By Julia Gorricho*
Antonio Archbold, an old fisherman from Providence Island in the Caribbean, whom I have known for a long time, woke up a few days ago without sea. On 19 November, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that from now on Nicaragua has rights over a significant area of the Caribbean Sea that formerly belonged to Colombia.
The dispute over the maritime border between Colombia and Nicaragua dates back to 1928, when both countries signed the Esguerra –Barcenas treaty to define their territorial sea borders. This treaty established Colombia’s sovereignty over the San Andres and Old Providence archipelago. In 1980, Nicaragua unilaterally annulled the agreement, arguing that it had been signed under US pressure.
In 2001, Nicaragua submitted the case to the ICJ. The court has now decided that the group of disputed islands belong to Colombia, but drew a demarcation line in favour of Nicaragua in the adjacent waters. The ICJ’s ruling is binding and cannot be appealed. And so, Antonio and the local community of this archipelago have lost their beloved sea.
Colombian islands without sea
Losing an area almost equal in size to that of Austria (approx. 85,000 km²) has tremendous implications for the Colombian archipelago. The local communities, whose livelihoods depend on fishing in those waters, will clearly be the most affected. Traditionally, fishing has been their basis of subsistence. It is part of the islands’ way of being.
In addition, fishing is one of the remaining licit economic activities on the islands. Drug trafficking has become an economic mainstay in this region, partly because of its strategic location on the maritime cocaine trafficking routes to the US and partly because of a lack of economic opportunities for young islanders.
The impact of the ICJ’s decision will be equally disastrous for the pristine marine ecosystems. Nicaragua has already made public its plans for exploring the seabed for oil in an area which has the third largest coral reef in the world. The protection and sustainable management of this coral reef was the main reason for UNESCO to designate, in 2000, the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve (BR). From the outset, the implementation of the BR has been backed not only by the local community but also by a broad range of international stakeholders, such as the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Environmental diplomacy: protecting the interests of the fishing communities and the environment
Colombia did not expect the ICJ to rule the way it did. Accompanied by Foreign Minister Holguín, President Santos immediately visited the islands to meet with local authorities and representatives of a very concerned and disappointed community. A heated debate about the issue is raging in Bogotá. Viewed from a distance, it seems that the Colombian government lacks a clear strategy to deal with this serious issue.
But what choices does Colombia have? I suggest focusing on quick and effective environmental diplomacy, pursuing a three-pronged strategy:
- Colombia should draw international attention to the potential environmental impact of the ICJ’s decision on the unique marine ecosystem. This global campaign should involve internationally renowned environmental organizations that in the past have supported Colombia’s conservation efforts, such as The Prince’s International Sustainability Unit, GEF, the World Wildlife Fund, UNESCO, and Sea Shepherd.
- Colombia should approach Nicaragua on good terms and propose the creation of an international Peace Park. Peace Parks are transboundary protected areas dedicated not only to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity and its associated cultural resources, but also to the promotion of peace and cooperation. Such efforts have been adopted successfully around the globe since 1932, when the first park was declared by Canada and the US: Waterton Lakes Glacier International Peace Park. In Latin America a successful example is the Cordillera del Condor Peace Park. It was established in 1998 by Ecuador and Peru on the basis of the peace treaty that ended a short but bloody international conflict and settled a long-standing territorial dispute.
- Both countries should use the ample experience in negotiating Peace Parks of organizations such as the South African Peace Park Foundation and the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security to transform the Seaflower BR into the first ever Caribbean Peace Park. The objective should be to establish a collaborative management regime for the sustainable management and conservation of the disputed marine area. Participation of local communities is imperative to give them back their sense of belonging.
Let’s remember that oceans, coral reefs and marine resources do not recognize political boundaries. This fact as well as the need to secure local communities’ access to marine resources should be Colombia’s and Nicaragua’s priority in looking ahead.
*Julia Gorricho is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Forest and Environmental Policy, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Germany.