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Rescue of the San José galleon: a new chapter and new priorities

The announcement of former president Juan Manuel Santos to postpone the rescue process of the San José Galleon shipwreck (SJG) before leaving office is a shrewd decision which needs to be valued, inclusively if the deferment is dependent on a decision of the Administrative Court of the Province of Cundinamarca which will be taken shortly.

As it is widely known, the Court is close to issuing its decision of a popular action which contested the allotment process to a Public-Private Alliance (PPA) to one, and up to now the most optioned company known as Maritime Archaeology Consultants Holdings Switzerland AG (MACHS) to perform and reap the benefits in terms of the PPA.

The decision of the former president is at a particular moment in time which opens the door to reflect on the future of the shipwreck taking into account that, besides a coming of a new administration, which probably will open opportunities for possible changes and to consolidate public policies in terms of underwater cultural heritage, up to now inexistent.

A matter of first international order

Any consideration regarding the galleon should start by understanding that we are in face of one of the richest shipwrecks of the planet and interest for humanity.

This situation places the galleon –and what may occur– at the center of attention of the world –or at least amongst the countries involved, of several international organizations and cultural, history, archeology, anthropology, right of the sea and marine exploration scientific communities. Furthermore, it places Colombia as an important country in terms of taking decisions over the future of this shipwreck.

Taking decisions is not an easy task. There are not two San Jose galleons in the world. In 10,000 years of history of maritime navigation, just only a few decades ago it has been possible to develop technology for underwater exploration. The uncertainties and claims over the rights with respect to some shipwrecks, such as the Titanic, for instance, are still unresolved, complicating the scenario of uncertainties even more.

If there are interests over the shipwreck –as former president Santos said and as are for any historic shipwreck–, none of them as relevant of the firm MACHS which has a 50% interest of its valuable cargo.

The Colombian Political Constitution and laws over cultural heritage as international treaties on cultural matters provide citizens a limited role but could prove to be effective for the preservation of the galleon. Therefore it is completely justifiable for a group of citizens to be concerned for the fate of the subaquatic cultural heritage of the wreck and with options, according to prevailing regulations, to file judicial actions.

A new chapter to be written

The former Santos administration prioritized an illusory and solitary galleon recovery process, limiting it to a PPA and applicant companies in the process, in reality, just one, isolating Colombia of other cooperation options in the international scenario.

The question is if the new chapter will be marked by a greater opening towards diverse forms of international cooperation, unexplored up to now, which could result more beneficial for our cultural interests.

Colombia needs to write a new chapter of the galleon book, making it possible to think outside the box of just one applicant, which will make it submit half of the cargo value to an underwater exploration company.

The new administration should initially carry our an assessment of the current situation of the galleon, including the prickly situation of 50% of the cargo value recognized to Sea Search Armada, whose lawyers, very straightforwardly, announced a lawsuit to claim half of what was discovered. A major hurdle!

For this new chapter, the country needs to consider the UNESCO 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage which is part of the Colombian legislation, through Law 45 of December of 1983.

This convention establishes efficacious mechanisms for international cooperation between states for scientific research shared between academies and research centers of several countries, on topics regarding cultural and natural heritage.


When the discovery of the shipwreck was announced, Spain officially expressed its surprise as it was not informed of the exploration activities and claimed that the galleon was protected by a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity and said that if necessary they would file future lawsuits in international courts.

What influence can these claims by Spain have over the PAA process? This is something which cannot be currently confirmed or denied. The truth is that the new administration should set a position with respect to Spain, as up to now the position assumed by the people responsible of the rescue process has not been very respectful with the international law.

It is necessary for Colombia to fully analyze the sovereign immunity doctrine and based on that assessment, assume a position with respect to the shipwreck.

A preliminary assessment of the issue should surpass the strictly individual framework of the San José galleon and include all underwater cultural heritage in Colombian waters and tender a public policy, which is currently non-existent.

A valuation of the archeology scientific standards which could be applied to shipwrecks in Colombian waters should be a priority for the incoming administration, besides developing our own capabilities to explore archeological locations with scientific purposes and support from institutions from other countries.

Even though the galleon sunk with all a wealth of information on the history of sea navigation in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, its future is promising for science and international cooperation, if the strategies and policies are placed to better suit the privileged situation of Colombia with respect to this cultural heritage.


Consejo Editorial