After the devastation caused by Hurricane Iota, the Navy takes sides and builds in Providencia the coast guard station that has been opposed for so long by the natives.
For a little more than a week, the community of Providencia has been denouncing that the Navy and the National Government are taking advantage of the vulnerability of the island after Hurricane Iota to carry out projects that the Raizal community opposes.
One of these projects is the coast guard station that the Navy has been seeking to build for years in the Old Town Bay sector.
In 2015, the community opposed it, and it seemed that was as far as it went. But after the hurricane, the Navy came to settle on the land they want to build, and plans for the coast guard station are back on track.
The Navy played a leading role in the initial cleanup of the island after the disaster, picking up the debris that completely blocked all the roads. This earned them the gratitude of the island’s population, as five community sources told La Silla. “It’s something the whole of Providencia has to thank for,” says Josefina Huffington, a civic leader on the island.
But the honeymoon between the community and the Navy was soon over.
“One day dawn broke and a dock appeared, and no one knew where it came from,” says Providencian Angel Britton, a member of the Raizal diaspora.
In the last days of November, a little more than a week after Hurricane Iota had devastated the islands, the Navy installed a floating dock on a property adjacent to the Fish & Farm Fishermen’s Cooperative.
This generated much annoyance among the islanders, since the new Navy dock crosses the path of the Cooperative’s old dock, which was destroyed by the hurricane, so the fishermen can no longer rebuild it.
“From the first days after the hurricane they began to take advantage of the situation to advance their purposes,” says Édgar Jay, of the fishermen’s association I-Fish, which is part of the Cooperative. “They built the dock at night, in an underground way, they didn’t do it in the light of day. There are a lot of irregularities here.”
Admiral Calm Hernando Mattos, who heads the specific command of the Navy in San Andres and Providencia, told La Silla that they had already planned to build the dock before, but had not been able to execute it due to the pandemic. And that the direction in which it was built (cutting the path of the fishermen’s pier) was due to the studies that were carried out, so that it would not be affected by the winds.
But the problem is not only the dock, but also the land from which it was built, where the Navy plans to build a coast guard station, which the Raizal community opposes.
Building a coast guard station in Providencia is not a new pretension: in 1993 the Navy presented a first project, which was later withdrawn as a result of community protests.
In 2014, a new project materialized, this time on land that had already been acquired by the Ministry of Defense, in the Old Town Bay sector.
But in order to carry it out, they had to reach an agreement with the community through a prior consultation. This is a fundamental right of ethnic groups such as the Raizal community, which makes up more than 90 percent of the population of Providencia.
In 2015, then, a prior consultation was held, where the community opposed the coast guard station for several reasons: they did not want more military personnel brought to the island, there were already facilities for the coast guard in the Port Captaincy and they did not want a military installation in Old Town Bay, where there are several houses and a beach that the community uses for different activities.
In addition, there are environmental considerations because the property is located at the mouth of a creek and in a mangrove ecosystem.
As part of the prior consultation process, the community presented alternatives for this project: build the station in Black Sand Bay, where the Port Captaincy is located; use the land adjacent to the Fishermen’s Cooperative to develop a mariculture project; and incorporate Raizal personnel as coast guard and pilots to support maritime control actions.
“There was not a single person who agreed with the construction of the base, the entire population of Providencia was summoned and no one agreed,” says leader Josefina Huffington.
The initiative died. Until Iota arrived.
After the Hurricane
In March 2021, in the wake of the hurricane, the National Navy announced the reconstruction of the coast guard station, assuring that Providencia will “recover” a coast guard station and maritime traffic that, in reality, it has never had.
“They are taking advantage of the circumstance of vulnerability of the people to impose works that were unconsulted in a critical moment like this,” Britton denounces.
“We, respectful of the law, have assorted the whole process since 2014. We have already done everything that corresponds to enter into dialogue with the community to reach a consensus. They have expressed concerns and have made a number of recommendations, and we have attended to absolutely all the recommendations,” Admiral Mattos said.
According to Mattos, the Navy desisted from the intention of increasing the force foot on the station in response to the community’s concerns, reduced the construction area and attended to all the environmental recommendations to respect the mangrove and the mouth of the river.
Of the alternatives proposed by the community, however, they did not choose to expand the facilities in Black Sand Bay; they have not said anything about the mariculture project; nor have they incorporated Raizal personnel as coast guard or pilots. At the moment there are many more members of the Navy, and it remains to be seen how many will remain when the emergency passes.
Even regarding environmental viability, Coralina, the island’s environmental authority, made a statement on February 18 and clarified that, although they did have an environmental license for the dock they have already built, it was subject to reaching an agreement with the community through prior consultation.
