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Their waters wrested away, Colombia's island fishermen lament - and learn

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 6 December 2018 12:00 GMT

"Over there is a bank rich in fish, red snapper and lobster. The catch is very good...But we can't fish there."

By Anastasia Moloney

SAN ANDRES, Colombia, Dec 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Casting his nylon fishing line into the waters off the Colombian island of San Andres, like generations before him, fisherman Oreste Howard points to the horizon of the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea and shakes his head.

"Over there is a bank rich in fish, red snapper and lobster. The catch is very good."

"But we can't fish there. I'm afraid to go there," Howard laments, as his small one-engine motor boat bobs in the breeze.

The fear stems from a decades-long maritime dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua involving the archipelago of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, and nearby seas.

The cluster of small islands in the western Caribbean, surrounded by coral reefs, lie about 775 kilometres (480 miles) from the Colombian mainland and 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Central American nation of Nicaragua.

Colombia has long claimed the waters around the archipelago, as laid out in a treaty with Nicaragua in 1928.

But a 2012 ruling by the United Nations highest court - the International Court of Justice (ICJ) - redrew the maritime borders around the archipelago, in favour of Nicaragua.

It slashed the expanse of the Caribbean sea belonging to Colombia and granted about 75,000 square kilometres (30,000 miles) of it to Nicaragua, giving the country access to potential underwater oil and gas deposits as well as fishing rights.

Six years on, fishermen in San Andres are still struggling to adapt to the loss of waters - and lower incomes as a result.

And the Hague-based court is now considering additional expansion of Nicaragua's claim - as well as Colombia's continuing appeals.

Such battles over rights to the world's oceans are a common problem. In recent years, the ICJ has looked at cases from Bolivia's long-standing battle with neighbouring Chile to regain access to the Pacific, to disputes over Antarctic whaling between Japan and Australia.

In San Andres, among the most affected by the ICJ ruling are the island's artisanal fishermen, many of whom belong to the Raizal community - a Creole- and English-speaking, Afro-Caribbean people.

The court ruling still evokes a deep sense of loss, along with a mixture of dismay, anger and resignation.

"You lose the sea, it's like losing your house," said 52-year-old Howard, who began fishing as a teenager.

"For Raizals, our territory is not just land but the sea. Colombians forgot and still forget that."


There are no official estimates about the job or economic losses to the island's fishing industry following the 2012 court decision.

Worth about $4.5 million a year - much of it from lobster exports - fishing is the island's second most important industry after tourism.

Hernando Fernandez, 73, heads Coopesbi, a cooperative of about 60 fishermen, many of whom used to fish in what are now Nicaraguan waters. He says many fishermen are now struggling to make a living.

"There are more people fishing in a smaller area. The catch is smaller. Fishermen used to make 200 dollars a week but now some days they can't even cover the cost of the gasoline for the boat," said Fernandez, who was a fisherman for 50 years.

"We have nothing else to live off but the sea," he said.

Some fishermen ignore the court ruling and fish in Nicaraguan waters - but in some cases their boats have been confiscated by Nicaragua's coast guard and the fishermen given $5,000 fines, Fernandez said.

He said members of his cooperative don't test their luck.

"Some take the risk. But our fishermen don't take the chance. Nobody wants to lose their boats," he said.


Colombia has not accepted the 2012 ruling, prompting Nicaragua to seek a new judgment from the world court to force Colombia to abide by the decision.

In 2016, the court said it also would consider a claim by Nicaragua to further expand its maritime boundaries.

In the new case, judges are being asked to set boundaries beyond the 200 nautical miles from Nicaragua that were fixed by the 2012 judgment.

A ruling is likely expected next year - and it could further strain already fraught diplomatic relations between the two countries and reignite uncertainty among islanders about their fishing rights.

"No one is talking about this. Who knows what can happen?" Fernandez asked.


For six months after the 2012 court decision, the Colombian government gave about 1,150 artisanal fishermen - most of them in San Andres but also across the archipelago - a temporary monthly subsidy each of $550 to help supplement their falling incomes.

But after the ICJ ruling, the number of industrial fishing boats docked at San Andres decreased from about 40 to six today, while the island's two main fishing companies with processing plants went bust, said Erlid Arroyo, secretary of agriculture and fishing at the governor's office in San Andres.

"Our territory at the end of the day is the ocean," Arroyo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We lose millions and millions of dollars in these kilometers of water we lost."

Yet the court ruling has a silver lining. It is being seen as an opportunity to relaunch the island's fishing industry, and revamp its artisanal fishing, to make it more competitive and to win investment.

"We do a lot of training on different arts of fishing, how to catch fish on other banks, how to manage the cold chain and make (the) product more competitive in the market," Arroyo said.

A multi-million dollar government-funded fishing terminal in San Andres, that will allow artisanal fishermen to dock and to store and process their catch, is being built and will open next year, Arroyo said.

To help fishermen supplement their depleted incomes, nearly 40 fishermen also are receiving $125 a month from the government to help preserve coral reefs, while 20 other fishermen are employed by local authorities as fishing inspectors, Arroyo added.

Steve Mitchell, a spokesman for Sprat Association, a fishing cooperative, sees the ICJ ruling as a chance for the island's artisanal fishermen to learn new skills.

Receiving government subsidies "made fishermen lazy," Mitchell said.

"I believe you need to give fishermen the tools they need to work, better equipment, help them to innovate, and to add value to their product," the fisherman said.

Ironically, some Colombian fishermen say illegal fishing has increased in the waters near San Andres after the ICJ ruling because Nicaragua - which has a smaller fleet of patrol boats than Colombia - has been unable to properly police the seas.

Boats from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, as well as Colombia and Nicaragua, are involved in illegal fishing, Arroyo said.

Back on his boat, Howard tests the fishing line wrapped around his fingers and knees, waiting for fish to take the bait.

"The Hague ruling can say what it likes, but the sea it belongs to everybody. It belongs to God," he said.

This story is part of a special in-depth series on who owns the oceans - find more coverage here.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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