EarthRx: Can the World’s Love for Gabriel Garcia Marquez Save Colombia’s Magdalena River?

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EarthRx: Can the World’s Love for Gabriel Garcia Marquez Save Colombia’s Magdalena River?

EarthRx is a biweekly column that highlights the people, organizations and discoveries solving today’s most pressing environmental and public health problems. Although the landscape is complex, many of these solutions are surprisingly simple and rely only on tapping into the power of community, ingenuity, natural abundance and good ole love to save the day.


As the last bell tolls for the Magdalena River, which has gone dry at critical points along its estuary due to deforestation, a Colombian crowdfunding campaign hopes to pull off a feat of magic realism that taps into the power of love to save the day.

Anyone familiar with the works of Noble Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez has the Magdalena River burned into their memory banks with a passion. Marquez, who is affectionately known as “Gabo” throughout Colombia, spent his youth traveling up and down its banks and it figured as more of a protagonist than a backdrop in bestsellers like Love in the Time of Cholera and The General and His Labyrinth.

But the mighty Magdalena, the country’s principal and most important river – it snakes through the heart of Colombia from the towering Andes to the crystal clear Caribbean and is home to a crazy diverse array of fish and animals, including African hippos introduced by none other than Pablo Escobar himself – has been slowly dying for decades. Deforestation along its banks has led to extreme soil erosion and the sediment-swamped waters now form a gloomy pale wasteland at its terminus where an exuberant tropical wetland ecosystem once reigned.

Gabo was already shocked at the state of the Magdalena, his childhood inspiration, back in 1981 when he pleaded with the public for its salvation in an editorial for the Spanish newspaper El Pais:

“The rehabilitation of the Magdalena will only be possible with the continuous and deep effort of by at least four aware generations: a whole century spent sowing 59 million trees.”

This was four years before his international sensation Love in the Time of Cholera was published. But in the novel, the author again takes up the theme, positing the destruction of the river against the aging and mortality of poet Florentino and his lost and found again love Fermina:

“Florentino Ariza, in fact, was surprised by the changes, and would be even more surprised the following day, when navigation became more difficult and he realized that the Magdalena, father of waters, one of the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed Florentino Ariza on his first voyage.”

To literati types who can read between the lines, like Carlos (Cabeto) Alberto Duque and Wilmar Duque Gómez of Colombia’s new literary tourism consulting operation Reco Veco, the romance of lovers Florentino and Fermina sailing up and down the Magdalena’s length for eternity as an escape from mortality is a clear metaphor for the transcendent power of love.


“We are trying to tap into the force of love to save the Magdalena” Wilmar explained to me over a strong black tinto as he walked me through the details of the IndieGo-Go campaign entitled One Love, One River, One Tree that the Bogota-based dynamic duo has just launched.

With librerias (bookstores) on every corner and as the annual host of FILBO, the largest book fair in South America, literature is nurtured and cherished in Colombia’s Andean capital on a level on par with cities like SF or NYC back in the states.

“The Magdalena river actually sustains the life of the country,” Wilmar continued as we sat at a window-side table sipping away on the dark roast coffee,” Food and water is provided for about 33 million Colombians who live in or near its basin, and 86 percent of the country’s gross domestic product travels through or is produced there.”

Wilmar and Cabreto have already won widespread applause for coming up with the “Colombia: Magic Realism” campaign now adopted by the national tourism board and for launching the highly successful Moonlight Concert series, which takes place against stunning backdrops in different Colombian national parks. Now devoting their energy to promoting literary tourism in the country, they were playing around with different quotes by Marquez on Twitter when they found that there is still a huge and dedicated fanbase for Gabo around the world and that couples and lovers particularly re-tweeted the romantic phrases from Love in the Time of Cholera they shared.

From this experiment an ingenious idea was born.

“I do not know if you know what happened with the “love locks” movement in Paris,” Wilmar asked me, “That it was inspired by a literary work and today millions of people in the world put padlocks on bridges to celebrate their love”

Started on the Pont des Arts bridge and now a world-wide phenomena, love locks are a homage to the cult classic I Want You by Italian author Federico Moccia, and involve lovers inscribing their name on a padlock and locking it to a public structure to signify their undying love.

“What we hope to do is engage that same passion in planting millions of trees.” said Wilmar, flashing me a quick bookish smile.


The crowdfunding campaign just launched – and soon to be promoted widely via social media – by Wilmar and Cabeto is a public-private partnership between RecoVecos and the environmental group Chavita, an organization of residents of the Magdalena River basin that are already engaged in tree planting and habitat protection.

For every $10 that is donated to the IndieGoGo site, Chavita will plant a tree in the name of the donor or their amante, who will also receive a love letter from Florentino Ariza. For $500, donors are taken on an all-expense paid private tour from Bogota to the Magdalena River to visit and participate in the tree planting and explore Marquez’s favorite haunts.

“Ultimately we think fans of Gabo, who know that for Florentino Ariza the river is the place where he can be with his beloved ‘forever,’ will see that this is an opportunity to trigger a move from the imaginary to the real, with concrete impacts and lasting influence into the future,” Wilmar told me.

Identified by The Nature Conservatory as one of two “Great Rivers” of South America that is in a state of crisis (the other is the Tapajos River in Brazil) and needs drastic action right now to be saved, the Magdalena has only suffered an increase in deforestation since the 80s when Marquez spoke out and Love in the Time of Cholera placed it prominently in the mental landscape of millions of fans around the world. About 70 percent of the forest along its banks has been lost between 1980 and 2010 and several unique key species, like the West Indian Manatee and the Magdalena River Turtle, are in danger of extinction.

“Yes, it is quite sad,” Wilmar said, taking a deep sip of his tinto and meeting my gaze over the rim of his reading glasses, “but the idea with this project among other things is “putting happiness in fashion,” which was what Gabo intended with the publication of the novel.”

If anyone can put “happiness in fashion” and channel the love of literature to save a river, Colombia can. After all, this is the country that completely dominates the Gallup/Win world happiness poll year after year and invented the magic realism literary movement that continues to transport millions of readers to alternate realms teeming with yellow butterflies from the comfort of their armchairs.

In a telling scene near the last pages of Love In The Time of Cholera when the lovers realize things are not going to be as easy as they imagined, Florentino ponders this succinct quote:

“Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity.”

In the end, the redeeming quality of love is its triumph over all things temporal. It is this eternal force that is now needed to save the Magdalena River.

Top image: Iván Palomino, CC-BY

Ocean Malandra is a frequent contributor to Paste Magazine who divides his time between Northern California and South America.