And none of what Mattos mentioned solves the community’s main concern: the loss of the raizal collective territory in the Old Town Bay sector.
“They are at the top of the beach, which means for the Raizal people that they are going to appropriate an entire community beach,” Huffington points out.
And it’s not just any beach: Old Town is the widest beach in Providencia Bay, and one of the island’s traditional sectors. It is a traditional fishermen’s landing place, where the people who live in the sector do artisanal and subsistence fishing, as well as a place for community recreation.
“People used to go there a lot. With my brother we would go to look out, we would go fishing. It was a well-known place, there were dances, parties,” says Marc Robinson, a native of Providence who was born and raised in Old Town. He says that the beach was full of cottonwood trees, whose porous wood was used to make miniature boats with which the community would gather at certain times of the year to race from Old Town beach.
Now the community claims that, with the settlement of the Navy on the land they want to build, they are already feeling the restrictions that the Coast Guard station will bring.
They denounce that, although publicly it has been said that the dock they installed can be used by the community, there have been at least two episodes in which this has not been allowed.
The first happened to journalist Amparo Pontón, who wanted to disembark at the dock but was not allowed to do so because “it was a military post”. The second happened to two children from the Raizal community, who were evicted by the station lieutenant when they were fishing.
Admiral Mattos said that the situation with journalist Pontón was a misunderstanding because the dock personnel were not clear that it could be used by the community. And that the situation with the children occurred because they were not in the company of an adult, and if anything happened to them, the Navy would be responsible.
He added: “We cannot allow the dock to become a place for fishing or recreation, they can use it to embark and disembark”. This is problematic for the Raizal community.
For them, fishing is an ancestral practice and, without being able to rebuild the Fishermen’s Cooperative dock, they have no other place to practice it.
“We are the owners of the territory, the only sovereign masters of the territory, and no one has the right to come and alter our system of life and our ancestral customs”, declares Huffington.
Because of all this, for more than a week the fishermen have set up a permanent camp at the Cooperative, which they call ‘Camp for Dignity’. “We remain there 24 hours a day and we will not move from here until the coast guard issue is resolved,” says Edgar Jay, of the I-Fish Fishermen’s Association.
In this process, both the Mayor and the Governor have met with the fishermen to express their support.
On March 9, the Secretary of Planning of Providencia, Gregg Huffington, addressed a letter to the Commander of the Coast Guard Station, stating “the impossibility of advancing construction works of a Coast Guard Base, in any property of the ancestral ethnic territory of Providencia”, given the rejection expressed by the community in the previous consultation.
In this regard, Admiral Mattos reiterates that “the Navy has complied with all the procedures”, and suggests that the Secretary of Planning does not know “the entire process that the National Navy has carried out”.
The Distrust of the Raizal People
The mess with the coast guard station arises in the midst of historical tensions between the Public Force and the Raizal people, exacerbated at this moment by the presence of the military that have arrived to support the reconstruction of the island after Hurricane Iota.
“We fishermen have always distrusted the National Navy, because the Coast Guard has not been able to control illegal fishing,” says Jay. “And they have dedicated themselves to protecting the interests of industrial fishermen instead of facilitating the work of artisanal fishermen.”
And although relations with the security forces have always been peaceful, there have been frictions. “The military is totally ignorant of the culture of the people, they don’t understand the language, they reproach us because we speak Creole,” says Alberto Gordon May, president of the Raizal Authority.
In addition, there is a very strong culture of illegality on the island because it is an important passage for drug trafficking, which has historically complicated relations with the Navy.
For the islanders, then, the permanent presence of the Military Forces after the hurricane has been difficult to accept. Five of our sources express the feeling that the government is militarizing the island. As Providence native Marc Robinson explains, that strong military presence is understood less as a force that protects and more as a force that invades.
“The National Government’s strategy has involved the military forces in all aspects: they are the ones cleaning up, they are the ones rebuilding… Practically, the military forces became a contractor for Findeter,” says Angel Britton. “I’m not saying it’s all bad, but people don’t understand it as just help.”
This distrust on the part of Providencia’s raizal community comes from the same place as their fierce opposition to infrastructure projects like the coast guard station, airport expansion or hotel megaprojects: it comes, at least in part, from fear of becoming like San Andres.
“The people of Providencia are pretty radical. They get that way because they know what San Andres is like now: overpopulated, unsafe, a bit unlivable,” says Jack Celis, an islander originally from San Andres who has lived in Providencia for almost six years. “There it is rare to see an islander in the center, with his music, with his language. Providencia is afraid of that, that’s why they stand on the line”.
Providencia is only 17 square kilometers. That is why, as Britton says, “to guarantee the survival of the population of Providencia, every square meter has a value”.