a chronicle of an announced abandonment
Photo credit: AFP
The impacts of Hurricane Iota on the islands of San Andrés and Providencia added to the sense of terror and central government abandonment long felt by residents of the archipelago. While the government’s response to the crisis has been swift, it appears that more could have been done to mitigate the risks of hurricanes and extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.
2020 has been bad for all Colombians, but it has been really bad for the inhabitants of the largest archipelago in the country: San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. Here, the social and economic crisis left by COVID-19 worsened with the aftermath of Iota, a Category 5 hurricane, which hit the islands on November 15, causing a humanitarian and environmental crisis made worse by poor preparation. government to extreme weather events.
San Andrés and Providencia have been historically isolated from mainland Colombia for several reasons, including their isolated geographic position (which is closer to Nicaragua than to mainland Colombia), the demographic characteristics of the islands (where the Raizales are the predominant ethnic group) , as well as language (where the main local language is Creole, as opposed to Spanish). These differences have made the archipelago geographically, culturally and politically distant from mainland Colombia.
In addition, the central government only paid attention to the region following major events, such as the Hague territorial dispute with Nicaragua over the sovereignty of the islands, significant cases of corruption involving local officials and natural disasters such as Iota. The government has made it a point of honor to exercise sovereignty over the island when it is politically convenient, as it was on August 8, 2018, when President Duque spent his first full day as president in the archipelago.
Two weeks before Hurricane Iota, Hurricane Eta, which formed in the Atlantic Ocean, hit Nicaragua and its path approached San Andrés and Providencia. Although no major damage was reported by Eta, it was a warning; the hurricanes were approaching and becoming more and more dangerous. Never in the recorded history of the country has a hurricane reached the archipelago. We thought it was far enough south to avoid them. They were wrong.
The government argued that there was nothing that it could do to respond to Iota differently, as the hurricane’s path was difficult to predict. It is simply not true. One week before the hurricane formed, international weather services warned of a storm forming in the southern Caribbean, south of Jamaica, with a trajectory towards Central America, and with the potential threat of evolving into a major hurricane. The government could have put in place an evacuation strategy to help some of the most vulnerable residents get out of the storm’s path or it could have stopped air traffic from the mainland, to avoid attracting more tourists to the storm. the islands, but he did neither. From a long-term perspective, the government could have spent years building shelters, improving the building code for the islands, or providing adequate hospital infrastructure, but neither was it.
The aftermath of the hurricane was brutal. It is estimated that 98% of Providencia’s infrastructure has suffered damage and Santa Catalina, the neighboring island, has lost the only pedestrian connection to Providencia. Many buildings and road infrastructure in San Andrés also suffered damage, but this is minor compared to the extent of the destruction in Providencia. Although difficult to quantify, the hurricane also left a significant environmental toll as the storm caused significant damage to the archipelago’s endemic ecosystem by falling from trees, damaging coral reefs and damaging mangrove forests. Islands.
The storm couldn’t come at a worse time for the economy of the archipelago, which is heavily dependent on tourism and artisanal fishing. Fishing had declined significantly since 2012, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favor of the Nicaraguan government, declaring that the waters surrounding the archipelago were in fact Nicaraguan. Tourism, however, has remained the islands’ economic lifeline, but it has been severely affected by lockdowns from COVID-19. Apparently, the archipelago lost nearly 90 percent of its tourism income – the biggest drop in tourism income in the country – resulting in a 40 percent reduction in tourism-related jobs.
As mobility restrictions eased, tourists arrived again in the archipelago in early September and official data showed a 20% occupancy rate in hotel rooms in San Andres to the end of October, indicating that the recovery was coming. Hurricane Iota erased all signs of hope for the islands’ economic recovery and they are now dependent almost exclusively on government transfers and assistance, which many islanders find insufficient. Unemployment is expected to rise as tourism infrastructure such as hotels have been damaged and will not be able to receive visiting tourists during the holiday season, which is already seen as faint hope after months of lockdowns.
The human toll of the crisis is considerable as many islanders are now living in temporary shelters after being evacuated from severely affected areas. Thousands of people are homeless, unconnected and economically vulnerable. Additionally, as mainland Colombians, such as the military and Red Cross volunteers, have arrived on the island with island aid supplies, cases of COVID-19 are set to increase. In fact, by the end of November, there was already a shortage of medical supplies to help islanders, which could lead to a health crisis if there is no action. The badly damaged Providencia hospital has been temporarily replaced by a field hospital to care for the island’s 1,700 residents.
Even though the government has announced that the reconstruction of Providencia and Santa Catalina will be completed within 100 days and the private sector and international partners have pledged funds to help the recovery, efforts are likely to fall short of expectations. . On top of that, as the news cycle withers and the holiday season begins, the islands will fall off the government’s priority list and the state’s abandonment will once again doom the prospects for the island’s recovery. .
Real investments must be directed to the archipelago in order to lay the solid foundations of an economy that can make the most of the geography and culture of the archipelago, an economy that also fully integrates the islanders in the efforts of planning and recovery, and where the ownership of resources by the islands remains with the locals (as opposed to hotel companies wishing to own real estate in the islands). As a result, the islands are expected to slowly integrate into the mainland economy. It is not enough for the central government to deal with the current crises affecting the islands, it must invest heavily in the long-term sustainable development of the region.
The outlook for islanders is bleak. Despite the government’s promises, it seems unlikely that it will have enough resources and political will to carry out the massive recovery efforts needed to rebuild the islands, make them resilient to climate change, and promote sustainability. As government attention wanes, the patience of communities risks crumble. As the rest of the country suffers from economic turmoil and security concerns related to COVID, the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina are unlikely to set course for lasting prosperity from the effects of Hurricane Iota.
Juan Diego Ávila is a research intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is currently an undergraduate student at the Universidad de Los Andes. Follow him on twitter @juandiavil
All opinions and content are the opinions of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Americans of the world.