The archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina is the only offshore state in Colombia. It is located within the western waters of the Caribbean Sea, approximately 220 kilometres from the eastern coast of Nicaragua and 775 kilometres northwest of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The islands were declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2000. The Afro-Caribbean population of the islands, known as Raizales, are the descendants of the original settlers, enslaved Africans, Amerindians and British emigrants. Numbering 25,515 according to the 2018 Census (Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda, CNPV), it is worth acknowledging that this figure may have been affected by the reduction in the Afro-descendant population observed during the same survey. The majority of Raizales speak Creole and English and belong predominantly to the Protestant faith.
The islands have experienced an unsettled colonial history which has seen control of the Islands changing hands between foreign colonial powers such as the Spanish and English, and regional powers such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and Colombia. In 1928 the Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty was signed between Colombia and Nicaragua where the Raizal territory was partitioned and ceded to the Colombian government. Nonetheless, due to the extremely rich biodiversity and natural resources that the archipelago possesses, control of the territory continues to be a source of considerable dispute between the governments of Nicaragua and Colombia as the islands are situated in closer proximity to the former.
This history is at the root of the current oppression and multiple discrimination that the Raizal people are experiencing. They argue that the discrimination against them is at once racial, religious, linguistic, political and socio-economic. Since the declaration of the Islands as a freeport in 1953, Raizales charge the Colombian government with introducing policies which have encouraged accelerated mass migration by Colombian nationals to their islands.
Mass migration to the archipelago has led to over-population which is having disastrous consequences for the environment and the Raizal population. Tourism-related development projects have led to the destruction of the natural landscape and damage to some of its most pristine shorelines. As a result of these harmful trends, Raizales believe that their traditional way of life as farmers, fishermen and seafarers is being threatened and that as a people they are on their way to extinction.
During the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia to the islands in 2004, representatives of the Raizal community complained of the political discrimination that they experience through marginalization from decision–making processes concerning their territory. They also spoke of the cultural and religious domination that they faced from mainland Colombians and the Catholic church, who are currently in control of the educational institutions and judicial systems. The exclusive language of instruction is in Spanish while the courts only use English. The economy is largely in the hands of mainland Colombians who reportedly employ very few Raizales.
However, despite such challenges Raizales have remained steadfast in their efforts to maintain their languages and traditions which they see as being predominantly Afro-Caribbean and closer to the culture of the peoples of Central America. In resistance to what they refer to as the neo-colonial oppression of the Colombian state, Raizales went as far as to proclaim themselves an independent state in June 2007 in the Raizal Independence Declaration.
Currently, the island is grappling with several pressing issues. The foremost concern is the growing population of non-native individuals, which has become a significant challenge for the territory. Additionally, the poor quality of the water, primarily obtained from rainfall and desalination, poses a serious problem. Moreover, the island faces food insecurity, as evidenced by the fact that 98 percent of all consumed items are imported. In light of these circumstances, the Colombian government is faced with the daunting task of not only including the island population in its policies but also ensuring that they benefit from them.
Updated June 2023
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