An island in Colombia's war

A tiny English-speaking archipelago off Colombia's coast is feeling mainland fallout.

Virginia Archbold's clapboard house sits between a mangrove swamp and a mirror-calm sea. From her porch she has a perfect view of the white-sailed catboats racing into the bay.

This Caribbean island is the quietest – and safest – corner of South America's most violent country, free from the drug-fuelled mayhem that wracks mainland Colombia.

Old Providence and its larger sister island, San Andres, constitute Colombia's smallest state: a tiny archipelago of coral reefs, coconut palms, and dazzling beaches 400 miles off Colombia's northern coast, and only 120 east of Nicaragua.

But the miles of deep blue sea haven't saved the island from the fallout of war.

Over the years, more and more mainlanders have moved here, fleeing violence, political turmoil, and the highest kidnapping rate in the world. The islands' English-speaking inhabitants – descended from Puritan settlers, African slaves, and British pirates – say that their culture is being overwhelmed by the newcomers. Overcrowding has caused a growing social crisis, and relations between native islanders and Spanish-speaking newcomers are increasingly bitter.

"Everything is gone to a mess," says Ms. Archbold, a local historian. "We are losing our customs, our culture, our tradition, and everything behind it."

Frustrated with Colombian rule, islanders have called for greater autonomy and new legislation to protect their language and way of life.

"If we are to survive, autonomy and home rule are fundamental," says Juan Ramirez Dawkins, a community leader who has represented the islanders before the United Nations. "We were here for many years before the Republic of Colombia existed, but most [government] officials are sent from the mainland. This is still a colony," he says.

The islands were first colonized in 1631, when 100 Puritans sailed from London to Old Providence on the Seaflower, a sister ship to the Mayflower.

The settlers soon realized that the uninhabited islands were perfect for growing tobacco, cotton, and indigo – and for launching raids against the Spanish fleet. But Britain never formally claimed the islands, and in 1822 the islands joined the newly independent Gran Colombia, a massive state comprising modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

When the union disintegrated in 1830, the islands were passed to Colombia, but until the mid-20th century, the islanders' closest relations were with the US, Britain, and the English-speaking Caribbean.

For many years, San Andres provided half the US coconut market. The island's first Baptist church was shipped beam by beam from Alabama. Apart from a handful of government officials, the population was overwhelmingly English-speaking and Protestant.

"We were brought up reading Longfellow and Shakespeare," recalls dancing teacher Cecilia Hall.

Her pupils learn the same polkas and quadrilles that have been danced here for centuries. But like many islanders, she believes that their identity depends as much on moral values as it does on folk traditions.

"The first people who came here were civilized people," she says. "If you passed a gentleman on the road, he would lift his hat and salute you. Little children were respectful. Now these things are not the same. People are more careless. They have abandoned the old English ways," she sighs.

Things started to change in 1953, when San Andres was declared a tax-free zone, and daily flights to the mainland were established, kick-starting the first wave of immigration.

By the 1980s the island had become a magnet for Colombian shoppers seeking cut-price TVs and imported perfumes. Traditional gingerbread houses were torn down to make way for hotels – often built by drug traffickers.

In just 20 years, the official population of San Andres has grown from 26,000 to at least 80,000, but local leaders estimate that, including illegal immigrants, there could be more than 100,000 people crammed onto the eight-mile strip of land, making San Andres one of the most densely populated islands in the Caribbean.

Now its public services are in crisis, water supplies are running low, and the 25,000 English-speaking native islanders have become a minority in their own land.

Taxi driver Pedro Ramirez has lived on San Andres for 25 years, but doesn't speak a word of English. "I don't really have much to do with the natives, because they discriminate against us," he says. His children were born on the island, and he has no intention of returning to the mainland. "The islands can't cope with this overpopulation, but they can't just send everyone back."

Many islanders say that the Colombian government has deliberately flooded San Andres with newcomers to forcibly impose mainland culture – and secure its claim in the archipelago, which has long been disputed by neighboring Nicaragua.

Last year, the Nicaraguan government filed suit before the International Court of Justice in The Hague challenging Colombia's claim to the islands – and the 135,000 square miles of territorial water around them. But few locals are eager to live under the Nicaraguan flag.

Archbold says islanders should be free to choose their own future. "My grandparents left me under Colombia, but we're not from there. I am Colombian, but only as long as I want to be," she says.

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