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Tale of two islands

“Hotel Iguana: Little Corn Island,” reads the sign that greets air travelers arriving at Big Corn Island. “It’s the island you hoped you'd find here.”

In some ways, this is true. For a taste of idyllic island life, it is worth a visitor’s while to take the short boat trip to Big Corn Island’s little sibling. Some of the small island’s attraction has to do with the scenery, some with the peace and quiet, but mostly, the difference is the sense of community.

“When you call a meeting on Big Corn Island, few people come,” said Hugh Downs, the vice mayor of the municipality that encompasses both islands. This wasn’t the case a decade ago when the island had 2,500 inhabitants. But since then, newcomers have swelled the population to 8,000 people. By some estimates, half of the island’s population is composed of transients, many of them Latinos from Nicaragua’s Pacific region and Miskito Indians from the north mainland, the latter often poor and uneducated. In the eyes of the native Creole population, the old sense of community is increasingly coming under siege.

But Little Corn Island, with its population of about 1,000, has maintained its character. People there are “more sentimental,” said Downs. “They see each other every day. If I pass by and I don’t say hello, the other person will think, ‘he’s vexed with me’.”

The feeling of togetherness has practical implications that will grow increasingly important as the local government assumes more responsibility in coming years with the assistance of an IDB-funded program. For example, many of the new residents on the big island are drawn by the promise of making money diving for lobster, an occupation that requires little or no capital investment but is extremely dangerous. Attempts to prohibit diving have come to naught on the big island, and even if rules were passed, they could not be enforced, said Downs.

On the little island, diving with tanks is prohibited, and the prohibition is respected. The reason, again, is the sense of community. “There aren’t so many people,” said Downs, “and they come face to face every day.”

Similarly, residents of Little Corn respect the prohibition against working on Sunday. This is the day to play baseball and go to church, said Downs. “It is the day for family and community.” But on Big Corn, said Downs, “we feel our ancestors were more Christian than we are.”

A greater voice for local people. Many island residents would like to limit immigration, both to prevent demand from outstripping public services and also to help preserve the fabric of community life.

There has already been friction. The newcomers, many of them Miskitos from the north, rent their homes, and over time come to consider themselves owners—until the legal owners act to evict them.

Downs looks forward to the day when the Corn Island municipality, which includes Little Corn Island, has the technical expertise to draw up a resolution on migration, and present it to the central government. However, he concedes that the central government, which alone has the power to determine migration policy, would be reluctant to restrict the free movement of citizens within the country’s borders. But similar restrictions have been approved elsewhere in Latin America, such as on Colombia’s San Andrés island, and recently in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands.

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