Tourism is a long way from being sustainable! Interview with Ana Isabel Marquez

20 Jun 2019

Ana Isabel Marquez is an anthropologist from Colombia, born in the capital Bogota but raised on the island of Providencia. The island forms part of the Colombian department of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, a relatively little-known archipelago in the Western Caribbean Sea which is closer to Nicaragua than the Colombian mainland.

The islands are home to the Raizal people, an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group who speak an English Creole similar to that of Belize or Jamaica. It’s also home to a large fishing community, whose cultural diversity is reflected in the rich biodiversity of the surrounding waters. We caught up with Ana Isabel at Slow Fish 2019 to discuss the past, present and future of fishing on the islands.

Pre-monetary systems

“Fishing has been and still is one of the main economic activities—this a marine community. The food security and food sovereignty of the people on Providencia relies on fishing,” she tells me. “Farming was practiced too, and until mid-20th century there was an exchange economy on the islands, whereby fishers and farmers swapped their goods without any monetary system.  One of the few sources of foreign exchange was selling turtles and other staples to Europeans.”

Starting in the 1950s, there was a large migration of people from the Colombian mainland and further afield to San Andrés, including tourists—and they wanted to eat fish. Thus fish became a commercialized product, with several consequences. “When fishing became profitable, many people abandoned farming. The arrival of tourists also brought government investment to the islands, but the Colombian government found the cultural diversity threatening. They felt they needed to assimilate the Raizal people, and incorporate them into the greater Colombian “national” culture. Government investment and ‘Colombianization[1]’ went hand in hand. Though Colombia now recognizes its cultural diversity, the effects of assimilation politics are ongoing.”

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Providencia, Colombia. Photo: Fundación ACUA

Fishing in San Andrés today

So what does the situation look like today? “While overfishing may not be such a big problem compared to some other regions, it’s still a precarious situation under a lot of pressure. The coral reef ecosystem is very vulnerable and not well understood. There’s a lot of short-sighted attitudes towards fishing, among politicians, researchers and even fishermen who say ‘stocks are healthy, the fish are just hiding, we need technology to find them’. Our coral reefs are not highly productive as a fishery, but they’re an oasis for biodiversity. That’s the characterizing feature of our fishery: high biodiversity and low biomass. They can sustain local food security but not this ever-increasing demand.”

The pressure on fish stocks is driven, of course, by the increasing numbers of tourists. Concentrating on this market is highly lucrative, but as Ana Isabel puts it, “our responsibility is to have sustainable fishing. But many actors focused on development come to the islands and see fish as a tool to promote economic development, forgetting about the social and environmental aspects. It’s counter-productive in everything but the short-term. It’s important that our focus shifts way from tourism, and returns to local people. We have needs, in terms of healthcare, education, food sovereignty, but these aren’t being tackled because all government policies focus on tourism, as if everything will just naturally follow. But we know that’s not the case. Tourism as we have it in San Andrés is not sustainable development.”

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Development on the island of San Andrés. Photo: cruisemapper.com

Slow Fish Caribe

So where does Slow Fish come in? “It can be a force for change on the islands, something which provokes a shift in policy. Many people are working together now to ensure local people are considered more important stakeholders than the tourists. It’s not just marine biodiversity which is threatened, but the local culture of the Raizal people, whose food culture is a unique fusion of African, Caribbean, European and Latin American influences. Tourist-focused development affects the local culture, puts it at risk, and creates more problems than benefits.”

I ask Ana Isabel for an example of the local food culture which she’s particularly fond of. “Minced fish, made with old wife fish (Balites vetula) or bonito. It’s deboned and minced, then stewed in coconut milk and seasoned with parsley, black pepper and scotch bonnet peppers. It can be served with coconut rice and beans, or if you’re lucky, a potato salad!”

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Minced fish, San Andés style. Photo: comidatipicadecolombia.top

The Slow Fish Caribe project was launched in 2017 to promote the sustainable use of coastal resources in the Caribbean.

Although it includes communities from all over the Caribbean, the project is largely based around three Biosphere reserves, Seaflower Reserve in Colombia, and Sian Ka’an and Banco Chinchorro in Mexico. The project is supported by the European Union and is led by Slow Food, but its great strength is the collaboration and work of local partners, groups of people carrying out the project and its goals in their home regions.

[1]     The United States had tried to split the largely Protestant islands from Catholic Colombia as early as 1903, in the wake of the secession of Panama from Colombia. Local elites rejected the American offer, and successive waves of immigration from the Colombian mainland eventually changed the ethnic make-up of the islands.

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