The 5 stages of grief on San Andres

After losing 40 percent of their ocean overnight, Colombian islanders reject the World Court’s ruling, calling it a ‘slow death sentence’


Monday, Nov. 19, is not a day that the people from San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina will soon forget.

I woke up with a feeling that this day was going to go down in Colombian history as the day we lost some cays up north and some of our territorial waters—we had been as much by Foreign Minister Maria Andrea Holguin, who said, “usually outcomes from the International Court of Justice are solomonic…each party gets a little bit, and the sued party is never happy.”

Regardless, we were ready for the verdict from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Or so we thought.

The first milestone in the televised verdict seemed like good news for us Colombians; all the cays, Roncador, Albuquerque, Quitasueño, Serrana, Bajo Nuevo, and Serranilla were ratified as Colombian territory.  To a certain point, this was to be expected since the initial ruling in 2007 ratified that the three big Islands—San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina—are Colombian by unanimous decision in the World Court (mostly because it made sense that three islands with over 60.000 Colombians were Colombian territory, no matter how close they are to another country).

Then, the second and most important part of the ruling was read to determine the new maritime border. After an extended technical talk about degrees, minutes and seconds, it became somewhat clear that we had lost a large chunk of our ocean. You could see the first of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief on everyone’s faces. We were in the denial stage, and rightfully so. No one here was expecting a ruling that would change the Colombian map to such a dramatic extent.

Fishing boats off the coast of San Andres (photo/ Juan Velasquez)

It took a few hours to understand what the total damage toll was for Colombians, especially for the people from the archipelago. Did we really just lose more than 40% of our ocean? And, on top of that, are two of our islands suddenly surrounded by Nicaraguan waters inside a 12-nautical mile perimeter?

To understand why this is such an unexpected low-blow to the people of the archipelago, you have to understand that in 2001 we were declared a marine Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The reserve, known as Seaflower, covers approximately 10% of the Caribbean Sea and consists of a practically intact and very productive coral-reef ecosystem. Old Providence’s barrier reef alone is 32 km long and covers an area of 255 Km2, making it one of the largest coral reefs in the Americas. This 10% of the Caribbean is identified as a major site of coral and fish diversity; it’s a genuine biodiversity hotspot. There have been numerous government and privately funded explorations in the area, including conch-shell farming and numerous new laws passed to protect turtles and sharks.

The New Maritime Boundaries, acccording to ICJ ruling

Thanks to our UNESCO reserve status, we have built an economy to attract ecotourism. We’ve received grants from Japan, South Korea, Spain, and other countries to help us achieve the goals of sustainability and become a model for others. In our territory, we have granted only a handful of concessions to foreign boats to exploit our ocean, which is closely watched over by the controlling entities. In 2011 the people of our three islands were united on a common goal to not to allow oil exploration in our territory. Against all odds, we won that fight against the Colombian government and big corporations; we fought because we knew that a well-preserved coral reef will bring us more quality of life and peace of mind than an oil-drilling platform full of foreign workers.

What we have done to protect our marine areas over the past 10 years has become an example to the world. You don’t have to be Nicaraguan or Colombian to understand that losing 40% of your territory from one day to the next is something that no country will take lightly.

We are concerned that all of the work we have done will be lost because Nicaragua, in its understandable quest to increase its economy, will give these waters to foreign companies and overfish them until they are just a big mass of seawater, thereby killing the economy and future of the archipelago.

Five days after the Court’s ruling, we are now going through the anger stage of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. That’s why the war drums can be heard; our military is ready and eager to use its ships, submarines and planes that previously had no use in our long conflict with the FARC guerrilla. On the streets, you now hear idealists, journalists and other average-Joe citizens vowing that they would die to defend our country. There is also a lot of cocky bragging going on about how Colombia has the biggest and most advanced military in the hemisphere after the gringos(I don’t mean gringo in a pejorative way, I just refuse to say “American”).

A few days ago, the Colombian president went on national TV before coming to San Andres and said that we would abide by the ICJ ruling. But he forgot that he works for the people of the Republic of Colombia and answers to the congress, and both the people and its representatives in legislature insist we cannot accept the ruling and should find at a diplomatic solution to this problem.  That is what Kübler-Ross called the “Bargaining stage,” that that will likely last for awhile before we get to the Depression and the Acceptance stages.

Today, on Friday Nov. 23, there will be a massive march on San Andres under the banner “We do not recognize the ICJ ruling” to show the Colombian government that we, the islanders, will not accept a ruling that we consider a slow death sentence for us. We need to the Colombian government to understand that this is an issue that is non-negotiable; like former U.S. President George W. Bush said, You are with us, or against us.

Juan Velasquez is a small business entrepreneur working in the tourist industry in San Andres Island, you can follow him on twitter @hostelsanandres


  • Luis Arturo Sobalvarro

    I’m all for free-speech, Tim, but don’t Colombians have enough media outlets on which to blabbber? I mean, give me a break. They lost. I know it must be incredibly hard to accept, but go cry on El Espectador or El Tiempo, or one of the other very professional and impartial (yeah, right) Colombian papers.

    Nothing personal here. Just do what’s right and prove the world wrong. Prove that the overwhelming perceptions that exist about Colombia are completely off.

    • Maycol

      I’m with Luis. I’m all for free speech too, as long as those people are Nicaraguans who agree with me. But Colombians expressing their opinions on an issue that doesn’t concern them? I mean, give me a break!

      • Luis Arturo Sobalvarro

        jajaja. nice

    • juan

      Hi Luis, I think you are missing the point. Is hard to be “all for free speech” without reading points of view from the two sides. I wish the “very professional and impartial” as you call them news papers in Colombian would get a Nicaraguan perspective on the issue, but they don’t.

