SAN ANDRES, Colombia— With chants of “For our sovereignty” and “For the defense of the environment,” a group of more than 600 residents of San Andres and several Colombian politicians from the mainland marched through the breezy streets of this disputed Caribbean island Monday afternoon to protest against what they feel is a direct violation of their self-determination.
Monday marked the opening day of legal arguments before the International Court of Justice between Nicaragua and Colombia, both of which stake claim to the maritime borders surrounding the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina. Nicaragua also challenged Colombia’s sovereignty over the island, but the World Court ruled in Colombia’s favor in 2007.
Surrounded by the “Sea of Seven Colors,” San Andres is the most densely populated island in the Caribbean. It’s also an emerging tourist spot for its cultural and ecological attractions, including the Seaflower Marine Protected Area—the largest one of its kind in the Caribbean.
But when it comes to the territorial conflict between Nicaragua and Colombia, many islanders feel isolated, marginalized and uninformed about the 10-year litigation that is now culminating in a trial. Indeed, the very population that will be most affected by the Court’s decision feels their voices and concerns have been excluded from the debate.
And now that the wheels of The Hague are already in motion, it may be too late to have their concerns heard.
“We are here today because we know that Nicaragua and Colombia have been discussing about our territory,” Aury Guerrero Bowie, governor of the San Andres Archipelago, told The Nicaragua Dispatch, speaking in typical island Creole English. “We want everyone to know that we are people, we are human, and what we want is control over our destiny.”
In an attempt to give a voice to the inhabitants of San Andres and express their feelings about the conflict, civil society and government institutions organized yesterday’s solidarity rally and public declaration of the islanders’ historical, political, economic, social and cultural rights. A rag-tag crowd of rastas, foreign tourists, local business owners, high-ranking government officials, and local government employees gathered in the oddly-urbanized, beach-front plaza in the New Point Commercial Center.
Despite the almost festive atmosphere at the rally, Governor Bowie expressed concern about the World Court hearing’s potential outcomes.
“The Colombian government has used during the process seven different attorneys, and Nicaragua has one,” she says. “That means that Nicaragua is playing it serious and that Colombia is just trying to establish what they believe. But they don’t hear one concept from us. They never address to us.”
The governor adds, “The people are really resentful because we have not been heard. We have not been listened to. No one has asked us about the details and what should be the welfare of our community. We don’t know what the intention [of Nicaragua] really is. And we want to know so that we can preserve and conserve what we have been defending all these years.”
Some believe Nicaragua’s intentions for pursuing the case in The Hague lie in the possibility for oil exploration in disputed waters. After initially awarding the oil company Ecopetrol exploration rights near the San Andres archipelago in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called off all exploration in and around the islands due to environmental concerns in October of 2011.
These concerns were echoed on Monday by Colombian congressmen who flew in from Bogota for some island politicking.
“The difference we have with Nicaragua is that we want to maintain sovereignty over the island to protect the environment, the marine biosphere, and the coral reefs,” Colombian congressman Luis Fernando Velazco told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We believe that the Nicaraguan government wants to explore for petroleum in the region, which would damage the coral barriers on this side of the Caribbean. This would hurt not only Colombians, but Nicaraguan fishermen, too.”
Despite their obvious resentment for not being heard, and the concerns over Nicaragua’s possible intentions for the coastal shelf, many Colombians feel a certain brotherly love for their Nicaraguan neighbors.
“Nicaragua is always our brother,” says Governor Bowie. “We have a lot of Nicaraguans living in San Andres, but no one understands really what [Nicaragua] is trying to do.”
“I want to state something very clearly,” Senator Velazco stressed. “We don’t have a conflict with Nicaraguans; we have a conflict with the government of Nicaragua. For us, Nicaraguans are like our brothers. We grew up reading Gioconda Belli. We grew up reading Nicaraguan poetry, and we admire Ruben Dario. We provided support during the great tragedy of the Managua earthquake. But right now we’re in disagreement with the Nicaraguan government, not the Nicaraguan people.”
The Colombian human-rights defense organization, “Defensoria del Pueblo,” and local officials will send their concerns, along with petitions and letter signed during Monday’s rally, to the Colombian Senate, the International Court of Justice and the Colombian attorneys working on the case.