Nongovernment entities such as NGOs, universities, trade groups, and community councils also play important roles in the governance and management of marine areas, including the conservation of coral reefs. The failure of comprehensive coastal zone governance has resulted in impacts that are particularly acute in heavily used and populated areas.

In European Union and other developed countries, disciplines such as marine spatial planning (MSP) have evolved to address the challenges associated with competing uses of maritime space and to begin overcoming weaknesses in inter-institutional coordination.3 In much of Latin America and the Caribbean, such inter-institutional linkages are nonexistent or still on the drawing board, but the severity of concentrated adverse impacts near coastal cities and high-use areas has provided an impetus for change. 4 Since this impetus has been largely reactive and arisen after severe cumulative harm has occurred, it is not surprising that courts are playing a key role—by interpreting institutional mandates more broadly, including a duty for agencies to coordinate with one another in fulfilling their missions.

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Case Study: Sentencia Popular Bahia de Cartagena
Court orders multiple government agencies to cooperate in restoring the ecosystems of Cartagena Bay, Colombia
A steady accumulation of pollutants in Cartagena Bay, Colombia over time has resulted in severe environmental damage and a public heath threat that can no longer be ignored. The severity of the crisis has triggered a reckoning via a landmark ruling by the Colombia's high court dealing with administrative controversies. The Consejo de Estado upheld a 2019 court decision finding that seven government agencies failed to fulfill their mandates to protect the marine environment of Cartagena Bay and directing them to cooperate with one another to accomplish a massive cleanup of the Bay.5 The unprecedented ruling calls for the development and execution of a comprehensive plan to restore the water quality and ecosystems.

In the Sentencia Popular, the court recognized the government's duty to protect collective rights and interests through a representatative action (acción popular) on behalf of Colombia's citizens under Article 88 of Colombia's Constitution and Law 472 of 1998, which elaborates the criteria and procedures for such actions to go forward.6

Article 4 of Law 472 defines "collective rights and interests" to include, among others, the enjoyment of a healthy environment; the existence of ecological balance; the sustainable management, use, and conservation of ecosystems; as well as "the other interests of the community related to the preservation and restoration of the environment."7 In carrying out the representative action, the Delegate Attorney for Environmental and Agrarian Affairs sued seven government agencies to compel performance of their functions relative to protecting these collective rights and interests:

  • Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MADS)
  • National Authority for Environmental Licenses (ANLA)
  • General Maritime Directorate (DIMAR)
  • Science and Technology Corporation for the Development of the Naval, Maritime and Fluvial Industry (COTECMAR)
  • Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Canal del Dique (CARDIQUE)
  • Tourist and Cultural District of Cartagena de Indias
  • Environmental Public Establishment of Cartagena (EPA CARTAGENA)

The ruling rejected claims by a number of agencies that they had fulfilled their institutional functions and were not delinquent in allowing the ecological harm to occur. The court systematically examined the enabling legislation and mandates for each agency, highlighting in each case where a duty existed to participate in safeguarding the environmental health of Cartagena Bay, including the duty to cooperate with the other competent agencies where necessary to carry out this task.8

Going forward: Carrying out the actions prescribed in the Sentencia Popular
Following the decision, a comprehensive planning process was begun, facilitated by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, to draft a Master Plan for the Restoration of the Cartagena Bay and involving approximately 50 professionals from the institutions involved.9 The draft of the Master Plan was formally presented on March 4, 2022 and will be submitted to a public consultation process to receive comments from key stakeholders, including representatives from the community, academia, the private sector, the Cartagena District Mayor's Office (through EPA Cartagena), the Cardique and Cormagdalena Regional Autonomous Corporations, ANLA, and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam).

Following the adoption of a final Master Plan, each of the entities named in the acción popular will work toward identifying financing needs and resources, as well as the planning cooperation in restoring the area's marine ecosystems.10

The Council of State (the judiciary body) envisions the following components of this effort:11

  • Program for the evaluation, prevention and control of terrestrial and marine sources that will include specific projects for each one of the causal factors identified in the ruling.
  • Program for the rehabilitation and restoration of degraded marine and coastal ecosystems, conservation of species and marine biodiversity.
  • Conservation program for marine and coastal protected areas.
  • Education and sustainable use program.
  • Preventive program of evaluation of information systems.
  • Strategic management program for maritime interests.

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1. European Commission (27 September 2000), Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on Integrated Coastal Zone Management: A Strategy for Europe, COM(2000) 547 final, (Defining ICZM as " dynamic, multidisciplinary and iterative process to promote sustainable management of coastal zones. It covers the full cycle of information collection, planning (in its broadest sense), decision making, management and monitoring of implementation. ICZM uses the informed participation and cooperation of all stakeholders to assess the societal goals in a given coastal area, and to take actions towards meeting these objectives. ICZM seeks, over the long-term, to balance environmental, economic, social, cultural and recreational objectives, all within the limits set by natural dynamics. 'Integrated' in ICZM refers to the integration of objectives and also to the integration of the many instruments needed to meet these objectives. It means integration of all relevant policy areas, sectors, and levels of administration. It means integration of the terrestrial and marine components of the target territory, in both time and space",

2. Grip, K., Blomqvist, S. Marine spatial planning: Coordinating divergent marine interests. Ambio 50, 1172—1183 (2021)., (stating that it has become obvious that a "more holistic, multi-sectoral and coordinated approach is needed" for effective marine planning and management going forward); See also Compton, S., P. McConney, I. Monnereau, B. Simmons and R. Mahon. 2017. Good Practice Guidelines for Successful National Intersectoral Coordination Mechanisms (NICs). Report for the UNDP/GEF CLME+ Project (2015-2020). Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. CERMES Technical Report No. 88: 14pp.

3. Tim Stojanovic, Kira Gee, Governance as a framework to theorise and evaluate marine planning, Marine Policy, Volume 120, 2020, 104115, ISSN 0308-597X,

4. Ibid.

5. Sentencia Popular Bahia de Cartagena, Consejo de Estado, Sala de lo Contencioso Administrativo, 20 August 2020,

6. Article 88 of the Constitución Política de Colombia states that "The law will regulate popular actions for the protection of collective rights and interests, related to heritage, space, public safety and health, administrative morality, the environment, free economic competition and others of a similar nature that are defined in her....
It will also regulate the actions originated in the damages caused to a plural number of people, without prejudice to the corresponding private actions...
Likewise, it will define the cases of objective civil liability for the damage inflicted on collective rights and interests.",

7. Ley 472 de 1998. Article 4 "rights and collective interests" include, among others, those related to: (a) "The enjoyment of a healthy environment, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the law and the regulations;" and (c) "The existence of ecological balance and the management and rational use of natural resources in order to ensure their sustainable development, conservation, restoration or replacement. The conservation of animal and plant species, the protection of areas of special ecological importance, of the ecosystems located in border areas, as well as the other interests of the community related to the preservation and restoration of the environment."

8. Sentencia Popular, Supra note 5. Mandatory legislative provisions prescribing inter-institutional coordination are emphasized throughout the court's ruling.

9. Ministry of the Environment (Colombia), A fase de consulta pública el borrador del Plan de Restauración de la Bahía de Cartagena, 9 March 22,

10. Sentencia Polular, Paragraph 342, stating the minimum contents of the Master Plan ("Plan Maestro de Restauración Ecológica para la bahía de Cartagena").

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