Sunday 26 September was World Rivers Day. It caused me to reflect on a river that at first I found difficult to take seriously – the Rio Magdalena – as its Spanish name used to translate as ‘River Fairy Cake’ in online translation software (Magdalenas are a lemon-flavoured cupcake).
The Amazon and Mississippi basins are two of the most well-known, longest, and largest rivers. The Rio Magdalena in Colombia, although large in size and geographically and historically important, is rarely grouped or associated with these two basins. It has, however, been described as “the social, environmental and economic heart” of the nation. It provides a home to 80 percent of Colombia’s 48 million citizens, generates three-quarters of their agricultural production, provides almost 40 million people with drinking water and accounts for 86 percent of their gross domestic product.
Magdalena’s geometry and biodiversity
The Magdalena is subtly different to the Amazon and Mississippi due to its geometry. The other two are examples of dendritic drainage (having a branched form in plan resembling a tree), whereas Colombia’s vast basin, constrained by the Eastern and Central Cordillera of the Colombian Andes, has a trellis pattern with relatively short tributaries flowing down the valley sides and joining the main river more or less at right angles. The Magdalena is long, relatively narrow and flows north for almost 1,500 kilometres from highlands in the south of the country until it discharges into the Caribbean.
Colombia is home to a whopping 10 percent of the world’s wildlife biodiversity ; it has the highest number of bird and orchid species, and the second highest number of plants, butterflies and freshwater fishes and amphibians. In 2008, over 200 freshwater fish species had been recorded in the Magdalena and its tributaries.
Magdalena’s historical importance
The Magdalena has been an important route to both the centre and south of Colombia since the time of the conquistadores and probably long before. In the middle of the river is Mompos, a river port town, now a UNESCO world heritage site, which also played an important role in the war of independence from Spain.
It was in Mompos that Simón Bolívar, the liberator of much of Spanish South America, recruited an army of 400 men. The army would go on to play a big part in his victory at Caracas, eventually gaining independence for Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama.
During his lifetime, Bolivar fought 472 battles and covered 123,000 kilometres on horseback, ten times more than Hannibal, three times more than Napoleon, and twice as much as Alexander the Great.
Another sculpture of Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), is located at the southeast corner of Belgrave Square in London. The statue was unveiled by James Callaghan, then secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, later prime minister of the United Kingdom, in 1974.
On the plinth are Bolivars’ words:
“I am convinced that England alone is capable of protecting the world’s rights as she is great, glorious and wise”
Perhaps Bolivar lived at a time when England was global and her word could be trusted.