The island that refused to disappear

The people of Muisne, in the South of the Province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, are under threat of eviction since the island was declared unfit for habitation after the 2016 earthquake. Español 

Gerard Coffey
29 June 2017
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“They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild.”

Standing by the sea – today it’s green and angry, the wind strong and the sky threatening – the scene looks very similar to the last time I was here in Muisne, some twenty years ago. A large number of tide born logs covers the long and hard beach where, says Hipólito, the owner of the hostel where I’m staying, even light aircraft can land – adding, after a second, that of course these belong to the government. Walking towards the town, the environment is still as I remember it.  Solitary birds sing sporadically wrapped in the heat of midday and an almost medieval silence. There are virtually no cars here and their absence makes this island of Muisne something very special.

What is different is that these days the beach is full of plastic, of all colors and sizes, although I don’t suppose that is really so different. It’s happening to almost every beach in the world. A recent report tells us that on an uninhabited Pacific island more than 17 tons of plastic were collected. People don’t bother, says Hipólito, they leave the bottles, the bags and what have you, the sea carries it all away and then brings it back again. Unlike the new esplanade that forms part of the bridge built and just opened by the central government, there’s no-one here to clean up after the people have gone. But while plastic may be a problem for tourism, one of the important sources of revenue for the island before the April 2016 earthquake, it is by no means the only one facing the people who live here.

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More worrying than plastic, although less visible, is that the people of this island in the South of the Province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, are under threat of eviction. The 2016 earthquake left many homeless and changed the life of the island. Families abandoned their land to go and stay with relatives or were housed in the government provided lodge on the other side of the river, a few kilometers away, on high ground. After the tragedy, now ex-President Correa declared the island unfit for habitation due to the threat of a Tsunami or flooding due to high tides. People had to go to the ‘mainland’, he said, the island should be reserved for tourism and, what was more, the state would not help build any new homes or repair those affected by the quake. All state services were to be withdrawn.

Frank Navarrete, a member of the Mesa (Round Table of Communities and Civil Organizations of the Island of Muisne) explains that Presidential Decree 1215 signed by Correa after the earthquake suspends the right to housing and free movement of those affected: “… as some citizens intend to return to their homes located on properties that are precisely a risk to their life or physical integrity.”  What this represents, says Navarrete, is passive eviction. They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild. “It is a disgrace and we are determined to stay.”

He says that immediately after the earthquake, 90% of the population left the island, but little by little they returned. They hadn’t lost their homes and while there was damage, it could be repaired. “The island is their home,” Frank says firmly, angry, thumping his fist on the table, “that’s where they’ve built their lives, their businesses.” Outside, on the main street, a banner hanging from the second floor of his office-hostel challengingly states: “Here we stay.” It’s a challenge as much as a statement.

The earthquake isn’t the only thing that‘s changed in Muisne. The new bridge over the narrow river separating the island from the mainland is pedestrian, an evacuation measure for the population in case of emergency. Sitting nearby on the newly paved embankment, some of the neighbours tell me that the bridge is no help to tourism: what‘s needed, they say, is something wider that will allow vehicles to cross. But there are actually more vehicles now than before: these are the mototaxis that carry people over to the ‘continental’ side, as they call it, where they can do their shopping. One shop owner I talk to tells me there’s more trade than before. Besides, he says, the prices on this side are lower. Why this should be is not entirely clear, but I suppose he must know.

The multiplication of the mototaxis has in turn had an impact on the people who used to earn their living with the launches that ferried people from one side of the river to the other. “Before, 30 families made their living with the boats,” explains Hugo, one of the few who continues to work on the lanchas, as they are known. “Now only four boats are still working: they carry the heavier loads, the ones the mototaxis can’t handle.”

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Vested interests

Wandering the streets, people have little reservation about discussing the situation they’re in. “We don’t understand,” says an older man whose daughter lost everything and now lives with her parents, “why they want to get us off the island.” The suspicion is that there are interests at play, that it’s not really necessary to leave their homes, that the threat of tsunami is minimal, that in the whole history of the island no damage has been recorded due to a tsunami, and that if it ever happened, it would not be just the island that would be affected. “What will happen if a Tsunami comes?” another islander asks me as we talk a few feet away from some destroyed houses. “People on the other side of the river will also be affected. And that new Millenium College the Vice President just opened, how many meters above the sea level is it? If they’re really worried about a Tsunami, why did they build it right on the other side of the bridge, on low ground? It makes no sense. What is really going on here? If they really want to prevent a Tsunami from affecting people, they would have to take us all a long way from here, they would have to build a whole new city. And then, how are we going to make a living? ”

The islanders suspect that the official version is a pretext. The real interest, they say, is to get them off the island, so luxury apartment buildings can be erected for tourists from the capital, Quito. They mention beach towns such as Tonsupa or Atacames that have already gone down that road, and resorts such as the Decamaron de Mompiche, about thirty miles further down the coast. “We don’t want that,” a local grocery shop owner tells me, “tourism, yes, but not that kind of tourism. We ‘re not going to let them evict us, so that others can come here and make money out of our Island.”

They talk about people like Pierina Correa, the ex-President’s sister, or his brother Fabricio, while others mention ‘the Chinese’ who, they say, came to explore here before the earthquake. There’s titanium in the black sand they’ve been mining at Mompiche, one man tells me, wondering if that’s what they were looking for. People admit that there’s no evidence or documents they can show me, although they do mention similar cases such as Port Engabao in the Province of St. Helena, where people are fighting not to be evicted from communal lands, to not have developers take over and build resorts that will leave them out in the heat, with no land and no work.

The suspicions were only reinforced by the inconsistencies in the Risk Management Secretariat’s Resolution No. 073-2016, which underpins the proposed eviction. Says Kashyapa A. S. Yapa, an engineer with a PhD from Berkeley California: “we’ve analyzed in detail the flood map of the island mentioned in the decree. The map uses references without technical analytical weight. The main reference is a degree thesis of an ESPOL-oceanography student from 2004 that sets out a flood zone due to a possible tsunami in the city of Esmeraldas (some 2 hours to the North) by copying the damage that occurred due the earthquake and Tsunami of 1906. And in 2012 the Risk Secretariat technicians took the height of that flood and painted the whole island of Muisne red as a risk zone! ”

The Concheras of Muisne

Risk there may be, but life itself is a risk, and the islanders are prepared to stay and deal with it. Father Julio Anan, the Catholic priest who participated actively in the campaign to remain, says the island’s population has the support of his church. “We all decided, priests and religious sisters, to return to the island and accompany the population. There are a lot of very poor people here,” he says, “it’s their home, and what we have to do is help them live a dignified life.”

He does recognize that staying was not an option for everyone: some lost everything and were forced to leave. A good number ended up living in the shelter operated by the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion, MIES, obliged to stay for more than a year in order to receive state support in the form of an apartment. One such person is Fanny Mina, a woman well-known on and off the island for her long fight on behalf of the women shellfish pickers in the area. “These women” she recounts “were affected: the shrimp farmers arrived over twenty years ago and destroyed much of the mangroves we depended on.” Irony then, that now, talking outside the ‘house’ the government handed over to her a few days ago, we can see a shrimp farm, situated just on the other side of the road.

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Despite it all, she says, she’s pleased to at last be out of the shelter and its regimented life. “I didn’t really like it there,” she says, pointing to the blue donated tents that will be around for a few more days, until all the occupants have gone to their new homes. “Of course, they gave us everything, and it was a great help, but the truth is that it was hard to live in a tent for so long, to have to be home at 10 at night. It was a regimented life. I didn’t like it. Others couldn’t stand it, left, and as a result didn’t get any help from the government - nothing.”

Fanny was the first to receive her house, or rather, apartment of 40 square meters. “I feel good,” she says, “but I’m a long way from my neighborhood and the people I know. They gave me this apartment, they say it’s worth 10.000 US dollars and I only have to pay 1.000 dollars in installments over three years. It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s no work in Muisne, and these days I can’t pick shellfish: I’ve got heart and lung problems because of the home made cigars you need to smoke in the mangrove to keep the flies away.” “Besides”, she grins, “I’m getting on in years.”

The problem is real and not just for her. For people who can’t work, have no money and no pension, life will not be easy even with a new apartment. How is she going to pay? I ask myself, and then her. “God will provide”, she says with an unconvincing smile. “How are you going to furnish the house? How are you going to pay the mortgage?”

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Each case is different. No doubt, for some with families able to support them, the process will be relatively easy, but for others without family resources the story will be different. Forging a new existence away from the surroundings of a lifetime is no small thing, even with a new apartment.

It’s not that life in Muisne was ever easy. “This has been forgotten territory,” says Father Anan, “but the earthquake has put the island in the spotlight, both nationally and internationally. Most people have decided to stay, we are united, and I truly believe that the people who continue to struggle in their daily lives will receive God’s blessing.” The priest speaks with surprising solidity, he’s young but quite clear about how important the island is for his parishioners.

What is not clear, on the other hand, is exactly what Rafael Correa was thinking when he signed Presidential Decree 1215. Did he imagine that it would be possible to remove an entire town of ten thousand inhabitants, families that have lived for a century or more on the island? Did he have in mind building a new city, clean and shiny but far from the sea, far from the work, far from the previous life of its population? Who, he imagined, would be in charge of building the necessary houses and facilities in times of austerity? We don’t really know what he was thinking. But what we do know is that the Decree he signed now looks more like a visceral reaction than a considered decision, based on solid arguments and criteria. Or perhaps, as they say, there really are interests at play and that’s why the solidity of the criteria isn’t really important - they simply serve as a way to facilitate the eviction, nothing more.

There is risk, it makes no sense to ignore it. The island is only 4 meters above sea level, but without technical fundamentals it is impossible to estimate that risk and decide on what measures to take. To attempt to expel an entire town without dialogue and without listening to the inhabitants is simply irrational. The population, meanwhile, voted with its feet, returned and wants to stay, knows its reality and has raised its voice. Would not it be logical to help them improve their lives, rather than against them? asks Father Anan, “The government has to listen to the people, it has to listen to the popular will.” Amen.

This article was previously published by Lalineadefuego.

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