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.
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.
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