Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina is isolated and located within the western waters of the Caribbean Sea, 180km from the Central American coast, 400km from Jamaica and 480kms, from the Colombian coast. The islands were declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2000. The indigenous population of the islands, known as the Raizal, are the descendants of the original settlers, enslaved Africans, Amerindians and British emigrants. Numbering 30,565 according to the 2005 Census, the majority of Raizales speak Creole and English and are predominantly of 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 great 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, the Raizales charge the Colombian government of introducing policies which have encouraged accelerated mass immigration 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 all these harmful trends combined, the Raizales believe that their traditional ways of life as farmers, fishermen and seafarers are currently 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 communities complained of the political discrimination that they experience through marginalization from decision–making processes concerning their territory. They also spoke of the cultural domination and religious aggression that they faced from both 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 in the hands of mainland Colombians who reportedly employ very few of the Raizales.
However, despite such challenges the Raizal 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, the Raizal people went as far as to proclaim themselves an independent state in June 2007 in the Raizal Independence Declaration.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in