Malaga Bay on Colombia’s Pacific coast is the subject of fierce discussion on whether to turn the bay into a national park or an industrial port.
The bay, famous as a mating ground for humpback whales, is surrounded by small villages of Afrocolombian fishermen.
While the discussion is being held by Bogota ministers, environmentalist groups and Cali businessmen, it is these fishing communities that by law should have the final say, as the constitution grants them the right of self-determination.
The majority of people in this community, living in wooden huts on the shores of the bay, wants the area to develop eco-tourism and for the Bay to be declared a national park, something that was set in motion until the regional economic businessmen blocked this and demanded an industrial port to be built only 15 miles from the country’s largest port, Buenaventura.
“The industries don’t recognize that these are ancestral lands”, said Santiago Valencia, Bay resident and biology student, “the communities feel that Bahia Malaga is a threat which comes from the outside, without consulting us and without asking us. It makes the communities that are there invisible. Ports bring prostitution and damage natural resources. They [environmental authorities] say a port project isn’t viable.”
Other residents are concerned that they will not be prepared for the technical jobs that are promised with the new port.
“A park is different, it gives us a chance to work with something we know,” said Portocarrero.
Jacinto “Molano” Yesquen, one of the community elders said that the community doesn’t hope to repeat what happened when the naval base arrived.
“When they built the road to the naval base, we lost 27 animal species. This has been an honest and honorable way of life. I don’t want a port. There are only two people who want the port, the rest doesn’t. For me it’s clear, we need a park. I don’t want one specie to be lost. The businessmen come with other customs including contraband, sicknesses, and vices to destroy. A park is different. It gives us the right to decide,” Yesquen said.
There are five women in the community leading the ecotourism project who have spent the past five years working together with the CVC to strengthen the community’s capacity for eco-tourism.
Luz Eden Benalcazar, one of the women in charge of the ecotourism project said, “It’s safe here, here we don’t have to worry about violence. The day the violence arrives is the day our way of life comes to an end”.
Luis Carlos Hinijosa, a 21-year-old student at the Libre University and member of the Malaga Community Council said, “We want Bahia Malaga to stay a park. The port hasn’t been good. The rush to produce has generated violence and prostitution. We lose our customs and animals. Many families depend on the park, it provides cultural and food security for the Afro communities. The park will help us to rescue our culture. There is a port near by. At the military base, the social impact is: violence, fumigation, prostitution, colonization, and displacement. Here we are poor, but we live a healthy lifestyle”.
According to Hinijosa, the community has always stood for conservation and that the community will continue to move forward.
In a recent letter addressed to an international NGO, the people of the port of Buenaventura stated that “today we find ourselves debating the defense of the mangrove swamp, a space of life unique on this planet and crucial to the lives of many of its inhabitants. We find ourselves at a crossroads. Either we defend the mangrove swamps, and the thousands of species that live there, or our lives will be wiped out, but also the lives of the indigenous and black children who have yet to be born and who deserve to live in these vital ecosystems. The mangrove swamp is so important for the lives of humankind, many species, and the planet, that we propose that the damage to this ecosystem be categorized as a crime against humanity”.
The letter outlines several environmental abuses which have affected the community. “We hope for a new type of park, where the people are included and consulted. We’ve seen what the businessmen have to offer- hotels, and it hasn’t worked,” Hinijosa said.
Another resident expressed concern about the restrictions a national park would implicate limiting the community’s right over the land.
“The demands of the park are strict. I’ve been kept up at night,” said Ferney Valencia, Bay resident.
Far off into the rocks, one Plata resident has made the choice to live a hermit like lifestyle. He lives alone in a shack covered by palm fronds, isolated by the community. Some say he is a medicine man. His choice may seem difficult to understand, but represents a third option- to be left alone in the tranquility of nature.
Resident Lucas Mosquera confessed that it was his dream to build a wall of contention to protect his community sealing it off from invasive ships.
The people have spoken and legally have the right to determine the future of their young people, whether they will find employment in the reserve that surrounds them, or in a hotel.
Even though the majority of residents express a support for a park project, two elders have considered the port project.
“If you ask me, I am for the port. 300 years seeing the same thing… a port is a chance for something new”, said one of the elders.
This Monday, a forum will be hosted at the Santiago de Cali University by MINGA, the Process of Afro Communities (PCN), the Community Council for Bahia Malaga, URAMBA, and the Association for Social Action and Investigation (NOMADESC) regarding the fate of the Bay. The Ministry of Environment, the CVC, community councils, and the Yubarta Foundation are invited to attend the forum.