Sunday, November 13, 2016

Gorgona Island: Natural Wonder or Military Outpost?

Gorgona Island from above. 
Gorgona Island, located 35 kms off of Colombia's Pacific Coast, is a natural wonderland. In the past, however, the place was a nightmare. When Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro took refuge there in 1527, so many of his men died from snake bites that he named it after a monstrous goddess from Greek mythology who had serpents growing from her head.

From 1960 to '84, the island contained a much-feared prison, where prisoners died from snake bites, tropical diseases and beatings from sadistic guards and vicious fellow inmates. Finally, the prison was shut down under pressure from human rights defenders and prisoner advocates.

Today, the island is a national park, boasting sloths, monkeys, sea lions and, of course, snakes. It has
Isla Gorgona, (E), off of
Colombia's Pacific Coast.
41 species of reptiles, 155 species of birds and 13 of bats. In the surrounding waters, swim sharks, dolphins and humpback whales.

But environmentalists now charge that this natural paradise is threatened. The Navy plans to buid a communications base on top of the island's tallest hill. Naturally, the military moved ahead with the plan to alter this national treasure without any public hearings.

Unquestionably, the island is strategically located to monitor drug trafficking and illegal fishing in the region. The military points out that its project - consisting of a telecommunication tower and support facilitie - will be built on already-disturbed land, an old prison football field.

A sloth on Gorgona Island.

A lizard on Gorgona Island.
But that's not the point. The base will inevitably require road building, loud, heavy machinery and the arrival of outside workers, who many not be environmentally sensitive. The base will also house about 28 soldiers.

Those young men will be bored and restless. And young military conscripts don't have the best reputation for environmental sensitivity. Will officials be able to prevent them from hunting, building campfires, smuggling animals onto or off the island, riding around on dirt bikes, and all kinds of other destructive misbehavior which bored young men are inclined to? Remember that Gorgona used to be a prison, where men suffered from heat, insects and snakes. For tourists, the island may be a natural paradise. But for someone stuck there involuntarily for months, the place could be a living hell.

Whatever the military ultimately decides to do on Gorgona Island, the decision should be taken with public input, rather than behind closed doors, as the Colombian government unfortunately is wont to operate.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours