Bajo Nuevo: What you should know about the disputed island Jamaica ‘gave up’

Satellite imagery of Bajo Nuevo from space (Photo: National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], International Space Station [ISS])

Tucked away near the middle of the Caribbean Sea, lies the Bajo Nuevo Bank: a small, uninhabited reef with some grass-covered islets.

Also known as the Petrel Islands, these tiny specs have been the subject of a bitter sovereignty dispute between Colombia and the United States.

But what you didn’t know, is over 30 years ago, Jamaica was also caught up in the ownership dispute, but has since backed off for some time.

Between 1982 and 1986, the Government of Jamaica signed and maintained a series of bilateral agreements – culminating in a maritime delimitation treaty between the island and the Republic of Colombia.

The maritime delimitation treaty was signed in Kingston on Friday, November 12, 1993, by ministers of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade for Jamaica and Colombia respectively, Paul Robertson and Noemí Sanín Posada.

(from left) Former Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade for Colombia and Jamaica in 1993, Noemí Sanín Posada and Paul Roberston respectively (Photos: Jamaica Information Service [JIS], ElTiempo.com)

At the time, Jamaica’s claim, as with the other countries embroiled in the dispute, stemmed from attempts to expand the island’s exclusive economic zone over the surrounding seas.

Today, Jamaica’s claim for Bajo Nuevo remains largely dormant since bilateral agreements with Colombia came into force in 1994.

If you’ve made it this far then we still have your attention, and seeing as you’re eager to know more, BUZZ presents 23 fast facts about Bajo Nuevo:

1.   The islands are located along the coordinates 15°53′N (fifteen degrees, fifty-three minutes north) and 78°38′W (seventy-eight degrees, thirty-eight minutes west). The islets are geographically closest to Jamaica than any other claimant, some 288 kilometres southwest of the island.

Bajo Nuevo’s proximity to Jamaica (Photo: Google Maps)

2.   Bajo Nuevo Bank is about 26 kilometres (16 miles) long and 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) wide. The closest neighbouring land feature is Serranilla Bank, located 110 kilometres (68 miles) to the west.

3.   The reef was first shown on Dutch maps dating to 1634 but was given its present name in 1654. British pirate John Glover rediscovered Bajo Nuevo in 1660.

Bajo Nuevo reportedly contains no ‘meaningful mineral reserves’

4.   Satellite imagery from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shows two distinct atoll-like structures separated by a deep channel under a mile wide at its narrowest point. The reef partially dries on the southern and eastern sides, with the land area being minuscule by comparison.

5.    The most prominent land area is Low Cay, in the southwest atoll, which extends for 300 metres and widens at a maximum of 40 metres across. No more than two metres above sea level, the barren island is composed of broken coral, driftwood, and sand.

6.   A total of five countries have laid claim to sovereignty over Bajo Nuevo, namely: Jamaica, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras and the United States.

(From top left to bottom right) The flags of Colombia, the United States, Honduras, Jamaica and Nicaragua (Photos: Wikipedia)

7.   James W. Jennett, empowered under provisions of the controversial Guano Islands Act, initiated the US’ claim on November 22, 1869. To this day, the US administers Bajo Nuevo bank as an ‘unorganized, unincorporated United States territory’.

8.   Similarly to other territories claimed under the Guano Islands Act in the Caribbean and Oceania, persons born on Bajo Nuevo to non-citizens are considered by the United States to be US nationals, but not US citizens.

United States flag (Photo: US State Department)

9.   Colombia currently claims the area as part of the department of San Andrés and Providencia. The San Andrés fleet of the Colombian Navy carries out naval patrols in the area, as the republic maintains that it has claimed these territories since 1886 – as part of the geographic archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia.

One of many naval vessels in the powerful Colombian armada (Photo: cimsec.org)

10.   The November 1993 maritime delimitation treaty between Colombia and Jamaica established a “Joint Regime Area”. This allowed both countries to cooperatively manage and exploit living and non-living resources in designated waters between the two aforementioned banks.

11.   Bajo Nuevo’s territorial waters immediately surrounding the cays themselves were excluded from the zone of joint-control, as Colombia considers these areas to be part of her coastal waters.

12.   The maritime delimitation treaty came effect four months later and was recognised by international law in March 1994.

13.   The Colombian Ministry of Defense constructed a light beacon on Low Cay in 1982. The metal structure towers 21 metres above the Caribbean Sea and is painted white with a red top. The beacon emits two white flashes of light every 15 seconds. After sustaining some damage, the beacon was reconstructed by the Colombians in February 2008 and is currently maintained by the navy.

A light beacon erected on the shores of Low Cay, Bajo Nuevo (Photo: Colombian Ministry of Defence)

14.    Nicaragua bases its claim to Bajo Nuevo Bank due to the islands sitting on its continental shelf, covering an area of over 50,000 square kilometres in the Caribbean Sea. In fact, the Central American country lays claim to all islands associated with the San Andrés and Providencia archipelagoes.

15.   Successive Nicaraguan governments have persistently pursued claims against Colombia in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), filing cases in both 2001 and 2007.

16.   On November 19, 2012, in regards to Nicaraguan claims to the islands, the ICJ ruled unanimously that Colombia has sovereignty over both Bajo Nuevo and Serranilla Banks.

17.   The islands remain a Colombian territory and are a key stopping point in the country’s fight against drug and weapons smuggling, but all the other claimant nations still have limited access to them.

18.   Bajo Nuevo is positioned inside a modestly productive fishing (mostly lobsters) zone, but the seabed reportedly contains no ‘meaningful mineral reserves’, and only small amounts of hydrocarbon fuels have been identified.

19.   Honduras, another claimant to Bajo Nuevo and the nearby Serranilla Bank, effectively ended its role in the dispute with the ratification of a maritime boundary treaty with Colombia on December 20, 1999.

20.   According to the treaty, both states agreed upon a maritime demarcation in 1986 that excluded Honduras from any control over the banks or their surrounding waters.

21.   This bilateral treaty ensured that Honduras implicitly recognises Colombia’s sovereignty over the disputed territories.

22.   Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank have been repeatedly included as per American sources as one of ten insular areas in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea that make up the US’ Minor Outlying Islands classification.

23.   Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island comprise the remaining nine disputed territories.

Did you know these islands existed? What were the most surprising facts you read? Let us know in the comments section!