      • Luis Arturo Sobalvarro

        I think Nicaraguan newspapers have been surprisingly cautious, much like the government. But you’re right, maybe I am missing the point. Please understand that when the Colombian government not only refuses to accept the ICJ ruling, but also sends warships to the area, that doesn’t contribute much to strengthening Colombian credibility, or giving credence to any argument that favors violating international law. But, that is just my opinion. And I only express it here, on Nicaraguan-based media….I have no need to go on Colombian outlets to stick my opinions in their faces….

  • Eduardo Tellez

    I like this piece, I think is one of the few out there that represent the true sentiments of grief and torment of the People of San Andres and los cayos, the first mistake of the Colombia goverment was to accept the 2008 ruling saying that the 82 was not a Maritime boundary, sadly not recognizing the ICJ ruling would do nothing, and the worst thing about all this are the politicians who in the words of Groucho max,-“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” I think he explain it better that me, saludos Tim and Juan

  • Ronald

    Quite a strange article. In the first part, the author suggested that their opposition is motivated by ecological reasons, claiming they had to fight against the colombian government etc. Then, the authors continues with “You don’t have to be Nicaraguan or Colombian to understand that losing 40% of your territory from one day to the next is something that no country will take lightly.”

    So do you think the colombian government will give up trying to explore oil in the area ? Or all this talk about ecology and UNESCO was just a pretext and the real anger comes from nationalism and pride ?

    Yes colombian lost a big part of the ocean. The real question was really “Did Colombian really deserved to have so much of the ocean just because they had a few very small islands in the area ?” . The ICJ answered with a “no”.

    The concerns regarding the ecology are justified. But trying to justify some military actions is pathetic. The real problem here is pride and nationalism.

    • juan

      Hi Ronald, in regards to that i kind of agree with you.
      Colombia sees it as a matter of pride and nationalism, San Andres sees it for the ecological reasons and because is our source of subsistence. If you dig a little further you’ll see that an important percentage of the population in San Andres doesn’t feel Colombian, we even have a separatist group

      To be honest, San Andres is not an important part of the Colombian economy according to our statistics entity (DANE) we only represent a 0,2% of the GDP, which basically means that even if Colombia lost the whole Archipielago, it wouldn’t really matter economically for the country, however as I said, no country will take lightly losing that amount of territory, even if it is just salt water.

      The government has give up exploration in the area, you can read this independent blog from OXFAM that summarizes the issue

      This was a HUGE victory over the Colombian government and few oil companies from the people of San Andres, not many territories have pull successfully something like that.

      Is the court ruling right or wrong? I can’t really be neutral enough to answer that, because thanks to the ruling I’m being affected in a negative way and because I know that sometimes the law (national or international) isn’t always fair.

      • Roland

        “Colombia sees it as a matter of pride and nationalism”

        No matter how you turn this around, justifying something because of pride and nationalism is always wrong (and a bit scary and stupid to be honest). I know that latin people are usually very nationalist and that it’s probably hard to hear, but that’s the reality. When you hear that people are ready to die for such a trivial matter then we’ve got a problem.

  • Luis Arturo Sobalvarro

    I understand your concerns, Juan. I really do. I, too, would be concerned. And hopefully a viable solution can be reached to ensure a positive outcome for islanders. But the Colombian government is going to have to do better…..Starting by keeping its word.

    Colombian President Uribe, March 8, 2008:
    Summit of the Americas, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

    Does the word of a President not count for anything?

  • Alberto

    Juan, the entire maritime area in dispute did not belong to Colombia in the first place, including the islands. Nicaragua ceded them in a 1928 treaty to Colombia while under a united states invasion of Nicaragua. Needless to say, this is what brought the dispute back to the ICJ in 2001. Can you fell my pain?

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  • John Shepard

    It’s odd that the ICJ didn’t extend the maritime border north to include a corridor for Quitasueno and Serrano (imagine the corner shown by “1” pulled a few miles north). How does Colombia access these islets without steaming through Nicaraguan waters? A clearer map is available as an attachment to the ICJ decision.

  • Carla Chamorro

    Colombia did not loose anything it never had….

  • patrick
    • Luis Arturo Sobalvarro

      Jajajajaj. Costa Ricans….They’re smooth. They’re something else, man! They have the whole world fooled. Jajajajaja

  • Federico

    I am Nica and the Esguerra-Barcenas treaty was signed in 1928. Nica’s say it was under US pressure and occupation therefore it is not valid.

    But one must wonder if it is about oil. Ortega making a fuss about San Juan and supposedly there might be oil motives there and canal motives. So I assume this is for oil as well.

  • A. William

    Does Columbia really think that its tiny islands would give it water rights superior to Nicaragua’s land mass? As the decision points out, the rights they did give to Columbia is probably less than fair to Nicaragua and is smaller than most countries have.

  • Adiac

    No one seems to be taking in to account that that there are people on these islands who have no desire to be governed by either Colombia or Nicaragua. You can find out more about this independence movement led by the Archipelago Movement for Ethnic Native Self Determination (AMEN-SD). Visit
    It is also worth investigating Hugo Chavez’s claim that the South American country of Colombia acts like an Israel of Latin America. I believe he was referring to the preponderance of US military hardware that Colombia touts, even into the seas off the Central American coast line. I’m sure Israel’s Zionists would be well chuffed with Catholic church backed settlements of Spanish speaking Colombians on islands, which for centuries have been inhabited by Afro Caribbean Protestants with English and Scottish surnames who speak an English Creole.