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Rebuilding of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina from the ethnographic perspective

From the mentioned perspective, the observer strives to enter the cultural universe of people through immersion and a distancing exercise from their reference structures. Now, years later and in the face of the uncertainness produced by the disaster caused by hurricane Iota, I ponder on how those learning experiences could contribute to the rebuilding process. Like 15 years ago, the crisis shows us that rebuilding will be possible only if the islander voices and historic claims are heard. 

One of the regular complaints I heard among the raizal community was the failure to listen from part of the Colombian government. The Colombianization efforts that began on the islands at the start of the twentieth century caused censorship of the local cultural practices, such as Creole and English languages and the Protestant religion. 

Towards mid-century, the integration measures included establishing San Andrés as a free port. Tourism started to turn into the economic will of the island and land ownership was no longer an exclusivity of the local inhabitants. With time, the shopping tourism turned into “all included” plans that left little to nothing to the local economy, made hotel owners wealthy, and contributed to the environmental deterioration of the Archipelago. 

Although Providencia was not included in the free port deal, the consequences of this development model were also felt on the island. The 2012 ruling of The Hague Court of Justice brought us back to the systematic lack of consideration from the local point of view that, according to members of the raizal community, were excluded from the arguments of the Colombian government during the dispute 1. Beyond the nationalist and patriotic wailing that such a decision could provoke, its seriousness lied on, with the loss of an important part of the territorial sea; the crisis stressed economic activities such as fishing. 

The formal acknowledgment of the cultural diversity of the inhabitants of the Archipelago in the era of multiculturalism came in hand with what Professor Jaime Arocha dubbed as ethnoboom: an “intense cultural and mediatic promotion of the immaterial legacy of afro-descendants and Indian Communities in Colombia” which also trivialized, cannibalized and made them exotic, creating “smoke screens in the face of territorial violations” that these communities endured 2

Not long ago, the tourist publicity of the País Colombia brand of the Archipelago invited people to live a unique beach experience, Caribbean culture, and water activities in a place inhabited by happy-go-lucky natives that danced to the rhythms of reggae. The tourist promotion speeches show the Archipelago as a place where time stands-still, where life lacks conflict, and whose inhabitants form part of the landscape that provides tourists a unique experience3

The Archipelago exists for the rest of the country in terms of tourism and investment in the island is directed toward that goal. The history of one of the local attractions, the boardwalk (a two-kilometer brick path parallel to the beach), in the north of San Andrés, reveals this situation. This project was a public space recovery model imported from continental Colombia, but it wasn’t necessarily adjusted for the island context. Days after its inauguration in 2004, strikes claimed the lack of investment in road infrastructure, healthcare, and education for the Archipelago. After 16 years, the crisis continues and deepens with the disaster. 

It is time to listen to the claims of the inhabitants of the Archipelago. The role of the government institutions, the University, and the rest of the national society should be to accompany the civil island initiatives in its rebuilding, avoiding imposing solutions and external experts, alien to local realities. After the disaster, it’s not only about recovering the lost material legacy with solutions coming from abroad but to rethink the centrality of a predatory touristic model, that leaves communities in a fragile position in face of grave events such as those that recently occurred, as COVID-19 and hurricane Iota.


 1See, for instance, Christian Chacón Herrera (2019) Participación de la etnia raizal en la política exterior colombiana después del fallo de La Haya de noviembre de 2012. Bogotá, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, tesis de Maestría en Estudios Políticos.

2 Jaime Arocha Rodriguez, “Afro-Colombia en los años post-Durban”, Palimpsestvs (5). Recuperado a partir de 

3 Nathalia Guevara (2018) “San Andrés Isla, Colombia. ¿Un “pequeño paraíso” en el Mar Caribe? Una aproximación crítica al discurso de promoción turística de la Marca País Colombia”, en Oehmichen, Cristina (Ed), Movilidad e inmovilidad en un mundo desigual: turistas, migrantes y trabajadores en la relación global-local. Ciudad de México: UNAM, 175-198.



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